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Transcending the Archive: Reflections on Online Identity and Death.

First Author Stacey Pitsillides, Goldsmiths. 3 Colls Road, Southwark. London, SE15 2NS, UK

This paper discusses the way we develop and relate to online identities, particularly after death. It considers how the nature of the Internet shapes the development digital narratives, drawing on the theories of Roland Barthes and Vannevar Bush. By analysing their contrasting visions of archiving, this paper seeks to question whether Bushs scientific approach to the archive has become outdated. Considering the exponential growth of personal archives online it questions whether new forms of personal engagement are needed to deal with living and dying in digital flux.

Digital Archive, Death, Identity, Flux, Biography

Historically technology has always been key in the development of increasingly effective systems for the storage and preservation of memory outside the body (Flusser, 1990). This generation identifies itself through the data it produces and shares within its online network (Turkle, 2011). Our identity and sense of self has shifted from physical embodiment to networked embodiment (Hayles, 1999). Technology has enabled people today to hoard a more vast collection of personal paraphernalia (in the form of data) then ever before. This has culminated in an entangled mass of dispersed online archives of the self. According to

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Shenk (1997) our systems may have become too effective, considering that we have already far surpassed the point where we can actually comprehend the mass of data we produce. This makes the question of what happens to this mass of data and how it is used after your death a complex one, riddled with questions of personal choice, varying protocols of companies (Carroll & Romano, 2010) and both technological and social issues related to the upkeep of this exponential growth of digital memorabilia (Churchill and Ubois, 2008). Therefore within this paper I put forward the argument as to why research must shift from the production of better external storage devices to the reconsideration of what personal data we are storing and what it actually means to narrate ourselves in digital space.

objects and traces that are left behind become our only entrance to continual engagement with a lost love one. However in addition to this they may also aid in developing a new understanding of that person, a process of continuing bonds after death. Walter calls this practice a durable biography and asserts that it is this practice that enables the living to integrate the memory of the dead into their ongoing lives (Walter, 1996). Through the practice of being digitally we are constantly in engagement with various spaces simultaneously which include engaging with both the living and the dead (Walter, 2008). Many of these spaces are cooperate and have been designed and built to engage a certain kind of thinking, action and production (which until very recently omitted both the concept and affect of death). The way a social network is used greatly influences the way we (as individuals) cognitively construct and co-construct our identities within them (Dijck, 2007). The graphical design, interface design, typography, symbology and navigation dictate to users the way they should narrate their identity on any given social network. This is further problematized when a group of users also using a range of social networks is trying to simultaneously co-construct a durable biography of a lost loved one online. The prescriptive nature of these sites must be considered if they are to be used collectively as personal legacy.

Narrating Ourselves Online

The primary function of the personal archive is to save things external to the body for later use. However to be truly engaging the archive should also allow the space for an individual to collect, store, engage with, talk about and reminisce on precious events. The decision of what to save is also of great importance to this process, the internal conversations and continual reflection on objects creates a greater sense of meaning and preciousness. Objects that are saved should trigger both memory and imagination as they lead us to re-produce the past. Imagination is a powerful tool as it allows us to reshape the past and cognitively continue to (re)understand both ourselves and others. When considering the implications of death on the personal archive, it inevitably makes the archive more important as the

Designing Archives
In this section I will discuss two contrasting approaches towards the creation and purpose of the archive; [1] the scientific technological approach by which we must consider how to analytically sort, compare and

comprehend data and [2] the emotional and social impact of keeping things, considering in greater depth what their role is in our lives and how they help us to find meaning. Firstly I will consider the work of Vannevar Bush who has undoubtedly had a profound impact on the concept of technological progress in the field of memory capture and cognition. His seminal paper As We May Think (1945) discusses and predicts how scientists may use and connect technologically to a vast array of archives in order to gain a better overview of an evercomplicating world of research. In this paper Bush also presents several novel approaches to the idea of research, many of whose application we can see in the world today. In 1945 Bush was already critical of the progression of science and its inability to provide scientists with better tools for handling the massive external records of data they were creating. In his paper he laments so much for the manipulation of ideas and their insertion into the record. Thus far we seem to be worse off than before - for we can enormously extend the record; yet even in its present bulk we can hardly consult it (Bush, 1945: pp 12). Fifty-two years later Data Smog is published, in which David Shenk experientially evidences the same problem, data overload, which has only expanded - even with the inclusion of many of the labor saving technologies that Bush describes within his paper. It could be considered ironic that in 1945 Bush was already trying to escape the mass production and pressure to absorb data in his daily life and yet today his theories have become a model for mass

accumulation and aggregation of data, for example within the field of lifelogging (Sellen & Whittaker, 2010). So although I am not disputing that through the use of technology we have greatly improved systems for finding, cross referencing and editing data, we have simultaneously constructed technologies which allow for greater production and publishing of data (this is particularly problematic when it comes to personal data). It is clear that through technology the problem has not been solved but has simply changed scale - the greater effectiveness of data aggregation has resulted in an exponential production of data. Bush considered the concept of the archive from a purely scientific perspective and thus, for Bush, the future is all about connecting, displaying and saving the archive for more efficient analysis. He believed this could be achieved by attempting to technologically mimic the human brain. However within this paper Bush does not question what the human brain can actually manage to internalize and understand or indeed the need for such a mass of data. Perhaps this is due to the fact that he was considering only scientific research as data. In 1945 it would indeed have been difficult to imagine the immense boom of digital personal archives which would have such a profound impact on all our lives. In sharp contrast to Bushs scientific approach Roland Barthes does not reflect on the scientific merit of the archive in Camera Lucida (1992) except through chance discovery of details from the past through his analysis of old photographs. However what Barthes does do is attempt to emotionally understand the photograph and the practice/ process of photography. This is not to say that he does not approach the archive

