Dark Tourism Isn’t New

In reading this article, I was generally confused to the arguments and points that it was trying to make. While the abstract does state its intended purpose as “an attempt to explore and understand tour guides’ interpretations of tourist’s experiences . . . at Chernobyl”, I struggle overall with the concept of “dark” and “toxic” tourism. I simply fail to see how either term appears to be anything special or different from tourism that has already been defined.

In my opinion, the idea of “dark tourism” and its implicit inappropriateness is something that is being socially cultivated but with little actual substance. I understand how a cohort of individuals who deliberately seek out sites of mass suffering and death can be disturbing but as a tourist industry I do not see how we can make a distinction between such “dark” tourism or tourism of a place such as Pompeii. My grandfather recently took a trip to Pompeii and when he returned he was eager to send pictures around the family. I saw images of the ruins with detailed tourist filled descriptions and viewed photos of petrified bodies and homes with my grandfather standing next to them looking somber but nothing “dark” such as the idea of perverted “dark” would suggest.

How is one supposed to make the distinction between the “dark” tourism of Chernobyl, a site of mass casualty estimated at about 600,000, and that of Pompeii’s ruins? In my opinion, the distinction is made by society because we are much more uncomfortable with Chernobyl due to its proximity to us within our time stream and our lives. There are many people who are alive who witnessed the event and thus this has been sanctioned as a place of mass death creating a foreboding location lending credence to the thought of it being a “dark” tourist site. While I understand this notion and feeling, I find it wrong to deem it as some new form of tourism because humanity has been visiting sites of mass death for so long. From Pompeii to Auschwitz to Normandy, tourism of places of mass death is nothing new. Of course the idea that members of the public are deliberately seeking out places of suffering is extremely uncomfortable, the reality is that it is difficult to make such a wide reaching claim about tourism in general to Chernobyl and thus to deem it as a “dark” tourist site is incorrect.

The Ethics of Dark Tourism

When I was reading the article on Chernobyl and “dark tourism,” one of the first things that struck me was just how little I know about Chernobyl beyond its role in media as a creepy, dangerous, yet fascinating place to visit. I hadn’t noticed it before, but almost all (or actually all) of my extremely limited knowledge of the Chernobyl disaster came from the few interactions I’d had with heavily dramatized movies or other fictionalized forms of media about this historical event. I realize that this event occurred almost a decade before I was born and I never learned about it in school or anything, but that’s particularly why the media was my one source of information about the Chernobyl accident. In the Yankovska and Hannam article, something that particularly stuck out to me was this fascination with death and tragedy that some people have when it comes to dark tourism, even to the point of personally interacting with the local residents of the site where the tragedy happened, in this case the tour guides’ family members, in order for these tourists to gain some sort of satisfaction that they have heard the “real” story.

Continuing with this theme, the article states that “the media has made the site of the Chernobyl exclusion zone even ‘more tragic’ and ‘exciting’ for tourists” (936), which I think has only furthered the exploitation of this place (and others like it) and the people who have lived and had experiences there, especially when the tour guides and their families feel like they have to embellish their own stories for the entertainment of their visitors. I don’t think that every instance of dark tourism is necessarily harmful; I just think that people should be more aware of their intentions when they are entering a place like Chernobyl (or other memorials, like we discussed when we talked about Yolocaust) that has a tragic history for a lot of people.

Weighing Dark Tourism

The Yankovska and Hannam article about dark and toxic tourism spends some time examining, or at least talking around, the ethics of dark tourism. It divides dark tourists into two groups — the younger tourists who are thrill-seekers, drawn to the closeness the sites provide to death, the eerie, and the morbid, and the older tourists who visit to learn about and pay their respects to tragedy. There’s no outright condemnation of the former type of tourist, but the language certainly suggests that this type of tourism is lesser somehow, or dirtier.

I think this kind of moralizing is unproductive. It seems most of the tour guides interviewed for the piece agree with me (though I suppose their inclusivity could be attributed to a desire for the visits of any and all tourists for their own monetary gain). What they volunteer is that despite a tourist’s initial motivation for visiting a place like Chernobyl, they go away having learned something.

