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Grieving Those You Never Knew – The Internet's Dead

The apostrophe in the title is not a contraction of the verb ‘to be,’ but indicates a possessive. Now that we have straightened that out…

I’m grateful to Alison Carter, whose archaeology blog provides wonderful postings on the life of an active archaeologist in Cambodia, for directing me to this odd little piece from Wired magazine, about the death last week of Randy Pausch. I’d never heard of Professor Pausch until he died, at which point my rss feeds and newsgroups started clogging with references to him, and his video – which you can see here – was reposted damned near everywhere.

I’ve been interested for a long while in the phenomenon of grieving over those we have never known. When a poor black woman in Minnesota stands on a street corner, weeping for the death of Ronald Reagan, who demonized an entire generation of poor black women with his spurious ‘welfare queen‘ speech, you know something’s up. Similarly with the outpouring of grief that followed Princess Diana’s death.

Undoubtedly each of these people genuinely touched strangers (get your mind out of the gutter) in real ways, whether via the modern media, or through their policies and actions. But the cathection – the investment of personal ego and emotion – in these strangers remains puzzling to me.

Any thoughts? In the meantime, here’s a snippet from the Wired Article.

I had the sad task of writing one of the many obituaries for Pausch. Within minutes, comments started to come in with a curious grammar like this one from Colleen:

I am real sorry for your loss Jai. Your husband have [sic] inspired me to be a better version of myself. After I heard about Randy’s passing, I couldn’t help but cry. The whole world is mourning with you.

These comments weren’t about Pausch’s death. They were addressed to him and his kin, as if Wired.com would convey this message to them. It’s as if the internet has joined the angels in our collective imagination of heaven, the CAT-5 winding into the clouds like a beanstalk.

This was strange.

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3 thoughts on “Grieving Those You Never Knew – The Internet's Dead

  1. Thanks for the shout-out Erik! I find this phenomenon really fascinating. Oddly enough I found about the death of two of my high school classmates (the deaths were independent of one another) via facebook and pages that mutual friends had set-up to remember them. Another interesting online grieving website is mydeathspace.com which links to the myspace pages of the recently deceased.

  2. erikwdavis says:

    dude. “mydeathspace.com”? I had to check that out. Holy crap.
    Since I’m teaching a class this fall on “How to do things with dead people” (yes, that’s the actual title), this is going in the same week as the watching of the Diana and Reagan related film clips.

    This is just flipping weird.

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