Digital Death

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October 23, 2014 by tpizzle14

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Dr Wendy Moncur researches socio-digital interaction at the University of Dundee in the UK. She presented a lecture on 23rd October explaining her research and work on digital memorials – a new phenomenon in our technological 21st century society. The expression of death in the digital form is as new as digital interactivity but Moncur suggests that today humans may start life in the digital form through the recording of intra-uterine images. “A person can now have a digital presence before physical birth, as in the case of ultrasound pictures posted to social media.” However, the more interesting exploration is how to commemorate somebody’s life when they pass away, beyond leaving an absent Facebook page.

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Dr Wendy Moncur

The most common form of a digital memorial is usually either the Facebook page of a deceased person or a website that is set up for people to post their condolences to the deceased and their family. The problem with websites like these is that they are hard to moderate and can be misused.  Moncur stated, “Digital memorials like these can be seen as entertainment to others.” Moncur and her team researched how people commemorate deaths and how this is influenced by circumstance. She used the example of the unexpected and tragic death of Princess Diana in 1997 which shocked and saddened many. Diana’s death, when compared to the death of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother who passed away at the age of 101, was neither shocking nor tragic and her life was celebrated by family and community. The tone of her memorial service was subdued, positive and reflective, different from the public outpouring of grief Princess Diana’s death created. Moncur’s research expanded into rituals to commemorate the deceased. Rituals are often influenced by symbols associated with aspects of individuals’ lives. An example of this notion is the ritualisation of Steve Jobs’ death where many people lay apples that they had taken a bite out of in front of Apple stores around the world.

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One of the many Steve Jobs memorials covered in bitten apples.

The design of a digital death is only recently being embraced and Moncur presented us with other designers’ concepts of the digital death. Israeli designer, Hadas Arnon, produced the ‘Digital Cemetery’. This comprises a large board with a number of USB ports, resembling a modern Western graveyard. When a family member passes away, the grieving family is able to buy a USB shaped in the form of a tombstone with the deceased’s name and date of death engraved on the USB. The family is then able to upload images and videos of the deceased to the USB and when they visit this digital graveyard they can look back and reflect on the person’s life. Dr Moncur has also worked on developing a form of digital memorialisation by creating a range of personalised products, one of which is a locket on which the family of the deceased can upload a photo, and over time, this photo fades away as a tombstone would decay over time.

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Hadas Arnon’s ‘Digital Cemetery’

Dr Moncur involved us in a group activity where we were asked to design the digital death of a current pop celebrity. Inspired by our new learning from Dr Moncur, we identified the audience and authors of our dead celebrity; inputs such as the manner of the death – un/expected, tragic etc; the form the memorial should take – a digital or a hybrid form of memorial; and finally and importantly,  articulation of the message the memorial should convey?

For this task my group chose Pop celebrity, Nicki Minaj. Her death was unexpected and her record label decided to produce a commemorative object in her honour. The record company became the author of the memorial and they created a website on which fans could upload messages, images and videos of Nicki. The record company also created a display object – an ‘anaconda’ – a homage to her recent song, Anaconda, lined with multiple LCD screens. Submissions from the tribute website, set up by the record label, are then uploaded onto the LCD screens of the anaconda object, making the fans of Nicki co-authors of her memorial. The fans are then able to visit the record label and manipulate the anaconda object, changing the LCD screens to other fan tribute submissions. This memorial is not sacred; however, it is a highly personal acknowledgement of her by her audience and a 21st Century pop culture.

While still in the early stages of development, ‘digital death’ is gaining presence and acknowledgement in the design world as Moncur showed in her lecture. Currently there is no set of guidelines for creating digital memorials and they can be difficult to moderate appropriately and effectively. The significant and unique meaning behind each death that is represented digitally reflects the differences and unique qualities of the individuals memorialised. Digital deaths have resulted in a revision of the ways we not only memorialise and ritualise the experience of death but the ways we think about the finality of death. There are many who view the digital death as a continuity of life as the individual is still present in the digital form.

Moncur, W.M, 2014. Digital Death. Lecture, 23/10/14. University of Technology, Sydney

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