Freud’s work, Mourning and Melancholia (1916) introduced new ways of thinking about the structure of the mind, our relationship to others and how we process the experience of loss. Yesterday, listening to a podcast by BBC World Service, I came to realize that, pretty soon, these very human and inevitable experiences of loss and way of mourning, may be profoundly transformed by technology. As we live much of our lives online these days, the digital world is becoming increasingly important after death. I learned that around the world, there is a growing number of companies managing the online profiles of people after they’ve gone and even sending messages that seemingly come from beyond the grave.
The BBC reporter played a message of a computer generated hologram looking and sounding like the late lawyer Robert Kardashian, created as a present to his daughter Kim to mark her 40th birthday. It was, in her words, “a memory that would last a lifetime”. The hologram resurrection divided public opinion on social media: to some it was a powerful and extraordinary idea, to others a bit creepy.
Although we are used to traditional social media being about here and now, the resurrection of one’s object of love enabled by technology is more about nostalgia of the lost and creating new memories that will last and be around for generations to come. The need for something like this now, makes me think of the pandemic. People are not only living online but are also dying and grieving online because sometimes the only possibility of connection with ill or dying loved ones is remote. But the remoteness of death is only apparent. In fact, people are really having the fact of an other’s (and ultimately their own) mortality put in their faces in a much more consistent basis than it used to be. Death, like in wars, or other pandemic periods that represented a real (not symbolic) and immediate threat to life, became, more than ever, present. With a death so real and closer than one can tolerate, we can easily understand the digital resurrection of a loved one as a movement away from the fear of the unknown and an urge to a digital celebration of after-life.
Freud, S. (1916). On the history of the psycho-analytic movement, papers on metapsychology and other works. In J. Strachey (Ed. and Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 14). London: Hogarth Press.