One tour guide said, “this trip into the heart of the disaster and its surroundings makes everyone more conscious about the consequences and a need to volunteer for the suffered one.” In other words, it’s an empathy booster that could lead to action in the face of the next tragedy, as well as a warning of the tragedies we set up with our advancement.

Another tour guide said, those who visit some of the most gruesome sites “want to understand the price others paid for their life, understand human sacrifice and feel inspired for heroism in their life.” Surface level curiosity about the morbid might actually be a desire for deeper understanding of the human psyche.

In short, I don’t think there’s any reason to try to discern whether it’s right or wrong to visit “dark tourism” sites. They exist in commemoration of events that have transpired, and we have things to learn from any event.

personal anecdotes and anticapitalist railing

The first things that this article made me realize is that I have actually participated in quite a lot of dark tourism. Yankovska and Hannam’s use of the term ‘ghost town’ struck me, because I have specifically toured ghost towns in the Southwest with my family. Most of them follow the same general narrative – a mineral or metal was found, a mining community built up, the mineral was mined out, the mine closed, and the people left. Some ghost towns we visited had people living off the tourism, but others were truly abandoned. Rather than focus on the technological failure that Chernobyl embodies, these ghost towns represent the death of civilization because our technology works too well to fulfill our capitalist needs.

Another experience I’ve had with dark tourism took place while my sister and I were visiting Berlin in our teens—we were having lunch with one of my mom’s friends when we mentioned we were going to visit the graves of the Grimm brothers. My mother’s friend informed us that her husband was buried at the same graveyard. My sister and I were immediately contrite, uncomfortable in how we had conceptualized a space as a fun tourist destination, when in reality, it had a concrete impact on someone’s life. My sister and I knew how difficult the husband’s death had been on my mother’s friend and her son, and we felt we trivialized that pain in our quest for a cultural and historical experience. I’m sure I could tie that feeling to the toxic tourism in Chernobyl, in that visceral gut reaction of disgust regarding anyone who would participate.

Though the article does not engage with it, I found several implicit mentions of exploitation in the concept of Chernobyl tourism. The economic position of the tour guides combined with the assumed wealth of the tourists puts the tour guides in a very uncomfortable position. They have to present their pain and loss to the tourists who exploit it either for a thrill or for pity. The article mentions ‘environmental tourism,’ a specific form of tourism that I think is especially ripe for exploitation. The bourgeoisie is able to visit spaces of environmental and social degradation, imagine the catastrophe, and then leave, providing little economic or social compensation for those who must remain behind.

(photos pilfered from my sister’s facebook)

Peculiar Pripyat

Thinking about it, the dark tourism that the Chernobyl area attracts is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. The Chernobyl incident is one that while I myself have never experienced, but have heard about via various mediums, including TV, movies, and especially video games. I’m sure this is a similar story for many people my age, only aware of the tragic events thanks to fictional adaptations of Chernobyl. Thanks to these adaptations, we become mystified with the tragedy of the place and we want to see these tragedies for ourselves. I will admit, if given the opportunity to explore the ruins of Chernobyl, I almost certainly would go, partly because of the mystery it’s imbued into my psyche.

However, I feel as though I must recognize the not completely unreasonable comparison made in the paper of people traveling to New Orleans to tour the destruction of the city after Hurricane Katrina. The idea certainly sickens me to a degree, as the suffering of human beings and the loss of their homes should really be on the bottom of everyone’s “Great Vacations” list. But why does Pripyat draw out my imagination in a way few other places could?

My bet’s on radiation. I’m not just saying this because I used radiation as a major theme in my Haunted Media project, but because I genuinely believe it to be true. For whatever reason, the general populace seems to be fearfully mystified by radiation and the ill tidings it brings with it. This fear, while pushing us away from radiation’s actual reach, draws us into the edges, as us humans try to peek inside and see exactly what radiation does. It’s a strange communion that we have, one that to this day still terrifies me but commands my respect.

Side note: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fantastic level of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, where you must traverse through Pripyat to eliminate a target.

