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Death, Remembrance, the Internet and Immortality

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Tuesday, Jan 19, 2010

When more folks today seem interested in protecting their anonymity online, and are even concerned with the death of a social networking account following an actual physical loss of life, it’s important to take a few moments to step back and reconsider the beauty of remembrance and its potential for immortality. For example, Dan Fletcher’s widely circulated article discussing net-death, “What Happens to Your Facebook After You Die?”, appeared on Time.com in October 2009. The article was prompted by the blog entry “Memories of Friends Departed Endure on Facebook”> posted by the social network’s founder, Max Kelly, who spoke about “memorializing” instead of deleting profiles, allowing users to visit friends for as long as their server is up. Kelly’s thread that was prompted by the death of his own best friend, and his own desire not to simply forget. Fletcher’s article demonstrates that many folks genuinely want to know that the net has the ability to forget, though seasoned users know about the near immortality of the cache!


Unlike most other people I know who are around age 30, I think about death a lot. As a gay man, I grew up in a time and place that placed death at my doorstep. HIV/AIDS has lost its initial tag as the Gay Plague (G.R.I.D.), though the attachment to the lives of gay men seems indelible. Although I am trained in, and now work towards HIV/AIDS prevention efforts, and have over the years befriended many people living with AIDS, I still vividly recall the first time that I knowingly met a seropositive individual. 
  
I was 16 years old—the year of my coming out—and I spent the summer in San Diego. To place this era, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Under the Bridge was in heavy circulation, and the lyrics genuinely spoke to the fear, uncertainty and loneliness I, and many queer youth, felt at how the world would respond to us. Certainly waking up to the news each morning hearing that this or that state has removed your rights makes us think twice when Americans brag about the so-called freedom we’re supposed to defend. No, I don’t ever wanna feel like I did that day. Frankly, no one should.


It’s hard to believe that there’s nobody out there
It’s hard to believe that I’m all alone
At least I have her love, the city she loves me
Lonely as I am, together we cry


At our Buddhist community center, I was fortunate to have met many mature queer kindred souls to whom I referred for guidance and experience about what my life might face as gay, in a decisively anti-gay society given the obviously unsubstantiated rhetoric of multiculturalism.  Among them were Chris and Jack (obvious pseudonyms to maintain what little anonymity is left in the digital age). They had both seroconverted in the early ‘80s, at a time when our understanding of the pandemic was at its infancy.


Though we rarely talked about death, in knowing Chris and later Jack, it occurred to me that one day we would all die; these guys had simply received a serious jolt that made this reality more real and apparent in their daily lives. Over the years, these men, and numerous others around the world have assumed the role of mentor to younger gay men desperately in search of some semblance of themselves somewhere out in the world. I have grown to cherish this mentorship, and conversely try to make myself available to speak with other young queer men and women so habitually alienated, ostracized and misunderstood by our families and friends, or outright rejected by our societies. 


The Internet has long since been the primary tool for communication and exchange between loved ones so separated by space, and, importantly, time. Many of my mentors are spread throughout the world and at present, the Internet is the only viable means by which we can regularly commune and communicate. An interesting characteristic of the Internet is its ability to record and chronicle information and experiences. Certainly many of those reading these lines have at least Googled themselves to find well forgotten, passé, defunct, or simply antiquated references of long ago. Many years ago BBC reported about the bad taste of wearing white sox, and I chimed in with a post that still stands as one of my major traces on the net. Fortunately, the net carries the potential for more substantial remembrance of the self for others. The Internet sustains the information though as individuals we failed to keep such aspects of our lives alive.


Many traditional African cosmologies teach us that although loved ones may transition from this world, they never cease to exist as long as they are in living memory. When we, for example, are alive to utter the names, and share memories and lessons learned from those who have come to pass, we keep them alive in a vibrant spirit that enriches our lives. Chris, Jack and I have never lived in the same city, and for the past 15 years have not even shared the same hemisphere. Distance deeply valorizes the role of the Internet in our lives. 


Through the exchange of e-mails, shared/posted writings, photos, forwarded URL’s, comments, online petitions and now Blogs and social networking, the Internet has facilitated the cultivation of numerous relationships around the world. I often speak of my friends and family on the other side of the hemisphere, and for my life here in India (I am originally from Kentucky), they are all deeply entwined, though not physically present. The trail that we create on the Internet, hence, creates another kind of communicable and common memory. When queer rights are amongst the most highly contested rights around the globe, these traces are among the few spaces where the discourse reminds me/us that we are indelibly human and even potentially humane, versus the radical right agenda spreading from the US to Uganda that portrays us as an abomination.


Externalization in cyberspace likely connotes a very different existence than that proposed by any genus of cosmology. I do not look forward to the loss of anyone close to me. Yet, I know that their affect on my life will live on as long as I utter their names and speak about their lives. My grandmother passed-on only months after the first non-white American president was inaugurated, lovingly capping off her 86 years on the planet, much of which was spent in legally sanctioned racialized class peril and strife (or denial).


When granny left her native Alabama after the Second Great War, she was not even allowed to vote due to the rich honey hue of her skin; in 2008 she cast a vote in that same state for a man of color. Moreover, instead of fleeing those cotton fields, her descendants are moving back and creating that coveted change that has become just a cynical gimmick or jingle for many. Change for granny is just as serious as celebrating life, not death—building on our commonality and earnestly respecting our differences. Americans love to look forward and often do so through forgetting. The net both insures and ensures our collective recollection. Some of granny’s earliest memories are now ‘immortalized’ on YouTube, simply by posting the interviews of her that I conducted over her final two years. As it turns out, these are the only video records of Alice Lyles, a fortunate respite for her own kids who are just barely creeping onto the net, though I suspect their own grandchildren will spur them along.


The Internet is a tool that facilitates this memory and communication. The Internet has assumed significant import and sublimity in contemporary modes of communication, community, information exchange and memory. The role of the Internet in recording ideas and chronicling lives, and making them ubiquitously available is as eternal as the potential of the viability if the Internet. We live on through our recorded and chronicled lives. We become eternal.

Tagged as: aids | facebook | gay lesbian
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