WHEN DEATH DEPENDS ON NETWORKED INFORMATION
Keywords:Death studies, necropolitics, networked information, mortality data, memory
AbstractOne of the founding stories of the United States centers on Patrick Henry’s 1775 declaration “give me liberty, or give me death” on the floor of the Second Virginia Convention where war with Britain was being debated (Cohen, 1981). A similar sentiment is part of several national origin stories including the 1320 Declaration of Scottish Independence, which may have been an inspiration for Henry, and Greece’s national motto of “Liberty or Death,” which was the rallying cry in the 1820 Greek War of Independence. In each instance the suggestion is that independence will be achieved either through successful revolution or death. But in our modern networked cultures, what kind of independence can be found in death? This panel takes up the AoIR 2021 Independence theme by considering how our information and communication technologies are entangled with the end of human life, both at individual and community levels. Our case studies focus primarily on the United States and is deeply invested in considering practices that are evolving in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the ongoing HIV/AIDS pandemic, and the long epidemic of police killings of people of color in the U.S. In each of these long events, we are witnessing a myriad of efforts to collect mortality data and render it in ways that make sense of scales of loss. But questions about digital afterlives, networked and remixed loss, and proprietary control over digital remains complicates the foundational narratives of liberty through death and enrolls our dead in practices of nation formation even when those very lives were rendered expendable by the nation-state. At the same time, these practices are an important part of the problematic narrative that nothing dies on the internet, where deaths can circulate as undead memes and commodified data streams. The papers on this panel examine the intersection of data management and speculative death (life insurance, mortality tables, pandemic statistics, counting the dead or potential dead) and death care management (personal digital archives, maintenance work, kinship ties, digital estate planning/mortuary rites, memorialization). As interdisciplinary scholars from Library and Information Science, Science and Technology Studies, and media history, we interrogate the historical, sociotechnical, and cultural aspects of sorting and caring for the dead through networked information. How are people, institutions, and infrastructures working to make sense of and account for the dead on both individual and collective scales? In what ways do histories of racialized and gendered surveillance and violence impact the treatment of the dead when it comes to both digital and physical remains? Major digital platforms and tech companies are increasingly at the center of memorialization and mourning practices, both building on and transforming the ways that these longer histories inform mortuary politics. All four papers show how institutions and individuals are using digital media and networked information— from mortality data and barcodes affixed to coffins to social media memorials and crowdfunding platforms—to assess, track, memorialize, and otherwise manage the dead. We pay particularly close attention to the ways that race, gender, sexuality, immigration status, and citizenship affect how the dead are counted and remembered. We trace the history of technologies used to assess risk and manage mortality, comparing recent COVID-19 related developments to previous crises or pandemics and to longer histories of deathcare management as data management, including the history of the life insurance industry, mortality tables, and surveillance, from chattel slavery to contemporary predictive policing. In the 21st century the majority of these practices have transitioned to online and networked spaces, even as they continue to create social networks of information and ritual. Despite digital technologies being offered as a “solution” to the problem of death, our disparate case studies show how digital systems tend to reinforce existing structural inequalities, thereby troubling any sense that independence from violent social formations exists even in death. Cohen, Charles (October 1981). "The 'Liberty or Death' Speech: A Note on Religion and Revolutionary Rhetoric". The William and Mary Quarterly. 38 (4): 702–717.
How to Cite
Wernimont, J., Kneese, T., Sutherland, T., & Cifor4, M. (2021). WHEN DEATH DEPENDS ON NETWORKED INFORMATION. AoIR Selected Papers of Internet Research, 2021. https://doi.org/10.5210/spir.v2021i0.12111