Mac Tonnies and Cyberspacial Relationships

The story of Mac Tonnies and his death is certainly tragic but the experience and what has been felt and understood by those he left upon this mortal plane lends itself to something greater. His constant blogging had developed a tight knit community that were only rendered stronger together in his absence. The article addresses the mass of 250 comments that were left upon the blog by members of the direct community that considered Tonnies a close friend.

It is especially interesting in that these same members are grieving together over a fallen friend in the same manner that anyone would mourn a next door neighbor and yet many of them had never met the man in person. Grieving parties such as Plattner and Sobin take their own time to propagate Tonnies’ image and maintain aspects of his digital personality post death in remembrance of their loss in the same way that family members may maintain a deceased’s home. It is really intriguing in that their grief and maintenance takes place in the cyberspace because that is where their relationship existed. They shared digital relationships that were only formed through the power of technology and thus it is only fitting that their grief also be formed in that same space.

Viewing digitized grief and the shared experience of community mourning as emulated forms of physical grief of traditional communities causes one to question the idea of cyberspace and its purpose. It is often viewed that one ought to lay off technology and engage with the “real world”. While I totally understand the need to experience face to face interaction and human connection, that is doing a disservice to the power of social media and the relationships formed upon numerous platforms. Tonnies’ story is a perfect example of this characterization as it is clear the raw power and emotion behind these digitized relationships in the way that the community of blog followers mourn his death. The grief that is both represented as well as empowered by technology appear to exemplify the powerful connections formed with technology and it seems wrong to denigrate these relationships as being “not real” simply because individuals have never met in the physical world. In today’s world cyberspace is just as real as the physical spaces we inhabit and thus the feelings and emotions attached to it are authentic as well. No better case of the true feelings empowered by technology can be seen than Mac Tonnies and the death of his physical self and the impact it had upon his digital self and its relationships.

I Don’t Remember Agreeing to be Watched by You

I was taken by the “psychological study” described in Senemar’s article where Facebook researchers manipulated the emotional tone of the posts Facebook users saw to observe how they would respond. This seems like a hugely inappropriate invasion of privacy. Outside the digital world, you have to fill out all sorts of waivers to be a subject in an experiment. As a researcher, you have to be intentional about getting the consent of your subjects, and as a subject, you have the right to say no. It’s very sinister feeling that the only consent Facebook needs to experiment on you is your creating a profile on their website.

I certainly did not read Facebook’s terms and conditions before clicking the button to certify I had when I signed up for the website at age 14. The percentage of users who did has to be incredibly small. But I’m willing to bet that even if I’d clicked on that link and read the conditions I was agreeing to I would have missed the loopholes that allows Facebook to manipulate its users like lab-rats. That has to be something Facebook wants to obscure, because it’s creepy.

Facebook’s failure (or more accurately, “intentional neglect” – they KNOW nobody reads their terms) to explicitly ask users for permission to engage in such experimentation is unsettling because it removes the humanity from the researchers. Being the subject of a test where you can interact with the people manipulating you is somehow less terrifying than being unconsciously manipulated by your computer screen. We can’t see the programmers behind the algorithm that makes everything we see on Facebook sad, and if they never ask permission to do that to us, we’re even further removed from them. Technology does what technology wants. Researchers get to hide behind technology, and it makes them less accountable.

Why Not Fade Away?

The commercialization of digital remains has become increasingly clear as we continue to probe various articles regarding online memorials and grieving. Who is benefiting from data remaining online? Once the bereaved stop paying, the data will, in many cases, disappear. While I understand why someone would want to keep a dead loved one’s Facebook page for a few years to grieve and return to when wanting to hear the deceased’s “voice,” does the page have to continue for longer than a generation? Before we or the government figure out how to deal with digital remains, I think we first have to decide if such data is an inheritable object or a memorial, since I think the transfer of ownership has a large impact on what happens to our data.

If the deceased is no longer benefitting from the existence of their digital life, why should money continue to be paid to tech companies? The attitude of tech companies is likely similar to their reaction to the Gonzalez case, in which Google refused to accept how indexing and providing certain data is a kind of power that goes beyond just “creation” of data. What ideological goals can companies have outside of pure capitalist gain? If our data doesn’t belong to us, that seems to make the quest for a digital afterlife much more unattainable.

