Identity, memory, death and the internet

Lofty title perhaps, but a topic that I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last year + since our excellent colleague, Lee Baber died of lung cancer. A shining light that woman… and one that I’m reminded of every week. Not just in the legacy of good work and good friends that she left behind, but also on the internet. Her name is everywhere. I’ve got her in my skype account, still, she’s in my gmail memory thingy, she’s in a half dozen of my friends lists on different sites. If you a google search for me, or edtechtalk or, well, or alot of things, you’ll see her name. The page linked to above is a fine example of that… a fine person through the eyes of her colleagues. A memorial, like many others created over millenia, it’s just that this one has a different medium than most of its predecessors.

Identity is, for me, things being identical over time. When i think of my own identity i look for those things that are the same in two different incarnations or timestamps and calls those things identical. To say that there is no identity is to say that things aren’t the same, and to look at someone’s identity is to look for those things that are the same over the period you are looking at. The internet makes this both more complicated and less so. There is a sense where it crystalizes your performance of yourself and makes it possible to measure if two performances are identical, and while all things might be performance, it is difficult to think that the premeditated performance mediated through the internet somehow encompasses a ‘person.’

That being said, we are creating this identity in little bits all the time. We leave little trails of ourselves in different places only for them to crystalize when we stop feeding the beast. In Lee’s case… that was her very rapid, sudden death. No time to wrap things up or ‘set things straight’ we are left with a snapshot of her work the day she stopped doing it. There is the possibility for remixing, for reshuffling, for her projects to grow (and this is happening in some cases) but the image we have of her is crystalized in a way that is unique to our particular period in history.

When we talk about students putting ‘stuff on the internet that will stay with them for the rest of their lives’ we sometimes forget, i think, that in our local communities the stuff we do stays with us for the rest of our lives. Our communities allow for growth, they all for things to no longer be identical, for new patterns of behaviour to emerge, for new things to be identical. We adapt for the fact that people ‘grow out of things’ that there is a time and place for each kind of thing. We will, as a culture, adapt to this new memory that we have, this digital memory, and we will no longer worry about such things (any more than we do about the silly things we’ve done in our childhoods are anything more than an injoke in our hometowns (depending :) )

Me and my older brother
Dave Cormier and Stephen Cormier
Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of my older brother’s death. Stephen Cormier was, in my memory, the older brother that little boys dream of. He taught me things, brought me along to the drive even though his girlfriend was going, taught me some tricks with a three-wheeler i probably shouldn’t have known… 8 years older than me, he died at the now ridiculously sounding young age of 22. He was very old and mature to me at the time, but he died 12 years younger than I am now. I remember him mostly in a series of film clips now (or so i described it to bon last night) the time we flipped that three-wheeler and i tried to hide the full length calf bruise from my parents, that drive in, wrestling in the drive way. But i still remember.

Just not in a digital way. Not with the 1600 http://flickr.com/opoe + photos bon and I already have posted of our kids. The video http://youtube.com/davecormier . The incredible blog posts over at http://cribchronicles.com. Our grandkids will, barring a worldwide meltdown, KNOW their parents and grandparents in a way that we never did. Identity… particularly in this sense of being able to see how two things are the same over time… and how they are different, is a far more present concept.

I don’t and never have until the last couple of days, thought about his digital identity. About the fact that, for whatever i do online, I have never mentioned that name “stephen cormier” in a blog post or a tweet. His name, to my searching, didn’t exist anywhere. It got me to thinking about Lee and about the good and the bad of our identities online. About the concern that some people have about what kinds of things that people post and how i often warn people that they should be cultivating their online identities. There is a longer, more human thing at work here that I’m reaching for. There is a sense in which we are storing the memories of ourselves, of our friends, of the ways that we are all connected to each other. Of our love.

So. 20 years later. This is my flag in the ground for my long lost brother. cheers.

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63 thoughts on “Identity, memory, death and the internet

  1. Inspiring post. My oldest brother died at 30 (kidney failure) and his 3 kids don’t have memories of him. We didn’t reminisce or share stories because my mom was all Scarlett O’Hara about it (I won’t deal with it today – maybe tomorrow)and my dad turned him into a saint (someone we didn’t know and wouldn’t have loved). Now that both of our parents have passed, my other brother and I should give him a digital identity. I see him every day in my children but his descendants can’t see him in their children.

