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.

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

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

  1. I love the photo of you two, made me think immediately of a similar photo that was recently on my brother’s profile on Facebook (of he and I). While this wasn’t meant to be a tribute to your brother, that bits that were are beautiful, and even 20 years later, I am saddened to think you lost a wonderful part of your life and youth through his passing away.

    I’ve not had nearly as many connections with Lee, but we are connected in places and when I see her name, it always makes me pause. It will be interesting to see how the next 10 years plays out, as I don’t think anyone has a sense of how to deal with digital legacy and remembrance very well.

    This post will make me think and reflect for quite some time. Thanks for writing it.

  2. Dave – great post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and emotions. You emphasize a positive aspect of digital identity that is too often overlooked by privacy and security-focused discussions…

  3. My dad died 6 years ago this week and every so often I do a “vanity search” on his name. He was involved stuff that fortunately captured his existence even when the interweb tubes looked something like a set of fancy hamster tubes. Here is a link from a 1993 business directory that list my dad’s name, our old address, and our old home phone number that I called for the first 30 years of my life. http://www.uwcc.wisc.edu/wiscdir/insurdir.html

    Yes, one employee (him). There is something about having him pop up online when I search for him that gives me a feeling that he exits versus my ever blurring memories that he once existed.

  4. Thank you for a beautiful, thoughtful and positive blog posting. In the middle of my ernest working day, it brought tears to my eyes. I am glad your brother’s name now exists in cyberspace- that is part of the place we all live in too.
    My teenage sons told me the other day that they would never do all this reconnecting with people from the past and from their school days like us oldies are doing on FB because, they said, thanks to FB, they would never lose touch with anyone. They said their networks will just get bigger Will be interesting to see. Digital continuities?

  5. I came to know about Lee Barber through edtechtalk and i was too late to find her alive. I know her through edtechtalk community and your words and if there is one thing i would like for a human being to achieve in life is the respect people have for her. An amazing and dignified human being. RIP.

  6. Dave,
    Very thoughtful and respectful post – it reminded me of losing my own brother, who was only 42. Radiolab.org has a podcast on death, in which they mention the notion that we die 3 times – when our heart stops, when we are interred, and finally, when the last mention of our name is heard. Seems scarily relevant to our online identites – the show described the dead as lingering and longing for the last death…

  7. Lovely post – early death is so sad. Tomorrow we gather as a family to celebrate the 100th anniversary my late father’s birth. He already has digital identity on flickr but your post has encouraged me to blog our celebration a
    and amplify it.

  8. Thank you for this post. It’s made me think differently about our digital identities and how they are retained on the internet. I was very moved by your tribute to your brother. Family is so important; your family now has a fitting tribute to return to for reflection.

  9. Thanks for sharing. Reminds me a bit of Alan Levine’s story about his brother.

    I’m glad you placed a flag in the soil of the internet to mark his spot. I also love the photos on flickr.

    It’s amazing to me how you, whom I’ve never met, can write about someone I’ll never know and yet I want to know more. His life somehow matters to me.

  10. Thanks for sharing. I don’t have a brother or sister. But my cousins are close as brothers. Your sensation awakes my memory of them, when long time no see.

  11. Lovely and touching.

    1. I have a good friend I helped to set up a website as a part of his significant health challenges, including a heart transplant. It was intended to be a simple way of communicating the current news of his condition more easily than fielding a lot of phone calls. Hut he turned out to be such a brilliant writer that it’s become a wonderful chronicle of a brave man. His underlying condition means that his life will be relatively short, and it got me to wondering what will happen when the domain or hosting services expire for so many, and will Wayback Machine retain enought of it–since my own experiences there have make it seem it’s often not exhaustive.

    2. I own the domain name Wikistoria.com, and have wondered about using it to create a wiki that allows for the posting of personal biographies that wouldn’t meet Wikistoria’s source standards. I thought it might even be a great curricular project–a way of recording those histories that don’t know have digital identities?

    Thanks for bringing these thoughts up.

  12. Thanks everyone. It’s nice to share someone who was such a significant part of me becoming who i am with all of you.

    I am seriously starting to wonder about the stewardship of digital identity. Who cultivates our digital graves when we leave?

  13. My immediate connection to the first few paragraphs here was the death of a best friend and colleague a few years ago of a stroke at the age of 41 on a school day morning.

    I think the year was 2004… and the thing that got to me that year, and several since was her name prominently in my cell phone and email address books.

    This was happening at the steep climb toward web2, and I realized then (and pondered it often) that we would never really leave the physical world in the same way again.

    Now that I think of it, I have been terribly lucky to have not lost anyone near me with even a shred of digital presence since that time. Dena Bachman left a cell phone number on my phone. I can’t really yet imagine how hard it will be to deal with even deeper digital connections.

    While I believe it will be a really positive thing in most respects… it will just be different.

    Thanks for using your blog as more than just a way to share nifty new websites. Those of us with a heartbeat certainly appreciate it.

    Sean

  14. A beautiful post; thankyou. You know, some people look down on what they consider as a ‘self-prostitution’ of online writing, especially if it contains personal references. I think this is snobbism. If a person ‘makes it’ to the news on TV, radio, newspaper or magazine then it’s wow! Blogging and microblogging has taken people’s identity to a broader audience in a more democratic way. I often wish we had film of our family from my childhood. Memories are there but they fade. It would be nice to look back and have a record of the past.

  15. Thanks for a positive post about online identity. It is important to see the positive side of the footsteps we leave in cyberspace along with the negative.

  16. Wow this is beautiful. As we age preservation is so important. I too lost a brother this coming year will be twenty years. Have his voice, photos, videos, his thoughts available would have been made the mourning process easier. It would have made it easier to visit a private to listen to him again, see him as he would want to be seen.

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