At the end of the summer, while attending a conference on Consumer Culture Theory I had the pleasure of listening to a presentation on the consumption of death by Sidney J. Levy, Professor Emeritus of Marketing and Behavioral Science in Management. A pioneer in the field, one of Professor Levy’s main points was that consumer behavior is essentially about how people cope with life and the inevitability of death.
Two years ago around this time of year I had a personal experience that left me thinking about the consumption of death, and what to do when traditional channels of mourning might not be available. I had just received the news that a young woman I had met through work had passed away. I had not known her for very long, nor did I know her very well. However, how people touch us cannot be measured in time. She had an extremely warm presence and a witty and energetic personality that was very striking. Since I had been unaware of the cancer that came to take her life, and since I didn’t know anyone in her family or of her friends, I experienced the cultural and traditional protocol for how to mourn someone as unavailable. To my own surprise it came rather spontaneous that my grief went digital. Online I found ways to communicate with my late friend, consuming her image and digital traces of her that helped me remember who she had been to me.
How does one deal with the ethical, moral and legal aspects of death in the digital sphere? The growth of new information technologies and manifestations of death online has put these issues at the center of recent debate. Especially salient in these debates are questions concerning personal integrity, as is often the case in discussions about the Internet. Common discussion topics are what to do with the profiles of diseased people on social network sites, who to be in charge of controlling the spread of information and images of people who have passed away, what legal codes that are applicable, etc.
These are issues that more and more people are facing when losing someone today, but apart from the individual experience there is a cultural and collective dimension to this. It’s like the sum of the two biggest fears of the secular man in the age of information technology; 1) the fear of loss of control over information about ourselves “out there”, and 2) the fear of death, inescapable and definitive.
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