★ Stacey Pitsillides : Digital Death

☆Lecture 5!

  • Date: 08/02/12
  • Lecturer: Stacey Pitsillides
  • Topic: Digital Death

The topic for today’s lecture was ‘Digital Death’ by Stacey Pitsillides. We all know her as a lecturer and our tutor for various projects; a warm and friendly person who is always there to guide us through problems we may encounter within our assignments. In spite of this short amount of time we have come to know her well, yet there were still a lot about her that was unknown to us. It is true that we only know her in one capacity, as a lecturer, someone who teaches us but she states that what she would be talking about to us today will reveal another aspect, another of her persona. A very different person from the one who we supposedly know and are familiar with. This made me curious and anticipate what she had to say as Stacey gave us a hint of today’s theme for the lecture, presumably about identity, how to remember somebody, heritage and death.

Digital Death’, a still fairly new concept yet to be established, was something that Stacey had been personally working on for the past four years, a great interest and passion of hers. Something which she researches outside the hours of time, regulated for her PHD, something which she engages in. She also does conferences, participated in various design exhibitions and has been actively writing on this topic showing her vast enthusiasm within this field.

The main innovative characteristic of this project for Stacey is the development of a conversation that a) takes the ritual and culture of death into consideration within the socio-virtual space, and b) considers new structures of archiving and displaying digital information for historical sociological use (Digital Heritage).

Her research started in ‘second life’, this virtual world. The interest in ‘Digital Death’ first sparked when Stacey stumbled upon a virtual cemetery for pets which existed online. She had an interview with the owner of the cemetery in her virtual body and he appearing as a penguin. She had asked him the purpose for the creation of such a thing and he told her that the reason was because he once had a cat in Japan. He had no family and considering the cat had been with him for 21 years, it seemed like a daughter to him. Therefore when the cat passed away there was not a suitable place to bury it, that was when this idea came to build a virtual world and store his memories of her there as an alternative.

Stacey showed us some videos she made whilst she was studying at her final year as an undergraduate called ‘Rest in Pixels’. These films were part of a series of films which were for her final project in BA design and unsurprisingly adhered the same themes and messages. The clip which caught my attention the most was one where Stacey later referred to, a man and woman talking about ‘donating their profile’.

Her ultimate question was ‘what happens to our data when we die?’ which provoked a lot of thoughts regarding where the information about us will go once we have passed away. Similar to the image shown of a mummy in a tomb which was placed in a museum, a public area for all to see. Words come to mind such as misplaced, lost, stolen, it was once known as a human, a him but now the person is dead, known as an it; regarded as an object.

The talk about the impact of digital technology on our lives was another major theme in this lecture. This all began referring to Derrida, a famous French philosopher. He was one of the first people to look in more depth about the idea of an archive, what it means to collect things and save them, hold and store memories.

From his book quotes ‘The archive is to burn with passion, it is to never rest, interminably through searching through the archive right where it slips away just when you think you have found the person you were searching for. It is to run after the archive even if you think there is too much of it. To have a compulsive repetitive nostalgia desire for. We wish for it, we long for it, we think about the past, desire to return to the origin, to go back to the past, a return to the most archaic place. An irrepressible desire place of absolute commencement.’

Data is important was the Netherbush’s belief, what do we do now after the WW2? After we invented these machines for death? Our purpose is gone, what should we focus on as a scientific community? We should focus on data and information because it is power. He thought about it as a research tool instead of focusing on the social aspects.

The interpersonal relations we have with computing and technology is exceptionally different from the one that the Netherbush had envisioned. We live our lives not with technology but essentially through it. Going back to the impact of technology on our lives, the creation of the internet is indeed a useful tool with all the information we ever need is there, an answer just a step away from the keyboard. However as time has passed its status as a ‘tool’ for knowledge extraction has far surpassed as many people tend to use the internet for socialising with friends, family and meeting new people. ‘The movement of the Internet from informational navigation tool to a community marks a new form of social phenomenon.’[1]

After we die, who do we leave our things to? And how? An example may be that I have a photograph, it’s on my camera, therefore it is my photograph, I own it and took it. At the same time it’s a picture of someone therefore part of theirs too. That all changes when it is uploaded on a social website eg. Facebook, now everyone has access to it and now the question is what happens to that photograph when they all pass away? Will it still remain there and get passed on to the next generation? Or maybe just lost, forgotten and regarded as nothing within those systems?

The archive may be fuelled by a passion. In the material world we collect things and store them in what we consider as ‘our own space’. However, soon we find out when we no longer have any room and cannot possibly keep this item anymore. This limits the archive and how much we can collect therefore making us continuously re-evaluate our collection. However the digital world contradicts this as we have unlimited storage space for anything, photographs, information; it provides us somewhat greater freedom, whether to have a million tweets or ten thousand photographs shared on Facebook. This is how the expanse of digital technology has affected our lives, ensuring that the re-evaluating process is no longer to be considered.

Philosopher Roland Barthes talked about this a lot. He looked through his archive of photographs of his mother a lot who has died. He was upset when looking at these photos because he ‘cannot find his mother, she isn’t there’. Until he comes across this photograph of his mother as a child which captures his attention. Barthes had not known his mother in this context yet something about it animated him and he sees her there. This shows that the archive is considered to be a powerful ‘tool for memory’.


Digital Death has been defined as the death of a living being and the way it affects the digital world or the death of a digital object and the way it affects a living being (Pitsillides, 2009). [2] An example is the death of Princess Diana, where people left her flowers and gifts to display their grief over the loss. Fast forward a few years in 2009 when Michael Jackson died, many people expressed their respect for him through leaving ‘RIP’ on their statuses online which I personally thought to be not quite fitting. Is this how people show respect nowadays? Indication that their social networking spaces must be so important to them for them to use it to ‘pay respect’.

Another aspect which I find quite relevant to this topic are some ‘trends’ recently commencing on Twitter such as ones intending to bring down ‘X’ celebrity. Those who engage in such things remind me of a herd of sheep, where one person does something and the rest follows and agree with what the other is saying. How amusing it is that human beings are so easily influenced and like to mirror one another’s actions without really contradicting. Engaging in these virtual systems, we also become part of the data base.

At the end we may ask ourselves, it this really us? The information we store on those virtual systems, does it really explain our true selves? Or maybe incorporated with a sense of false identity? Due to the fact that not all of us would reveal too much information about ourselves in order to preserve our identity concerning safety reasons.

In reference to the question of ‘what happens to your information when you die?’ In my opinion, it varies depending on who you are and who you are with. Perhaps there is a bigger probability that your information will be passed on endlessly if you are a well known or famous person. For example someone like Marilyn Monroe will always remain a style icon or Twiggy, a person known for her androgynous looks and rebel in fashion to not look like what we regard as a stereotypical image of a girl. Their information will never get old and will still be passed on even if they may not be there in person. It is not to say that others will die along with their information, of course they will still be remembered but when a person is not there to update their status on their social networking space, then it will simply remain there in the corner, lost and abandoned. Maybe even forgotten, which I find rather upsetting. A person part of the past, ‘Digital death’ is a term which certainly can be applied here.

Stacey was indeed one of many lecturers who were very fascinating to listen to. Her research questions in the form of a conversation, a topic I agree, will continue to have an increasing impact on our lives. Digital Death is an interesting concept which pushes the boundaries of how we view and deal with death in the digital world, waiting to be expanded and developed further.

[1]. http://www.makingbelieve.co.uk




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