  2. It’s a post like this that makes the question of identity and sharing far more complex, difficult, and poetic than anything we can dream of in 1 and 0s It’s a form of narrative that has a new sense of linearity and time, and no story or memory is more powerful than that of loss, but the abilty to frame loss in more ways than sorrow and anger is the poetry here. So thanks, I haven’t been able to blog directly about my mother’s death, which is nearly three years on now for a variety of reasons, mainly I haven;t dealt with it, but herein lies the means to start erecting a memory shrine for those that meant so much to us. In many ways blogging about the little things, like toys, is blogging about past one is trying to recapture because of the people that brought any object, as isolated as it may seem, into a living and breathing relationship with those we love.

    Thanks for this, it is a powerful meditation on our moment that moves well beyond the very focused questions and issues we often get trapped within.

  3. I lost a brother when I was just a kid – I was only 4, he was 10 (I think) and hit by a hit-and-run drunk driver.

    I don’t remember my brother at all. I’ve realized any memories I have of him are just shadows of photographs displayed in darkened corners. Stories retold by my parents years later.

    I wonder how things might be, had he left more of a trace. If he’d written, or drawn, or photographed, or anything that produced artifacts that could then help me to feel what he was. (sure, he was only 10, but my 6 year old has had several orders of magnitude more media recording his life than my brother ever did)

    He’s gone. I’ll never really know anything about him.

    My father in law died last christmas. He had a few scattered photographs of his childhood and early years, but that’s about it. Much of his history went to the grave with him.

    When I die, my son (and his, etc…) will know something about me. They’ll know something about my son’s childhood. They’ll know from several perspectives, from documentary and real life snapshots of who we were. Who we are. What will this mean to them, in the decades to come? I don’t know. But I’d rather have a few gigabytes of stuff to sift through, than struggling to remember anything of a brother now lost forever.

  4. Hi Dave … just came across this post today and have to tell you just how much it meant to me. I just finished up a visit with a brother who didn’t pass away, but has been away for over 25 years. He’s come back into my life in a very strange way — I’ve now seen him twice in a span of 25 years. Your post pushes me further towards attempting to make sense of those new interactions. I know pieces of my own identity is tied up in all of it somehow.

    On the other hand, the post itself raises amazing questions and makes me want to think more critically of the time we spend sharing things online. What all this means is so radically different than it did merely ten years ago — I am now able to preserve my words like “real” authors … perhaps they’ll be read by my children someday, perhaps not. Either way, the footsteps we leave in the snow are, at some level, being preserved like never before. I guess I’ve spent most of my time thinking about how all of our artifacts add up to something, when I shouldn’t really worry about that. One phrase, one tweet, one picture, or one movie may hold the hidden secret for someone looking for answers about my life someday — and I’ve become my own archivist and curator. Somehow all of our sharing and connecting online just got more important to me.

    Again, thanks for a wonderfully insightful and touching post.

  5. Thought-provoking, lovely post, Dave. Thank you.

    I have struggled these past few months with some of the questions you raise here about our digital identities, so much so, in fact, that I pop onto Twitter from time to time, and post photos to Flickr (almost never of my family), but no longer blog. I want to live intensely in my senses in my head and heart without cluttering up the air with so much stuff, so much ephemera.

    I have lost dear ones. I never Google them. I choose to remember them through our shared experiences, through the fragments of artifacts they have left, until for whatever reason, they slip away. That seems right to me. The rhythms of the generations, the slim echoes of family traits and shards of stories of who they were finally fading into the earth. How strange to have everything here, recorded, to WATCH.

    As a child (yes, I suppose I was strange) I collected old photographs of people and spectacles and vintage clothes as bits of people’s lives, but lives unknown to me. I loved imagining their stories without being yoked to fact. I have a huge box of photos from my mother’s family–I have no idea who half those people are. But that’s kind of wonderful in my book. I like the thought of the thread of identity weaving itself through time, but then it is released, or at least it fades or is loosened from the tethers of circumstance.

  6. Hi Dave

    I have just found your article on identity, memory, death and the internet.

    I am doing some work at the moment researching attitudes to death and dying in Scotland. I am organising a forum day at St Mungos museum in Glasgow where I will invite some speakers to help the participants explore various aspects – ‘the evolution of grief’ ‘imaging death – what is the taboo?’ etc

    I wonder if there might be a way of including a contribution from yourself on the topic of death and the internet – internet memorials…?

    Some folk are recording a presentation on video which I will use on the day… maybe skype would be possible…? … interested?

  7. I just stumbled across your blog whilst doing research about our online identity for a University essay.

    I had to leave a comment to let you know how compelling I found your writing and just how true so many of the points you make are.

    Thank you for such an insightful look on the internet today.

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