Digital Death

by Zahra Khozema, Storyteller for RU Student Life

There is a new side to death: digital death. Our inactive accounts have become carcasses of ourselves. “Pics or it didn’t happen” is a real cultural phenomenon attesting to the legitimacy of our existence.

Is the award you won actually something to be proud of if no one “likes” your accomplishment? Did you really travel there if you didn’t post a picture in front of *insert touristy monument*? Leaving your pages inactive for months, weeks, or even days, connotes a certain nonexistence, these days.

“Is your cousin okay? I haven’t seen him post any new pictures” said my mum a while ago. She assumed there was something wrong because he was inactive on Facebook.

Contrary to popular belief that being phone free is somewhat of a digital cleanse that’s supposed to bring you closer to nature, I genuinely beg to differ. Sure, for the first couple of days it’s cool and all but reality sets in quick. On my 19-day road trip across India, my out-dated music list became stale and my phone memory needed a serious throw up session onto Google Drive.

Typically, when I travel I don’t bother with the extra cost of purchasing 3G or even a local SIM.

Then again, most of my trips have been in big cities where there are cafés with free wifi at every corner or a hostel to get connected at the end of the night. This was different. This was more road time then stay time. This was villages and towns out of even Instagram’s geolocation reach.

I’m so tired of people assuming what all “young people” do on our phones is text their crush or play Candy Crush. We are so much more than just Snapchat and Instagram, we are important email updates and Google Maps and Duoliguo.

In all the 24 cities we passed, I would find myself praying for wifi. I tried to be in the moment but the ghost of my unpaid tuition and unpicked summer courses haunted my consciousness.

What I’m trying to say is that I felt dead. Digitally, at least. I wondered if my friends noticed my lack of presence and I feared a notification overload when I did finally reconnect at the Mumbai airport. Which actually wasn’t the case. Facebook gave boring “Textbooks For Sale” updates and only about 2 people messaged me, whom I would have given the responseless ‘read’ to anyways. Nothing life and death worthy.

This got me thinking about the time I got an email from my faculty director informing us of a sudden death of a student in our program. As soon as I read it, my media psyche kicked in and my fingers scrambled to search for the student online. His Facebook seemed normal; packed with the generic silly group shots and filtered out selfies all twenty-somethings archetype. “It doesn’t feel like they are gone”, I thought, shamefully.

I tried to put myself in their shoes. With a constant social media presence, I wondered what would happen to my accounts if life called it quits on me. I don’t have a will (mainly because I don’t have money; student debt, rather…), but what I do have are a considerable amount of friends, followers, and connections. Do these social currencies count for something?

What would you do if you had a digital will? Have a loved one designated to deactivate your accounts? Or does your page turn into a memorial space where people send you unseen messages, memories, confessions, and prayers?

We are conditioned to think there is some purpose to life, to change a life or leave a mark; Athazagoraphobia (the fear of being forgotten) runs in our veins. People like Einstein, Vivaldi, and Aristotle had to work hard to have their legacies preserved in times where social technology did not exist. All we need to do is write a 140 character tweet and bam, we exist.

I asked my friends these questions, and they said they wanted their social account carcasses to stay intact, more or less based on the fear of being forgotten, I’m assuming. They also admitted to, after having lost someone, keeping their number in their phone, or refusing to unfollow them on their own networks. A friend described it as a strange ghost-like feeling, like being trapped in a digital liminal when browsing through his grandparent’s pictures. Dead because they’re not here, alive because the phone says so.