Academic Articles and Papers

Academic Articles and Papers

  • In 2013, an article titled: “Facebook after death: an evolving policy in a social network” by Damien McCallig was published.
  • In 2013, an article titled: “Coping Online with Loss: Implications for Offline Clinical Contexts” by Joanna Pawelczyk was published. Thank you Dr. Carmel Vaisman for sending me the link.
  • In May 2013, Maria Perrone’s article: “What Happens When we Die: Estate Planning of Digital Assets” was published.
  • In May 2013 an article by Jed R. Brubaker, Gillian R. Hayes, and Paul Dourish was published, titled: “Beyond the Grave: Facebook as a Site for the Expansion of Death and Mourning“.
  • paper titled “Digital Afterlife: What Happens to Your Data When You Die?” was published in May 2013, by Stephen S. Wu.
  • In May 2013 a paper titled “Digital Estate Planning: Is Google Your Next Estate Planner?” was published, by Jamie Patrick Hopkins.
  • In April 2013, the paper “Afterlife in the Cloud: Managing a Digital Estate“, also by Jamie Patrick Hopkins, was published.
  • In February 2013 a paper titled “What happens to my Facebook profile when I die?” : Legal Issues Around Transmission of Digital Assets on Death” was published by Lilian Edwards and Edina Harbinja. Thank you Paul Golding for sending me the link.
  • Since September 2012, the article “There Isn’t Wifi in Heaven!” – Negotiating Visibility on Facebook Memorial Pages by Alice Marwick and Nicole B. Ellison is available online for free download. Thank you Dr. Carmel Vaisman for sending me this link.
  • In 2012, an article titled “Grief-Stricken in a Crowd: The Language of Bereavement and Distress in Social Media” was published, by Jed R. Brubaker, Funda Kivran-Swaine, Lee Taber and Gillian R. Hayes.
  • In 2011, the article “”We will never forget you [online]”: An Empirical Investigation of Post-mortem MySpace Comments” was published, by Jed R. Brubaker and Gillian R. Hayes.
  • In 2011, the article “Security and privacy considerations in digital death” was published by Michael E. Locasto, Michael Massimi and Peter J. DePasquale.
  • In 2010, Jed R. Brubaker and Janet Vertesi’s paper “Death and the Social Network “was published .
  • In 2008, the current term “Digital Legacy” was then referred to as “Digital Heirlooms” and an article titled: “On the Design of Technology Heirlooms” was published by David Kirk and Richard Banks.
If you come across any other papers or articles, please be so kind as to send me the link, so I could add them to the list (with credit to you, of course). Email: death.in.digital.era@gmail.com, Facebook page: Digital Dust.
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Melville, Billy Budd, and Digital: Death

Herman Melville died on September 28, 1891. That sullen fact might strike you as a morbid greeting for a blog posting, the first such posting for Leviathan, the official publication of The Melville Society. Since I am certain that our subscribers are among the living, I know they are very much alive in their pursuits of the new discoveries, readings, and arguments we like to publish in our journal—which, I am happy to say, has just completed its first year of publication under the aegis of Johns Hopkins University Press—and I rather imagine they would expect something less obituarial for a first post. But when the Press asked me to contribute a few words on Melville for its September blog, my thoughts turned to Melville’s final month and how that occasion might have meaning for us, not only regarding Melville’s creative life and reputation but also our own confrontation—as scholars and critics, readers, and seekers—with this curious end-of-it-all phenomenon.

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Death is a “passing,” or so the current phrasing tends to have it, the implication being that this passing is an event leading us into an afterlife somewhere else. I am convinced that the life-long agnostic and putative blasphemer Herman Melville had serious doubts about this notion. Ishmael and Ahab, in their separate and distinctive voices, quarrel within themselves over just this “if” of a god and an afterlife. Ahab seems certain that beyond us exists a reasoning (not irrational), malignant force that rules our lives, and he aims his obsessive anger at striking through the pasteboard masks of our unreasoning life to destroy it. Even so, he admits, “Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough.” And it is his knee-jerk dismissal of the possibility of nothingness that separates Ahab from Ishmael, who, in due course, and through many meditative chapters (that readers too often ignore), reinvigorates himself from Ahab’s spell and finds new life in “trying out” his relationship to nothingness, the ultimate “if” manifested by “the whale.”
In his long life, Melville was an Ishmael—a survivor and a poet, and a survivor because he was a poet—with an Ahab of anger inside him to let out and let flourish. Writing to Hawthorne, on the publication of Moby-Dick, Melville tells his friend that he has already moved on to his next book (Pierre): “Lord,” he says, “when shall we be done growing?” And in fact, as he puts it in the next paragraph, he has grown into another person altogether. If Hawthorne were to write him back, he would be writing to someone else, “for the very fingers that now guide this pen are not precisely the same that just took it up and put it on this paper. Lord, when shall we be done changing” (17? November 1851; NN Corres 213)

What makes Melville “grow” and “change” is writing itself. The process triggers new ways of saying something, which in turn trigger new ideas that are, in the discovery of them, a discovery of a succession of new selves. But what makes this famous passage so playfully deep is the change from “growing” to “changing.” Melville cannot, it seems, quote himself, without changing his words.