as a researcher, he does, however his approach towards uncovering the nature of the archive is far more tacit then Bushs. Barthes unveils his exploration through an in-depth analysis of personal experience and his own reactions to particular photographs. His personable tone dissects Bushs analytic approach and cuts to the heart of the personal archive, viewing it instead as a space to consider how gesture, frame and punctum (among others) instill different levels of meaning and emotion to various photographs. This becomes particularly poignant when Barthes begins to consider the archive of photos left behind by his dead mother. He considers whether any of the photographs could really capture her. Barthes asserts that the only way he could catch a glimpse of her in an entire archive of her photographs was through the act of imagination: in this glum desert, suddenly a specific photograph reaches me; it animates me, and I animate it (Barths, 1992, pp 20). It is interesting to note that the photograph that truly animates Barthes in which he finds his mother is one of her as a child (Barths, 1992, pp. 67). So it is not his own memory that animates him but the fragment of her countenance through which he is transported. For Barthes, it is not the direct and exact recording, capturing or re-animating of his mother that allowed her memory to live on but his own ability to engage with the archive and emotionally reflect on its contents. The question remains however for every individual to reflect on, when reminiscing in the digital age: how do you find the digital object that speaks to you, the object that just for a second brings everything about that person back to you? And has the current practice

of saving every thought and conversation in some way blocked us, as we can no longer manually look through the entire archive?

Attempting to Regain Control

"The narrator seems only partially able to control his verbally extravagant narrative. There are I will argue deep connections between the narrator's struggle to maintain control of the narrative and the threat to the "natural" body boundaries posed by the cybernetic paradigm" (Hayles, 1999, pp 23). In this passage Hayles looks at the relationship between the posthuman (networked through technology) and our cognitive loss of control regarding our de-centralized narrative(s) online. By considering the type of body we are constructing online Hayles reveals her fears regarding the cybernetic dream of escaping the flesh and transcending to virtuality (Gibson, 1984)(Stephenson, 1992). By writing online in a space of constant flux we are prompted and thus engaged in the act of producing ourselves online (Stiegler, 2009 pp. 40). We are simultaneously the narrator and the narrated. We are the narrator due to our action i.e writing or publishing elements of identity but we are also simultaneously being narrated through the prescriptive nature of the publishing sites we engage with, the constant alternative paths people make when discovering our online identity and the amalgamation of others acting on and augmenting the narrative we have set. This is further enhanced by the fact that many social networking sites (such as Facebook and Twitter) contain an auto-save feature, which automatically creates an immense archive (distorted narrative). Therefore it could be suggested that the only way the

user can exert any control over their personal narrative in these sites is by refraining to use them unless they want the data to be saved. However what if we succumb to the nature of the Internet, the flux and make the decision to relinquish control of our identity? For example the question arose on Digital Death Day (2011) Can somebody else be @identitywoman? If we embrace the fact that we are as Barthes puts it engaging in the social game and posing to create an image or in this case identity of our liking then why should this identity not be passed on. This is particularly relevant for researchers whose

online identity has become as much about their work as themselves. By passing on your identity as a living archive rather then a static artifact it continues to live in some way. Not as you, in a transhumanist way, but as something that transcends the concept of you because as discussed earlier the idea of your digital identity being an element of yourself is in the first place questionable. If our online identities are all an amalgamation of the networks you inhabit and the communities you belong to then it might be a logical progression to say that ownership of these assets should be a flexible construct.


Barthes, R (1992) Camera Lucida. Jonathan Cape.

[2] Bush, V (1945) As We May Think. The Atlantic Monthly. The electronic version was prepared by Denys Duchier, April 1994. [3] Carroll, E. Romano, J (2011) Your Digital Afterlife: When Facebook, Flickr and Twitter are your Estate, Whats your Legacy? New Riders. [4] Churchill, E. Ubois, J (2008) Designing For Digital Archives: The Mess Weve Gotten Ourselves Into, Interactions. [5] Digital Death Day (2011) [6] Dijck, J (2007) Mediated Memories in the Digital Age (Cultural Memory in the Present), Stanford University Press [7] Flusser, V (1990) On Memory (Electronic or Otherwise). Leonardo Vol: 23 Issue No:4 pp. 397-399. The MIT Press. [8] Gibson, W (1984) Neuromancer. Ace.

[9] Hayles, K (1999) How we became Post Human: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. University of Chicago Press. [10] Sellen, A. Whittaker, S. (2010) Beyond Total Capture: A Constructive Critique of Lifelogging. Communications of the ACM. Vol. 53 No. 5, pp.70-77 [11] Shenk, D (1997) Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut. Abacus. [12] Stiegler, B. (2009) The Carnival of the New Screen: From Hegemony to Isonomy. In Pelle Snickars & Patrick Vonderau (eds.), The YouTube Reader (Stockholm: National Library of Sweden): 4059. [13] Stephenson, N (1992) Snow Crash. Bantam Books, USA. [14] Turkle, S (2011) Alone Together: Why we Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Basic Books. [15] Walter, T (1996) A new model of grief: bereavement and biography. Mortality, 1, 7-25. [16] Walter, T (2008) The Presence of the Dead in Society. A paper presented at the conference on Death & Dying in 18-21c Europe, Alba Iulia, Romania.

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