by Carlo Pizzati
Is the rapidly rising trend of talking to the dead online the millennial way of seeing the Internet as god?
There are at least 30 million dead people on Facebook right now. Every day, 8,000 Facebook members die. By 2060, there could be more deceased people on Facebook than those who are alive. By then, we may be communicating in completely new ways and social networks might exist only as anachronistic testaments of a bygone technological phase — a digital graveyard of a forgotten past.
As we head into this possible future, it’s evident that a growing number of people are already talking to the dead on social media. And the way in which they communicate with the deceased is altering how we relate to the ideas of loss of our loved ones and to the idea of an afterlife. More importantly, this behaviour increasingly identifies the Internet with the notion of what is divine, sacred and holy.
This phenomenon re-emerged distinctly with the recent deaths of writer V.S. Naipaul and singer Aretha Franklin. Hundreds of authors, intellectuals and admirers gushed their grief all over their timelines, invoking the great lessons of the master and the powerful voice of the singer, often addressing the deceased stars in the second person. “You who taught us so much…”, “You who sang so heavenly…”, and so on.
It’s nothing more than an understandable variation of public mourning, one might say. But there are more serious implications in this common behaviour.
Talking to the dead must have been a strong need since the early days of humanity. According to psychologist Julian Jaynes, the very first concept of god originated when an ancient tribe began to worship the decaying corpses of a king and queen. The royals were buried in their hut, sitting upright as they decomposed. At some point, someone heard their voices still imparting orders from a great beyond. And began to worship the inanimate bodies as deities.
All religions, to varying degrees, claim different ways of communicating with the afterlife. Orpheus is always descending into some inferno; Lila is always hoping to be reunited with her dead king, as narrated by Vasishta.
This may be motivated by the need to express love, or the attempt to accept loss. To varying degrees of gullibility or believability, through the centuries, clairvoyants, necromancers, channellers, diviners, crystal gazers and mediums with Ouija boards on seances have offered promises of connectivity.
The industrial revolution brought innovative technologies and new methods to supposedly communicate with the alleged souls of the departed. In the post-WWII period, spiritualists across Europe thought they heard “psychophonic” voices of the dead emerging from radio waves.
Today, in our relationship with the inexplicable, we witness a mixture of events on social media. There is the comprehensible attempt to keep the idea of the deceased person alive, reaffirming a spiritual belief in the existence of an afterlife. And the need to reawaken a functioning mourning ritual, lost with modernisation.
However, it is one thing to share admiration for dead artists, scientists and leaders, and another to inadvertently equate the Internet with the sacred enclosure of the temple, the traditional location for our dialogue with the invisible.
The annus horribilis that brought this phenomenon to the foreground is undoubtedly 2016. David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro, Umberto Eco, Jayalalithaa, Harper Lee, George Michael, Elie Wiesel, Leonard Cohen, Carrie Fisher, Katherine Dunn, Gene Wilder — these disappearances unleashed waves of comments that allowed people to externalise the public discourse on death. #RIP, which can be interpreted as the classical ‘Rest in Peace’ or the more likely ‘Rest in Pixels’, reached record levels.
The Internet has clearly changed the way we relate to celebrities. It has also changed how we talk about them after they’re gone. In turn, this has affected how we talk about our own dead. People now readily externalise what is called “competitive mourning,” a race of comments like “only the good die young,” “I knew her so well,” and similar banalities.
Elaine Kasket (real name, nomen omen ) is a psychologist at Regent’s University London, currently on sabbatical to finish writing All the Ghosts in the Machine: How the Digital Age is Transforming Death in the 21st Century . She’s been trying to determine if it is healthy to talk to dead people online. “For digital natives born after the mid-80s,” she writes, “to put something on the Internet is to trust it will be received by someone, somewhere in the ether.”
Kasket says that since Facebook is a place many associate with their loved ones, after their departure “it’s natural to reach out to them in the same ‘place’ where you interacted, talked and joked,” when they were alive. The issue, the psychologist points out, is that online, the problem of “legacy hierarchy,” meaning who is entitled to represent the deceased, who can decide how they are remembered, who has “chief mourner status,” becomes a public problem.
Which is also why removing the social network profile of a deceased can be publicly traumatising. Basically, Kasket affirms, keeping a dead person’s profile online is the equivalent of preserving a bedroom, continuing to lay a place at the dinner table for someone who will never show up again. But posting on their Facebook wall has a twist: this was the place where often you had the most interactions with the deceased person, so the expectation of an impossible reply can be higher.
How does this affect our integration of spirituality within our daily use of technology? We can assume it enhances it. However, there is a fundamental difference between talking to the dead in your own head (or out loud in the silence of your room) and posting your dialogue on a public platform, such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
Virtualising the experience of our loved ones, while they are still alive, and getting accustomed to mistaking their pixellated avatar for our tangible reality, makes us want to hang on more to their Internet version, allowing us to continue experiencing a form of mediated presence.