I will leave it to you to figure out, for now, what meaning there is in Melville’s revision of himself and in the difference between the words grow and change. For me, the clarity of Melville’s message to Hawthorne lies in Melville’s delight in the way writing requires change, and how changing is a form of growth toward a deeper understanding of himself, which is in fact an evolution into another self.

Which brings us back to September 28, 1891, and Melville’s death: not a passing but a cessation of growth. Forty years after writing to Hawthorne, Melville was still writing himself out, even in his final year. And his changes had been monumental. He had grown from novelist to story-writer to lecturer and then, not surprisingly, to poet (the person he had always aspired to be from adolescence). Starting maybe as early as 1886, he had been working on a manuscript that we know as Billy Budd.

The full manuscript still exists—a rarity for its fullness among the surviving Melville documents—and scholars decades ago showed how Billy Budd must have grown. It began as a version of the poem “Billy in the Darbies” that now ends the novella, and the prose grew, through several discernible stages, out of the original short head note prefacing the poem. First Melville wrote more on his handsome sailor Billy, then added Claggart, then added Vere. It is a remarkable story of growing and changing from sea ballad to modern tragedy.

The Melville Electronic Library project is using the digital tool TextLab to transcribe Melville’s revision texts, to sequentialize them, and to tell the story of their evolution in a “revision narrative.”
The Melville Electronic Library project is using the digital tool TextLab to transcribe Melville’s revision texts, to sequentialize them, and to tell the story of their evolution in a “revision narrative.”
The Melville Electronic Library project is using the digital tool TextLab to transcribe Melville’s revision texts, to sequentialize them, and to tell the story of their evolution in a “revision narrative.”

As a scholar, I have been intrigued by this document, thinking that the numerous revisions on each page of Melville’s manuscript reveal the writing process that allowed Melville never to be “done growing or changing.” Though he seems to lament that process in his letter to Hawthorne, he knew that in fact it kept him alive. As it happens, Melville never finalized Billy Budd. The manuscript seems about as complete as it needs to be, but the text is riddled with revisions, and given Melville’s process, there is no telling that, given time, he might have further expanded his novella into a longer novel, or maybe cut it back to a tighter short story. Melville’s Billy Budd manuscript comes to us, then, as a kind of fossil representation of an evolutionary process.

I determined some years ago that I wanted to figure out a way to read Melville’s revision process as it appears in the “fluid text” of Billy Budd, but that was before the digital revolution, and little could be done in the way I imagined. Now technology has advanced so that it is possible to transcribe Melville’s revision texts, to sequentialize them, and to tell the story of their evolution in a “revision narrative.” The digital tool that allows this new kind of fluid text editing, TextLab, was developed by Hofstra University and Performant Software Solutions (Charlottesville, VA) as part of a larger digital archive, called the Melville Electronic Library (MEL), of which I am director.

A team of scholars is now using TextLab to put online the full text of Billy Budd—what Melville added, deleted, and kept up to the moment of his death. At MEL we are using digital technology not simply to emulate what we already know about Melville but also to show unexpected Melvilles hiding out in his manuscript revisions. Many scholars have joined MEL, and we are all growing and changing to keep up with the technology in order to provide evolving ways of reading these evolving Melvilles. I invite anyone with an interest in Melville or revision or digital transformations to join us as well.

With MEL, and I hope in other ways, I am not yet done growing and changing. In point of fact, Leviathan’s October 2013 issue marks a passing for me. After more than twenty years as editor of the Melville Society, and after having created Leviathan fifteen years ago and having had the pleasure of watching it grow and change, I will be retiring.

I am proud of this journal and equally proud to hand over the reins to Samuel Otter as our new Editor-in-Chief starting January 1, 2014. He will be joined by Associate Editor Brian Yothers, Extracts Editor Mary K. Bercaw Edwards, and Book Review Editor Dawn Coleman, all new to our staff, along with Web Editor Robert Sanderg. But I must admit that this “passing” is a little death for me. In particular, I will miss the hours, days, months spent working with colleagues and contributors to get each word of each sentence in an argument just right, to make sure each article works to the mutual satisfaction and edification of writer, editor, and reader, and to get it all out within budget and on time (well, mostly). But I have essays of my own to write, a book or two I hope, and MEL to keep me on my toes. And like Melville, I marvel and in fact am grateful for this gift of writing that all humans can share in, a process of constant revision and re-invention that seems to keep me growing and changing, much to my amazement and relief.