A compulsive behaviour that has been observed in mourners is that of repeatedly returning to visit the page of a departed loved one. It is equivalent, in a previous technological phase, to calling an answering machine in order to hear the voice of someone who died — initially useful, yet if repeated it might slow down the process of mourning.
There’s also the problem of self-censorship while posting online. As Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other , has explained: “We have come to believe that our experiences are not validated unless we have shared them. What we do online tends to make us look good. When we attempt to grieve or commemorate a lost loved one in a public forum, we censor what we want and need to say. We lose certain ways of talking, experiencing things because we don’t practise them.”
For example, we may need to insult, in our own internal dialogue, a friend or relative who died. It might be exactly what’s needed to gain closure and face grief. But most of us would not do that online.
If the Internet is being associated with a virtual temple, a sacred place of dialogue with the invisible, what are the implications on atheist and agnostic minds who may be engaging in spiritual behaviour without realising it? Or on believers who are beginning to divert their focus of worship from a real church or temple to a screen? In other words, is the Internet becoming the new temple for many millennials and Generation X web surfers?
If you listen to musician Alexander Bard (again, nomen omen ), the answer would be “yes.” Six years ago, this Internet activist became a spiritual leader by founding a new religion claiming that “the Internet is God”. He called it Syntheism.
The word means “together with god,” to indicate that humanity creates god as opposed to god creating humanity.
Of course, at the moment, Syntheism seems more of an artistic provocation rather than a real religion. Yet, Bard might have a point when he says: “I firmly believe Syntheism is already being practised — we are just formulating it.”
And, of course, Syntheism already has serious competition in the ‘Church of Google’, a website first taken down, but revived as ‘The Reformed Church of Google’ — their belief is that the search engine is the closest thing to god because it is omni-present, omniscient, omni-benevolent, as it professes (officially) no evil.
These trends, some facetious, some more serious, are not alone. Extropians are a group of young scientists, looking at technological promises made by the pioneers of artificial intelligence like Marvin Minsky, or of nanotechnology like K. Eric Drexler, who predict a world where both body and mind will become obsolete, and where a combination of technologies and genetic engineering could lead to our capacity to download our conscience in a web server and reach artificial nirvana in a new post-human world.
It’s a popular trend in Silicon Valley, with its promises of doubling life spans with special diets or deep-freezing bodies with cryogenics. It is, more than science, a new form of utopian religion looking at a trans-human who can control nature and the universe.
Some traditional religions see this as the antichrist, or a Satanic endeavour to end humanity. Optimists see the birth of a connected world-brain through artificial intelligence as the realisation of what philosopher Hegel had predicted about society as a whole.
Computer as god
All traditional symbology is in place to understand why it is possible to experience technological communication in spiritual terms. Biblical Armageddon, or the “Technocalypse,” is envisioned as a sizeable solar flare that could wipe out all the hard drives in the world. The Dark Net is a metaphor of a hell ruled by a concealed, immoral, and murderous underworld. The Heavens could be the download of our conscience in a server, resulting in eternal body-less nirvana.
As with life itself, most people experience electronic networks as entities evolving from a force they do not really understand, and that certainly they cannot control — a self-organised, decentralised and distributed system, which is also how many experience the concept of the divine.
To allow the identification of a faceless abstraction like the Internet with an all-powerful god-like force, there’s also the fact that the traditional monotheistic idea of god in a human form, often that of an older, wise man, has been suffering a slow erosion.
In the West, there has been a crisis of the patriarchal symbology of god in the aftermath of the bloody World Wars of the 20th century which involved (negative) father figures like Hitler, Mussolini or Stalin, along with positive (for some) father figures like Woodrow Wilson or the Kennedys. Of course, the need for an older man with a white beard sitting on the highest throne of the land lives on in a place like India, for example. But the iconography of patriarchy is suffering as the interdependence of humanity with the natural world brings everything on a similar level.
The more we use the Internet, the more we experience existence as an interconnected network of dependencies, leading to a possible weakening for the need of traditional religious symbols.
This could mean a return to an animistic approach, as is the case with some New Age beliefs in which mountains, rivers and oceans, along with plants and animals, are seen not as objects and lives created by god, but as an integral part of a larger interconnected whole, components of a web of creation.
People of the PC
In an era of democracy, the hierarchical structure of some theological liturgies might suffer, as believers feel equally important in the face of the divine, just as they are in the face of Internet. It is not so far-fetched to see that, in our age, a God-like presence could be perceived in the network which connects us more frequently and deeply every day.
For centuries, monotheistic religions have identified themselves with a technological object which transmitted the religious experience far and wide thanks to a machine: the printing press.
Theology does come with technology. So it is not such a leap of faith, pardon the pun, to see that from “the people of the book,” we may soon be seeing the “people of the computer” becoming the strongest religion of the millenium, seeking salvation in the algorithm.
The writer is the author of Technoshamans. Mappillai,a memoir, will be published this month.