A journal like Leviathan is very much the product of a productive editorial staff, and the journal’s new editor and associates are impressively productive in their various fields. But Leviathan also has an independent life between its blue covers, and a perpetual life of its own, if readers will allow it. When shall we be done growing? I hope never.

Death, Data and the Digital Hereafter

The digital afterlife: thinking about what happens to our online life when we die. Image credit: Richard Parker/Stuff.co.nz

The digital afterlife: thinking about what happens to our online life when we die. Image credit: Richard Parker/Stuff.co.nz

A soon-to-be-released science fiction movie, Transcendence, features Johnny Depp as a scientist who becomes immortalised as a digital entity – an event that is referred to by many as the Singularity. This is still rather far from reality, of course, but it did get me thinking about death and what happens to ‘our’ data – all those Facebook chats, Instagram photos and so on. I’m talking about the digital hereafter.

Your digital persona

It was around the turn of the millennium when I first started using the internet seriously (by which I mean how much time and energy I spent on the internet, not what I used it for). Back then, I spent my time online divided between MySpace, and plenty of forums. I certainly wasn’t thinking about a data backlog, or what would happen when I die. But as more and more of my life moved online, this has come to my attention as something not too many people think about. I don’t actually know, but I would guess that I have a profile at well over 200 websites, including social media sites, forums, retail and financial services, and any number of arbitrary web-apps that required me to sign up to use them just once.

My point is, as the internet has grown we have strewn our personal data far and wide across numerous websites, with little further thought for that data, sequestered in servers across the world. And in so doing, we have created a kind of avatar – a nebulous collection of data points in the cloud, that together makes up an online persona.

Your data after you die

Google, Facebook, and Twitter all have strategies to deal with accounts of the deceased – Facebook will ‘memorialise’ a profile if a family member can confirm the death of that person. This turns the profile of the deceased into a public memorial page, which won’t show status updates but still allows loved ones to post messages. Twitter just locks your information down, while Google has what they call the Inactive Account Manager – after a defined period of inactivity, Google will  transfer your data to a trusted contact and/or shut down your account. In general, it seems that the data will be made available to loved ones (or the courts) if absolutely necessary. Several companies have positioned themselves as managers of you digital legacy – covered in this blogpost. For a more in-depth discussion of digital estate planning, see this NY Times article published last year.

Now for some more outlandish options for the digital afterlife. Several companies have caught on to this opportunity, and are offering to immortalise your digital persona for posterity. Eterni.me promises to create a digital version of the deceased, which will continue to post status updates and send messages. The company will parse your data to create an virtual ‘you’ based on your likes, browsing history and previous social media messages. LivesOn is another such project, which promises to keep tweeting for you after you die. With taglines like ‘When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting. Welcome to your social afterlife.’ (LivesOn) or the frankly misleading ‘Simply Become Immortal’ (Eterni.me), these services are not for everybody. Personally, I find the idea of a dead loved one tweeting something inane rather distasteful, and I would be downright upset if a digital ghost started messaging me about the good times we had back when they were alive.

Corporates aren’t the only ones thinking quite seriously about this stuff – there is a website, The Digital Beyond, which has been started to discuss and document these issues. The owners of the site have also written a bookdiscussing one’s options for curating the digital remains of a loved one. Academia is getting in on the act, too:researchers in the UK are studying how Western public mourning practices are changing. They document massive growth in online mourning rituals, such as the aforementioned memorial pages on Facebook, blogs dedicated to the memory of loved ones, and so on.

Another way of dealing with digital remains

I would like to consider another aspect of this discussion, one which I have not seen discussed much: the value of that data as a public resource. Data has become the unofficial second currency of business in the 21st century – just look at mobile developers. They run at a loss for years, until someone will buy their captive audience from them as data for the great online advertising machine. As it stands, the digital remnants of a life belong to the company that owned that data to begin with. But I have a alternative suggestion, which would be massively useful if implemented correctly. What if, after a reasonable mourning period (call it five years to be safe), all of that data was parsed, anonymised, and made publicly available, for free? Think of the wealth of data that would represent, over the next few decades, or even centuries. Big Data is an overhyped topic right now, but we are already seeing it’s mark across the world. Think of the complex modelling and forecasting that would be possible. Think of the boost to academia, industry, commerce, financial services and even sport. And applied to humanitarian work in health or the environment, it would quite literally change the world.