The bots, of course, are the most troubling part of these articles, similar to how we were troubled by Be Right Back. What if data that the bot is working with is racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive? How do we apply ethics to such a situation, even if the deceased’s loved ones still want to interact with the bot. What if the bot reads racism, sexism, etc. onto the online identity of a person, which may not be accurate?

All of these questions lead me to think that a digital legacy, outside of those special cases like Tonnies, might be best to just fade into oblivion. I certainly have not created enough online to put in the effort into ensuring its survival for long after I die, and I wonder how much of such efforts are narcissism.

Yes, There Should Be a “Right to Be Forgotten”

Google needs to stop complaining. They already engage in a number of unethical data practices (in my estimation) such as selling off your data and search results to companies who then target you with ads. They also are in the process of feeding incredible amounts of data from the internet to its artificial intelligence programs. They are a for-profit business, and while I do not see an issue with that, they also should stop complaining when people ask them to consider taking down non-germane, old, and unflattering search results.


One of our articles for class Friday, “What Happens to Your Data When You Die?” talks about how the Supreme Court of the EU ruled that individuals have a “right to be forgotten” and that Google is, in fact, responsible not only for the data that comes up in results but the order in which that data appears as well. Google claims they are just a “card catalog,” but the article dismantles that claim and the misleading neutrality of that term. Even if they are just a catalog or newsstand, Google and its algorithms still determine the order in which results are presented. To claim that they or their results are value-neutral is laughable.


Google acts as if its some backbreaking imposition to have to review individual complaints or requests for certain search results to be removed or scrubbed. Given how much Google takes from us (the article describes the relationship between Google and users as “feudal”) I hardly think it is too much to ask of Google for it to consider taking down unflattering results that fall under the “right to be forgotten.” Data under that category is defined by the EU Supreme Court as “inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant.”


As we are living in an era in which one single tweet or post among the thousands we have generated over the course of our lives can end our careers or decimate our social standing, I believe those who have learned from their mistakes or whose mistakes happened so long ago that they no longer matter should be able to move along with their lives. Courts expunge criminal records all the time. Google should do the same. The decision to request a search result be removed still requires initiative from an individual who is displeased with said search result. I do not believe we should force Google to review all of its search results and determine which deserve to be eliminated under the “right to be forgotten.” That would be an unfair task, and, for all intents and purposes, it would be impossible. Nevertheless, if a user submits a request for Google to review a search result and asks that they consider removing it, that is more than reasonable in my estimation. Google takes far more from us than it gives back. The right to be forgotten is a necessary first step in rectifying that imbalance.

The Audible Past and Digital Immortality

When reading an excerpt from James Sterne’s The Audible Past, one is immediately struck by the sophistication of his ideas. In the chapter titled “The Resonant Tomb”, he dives very deep into the history of the gramophone as well as the origins of sound recording utilizing a deeply scientific and anthropological approach. The biggest takeaway that I found from reading such a detailed analysis of sound recording was his differentiation between the interior and exterior. Sterne’s notions of sound recording simply mimicking the exterior aspects of a person as a figment of their physical being while lacking the interior matter or soul of a person is quite striking.

Something that I found a heavy connection with is the piece we read about Hossein Rahnama and his Augmented Eternity program. To me, the idea of sound simply replicating the vocal chords and outputs of a person is very important when thinking about Augmented Eternity because it makes you question what you are really getting. Rahnama has notions of utilizing his program to be a decision making assistant with the sound and makeup of the deceased but Sterne and his argument of the Resonant Tomb disputes this. For Sterne, sound recording is simply just the preservation of an exterior part of a person and because I agree with him, I question the notion of selling a program that can replicate a person’s vocal patterns and voice. At the end of the day, you would really be receiving the an external part of a person while believing to receive the internal component as well. It is due to what Sterne has defined as the Resonant Tomb that it appears that any attempts to replicate simple voices or sound for practical and fulfilling purposes are ill-fated.

An additional point that I found interesting from Sterne comes from page 297 where he speaks to the exteriority of voice recording and its “potential to perform its social function.” This just makes me think of the ways that dead musicians and their voices have been recently repurposed and used by other artists. Examples such as Lil Wayne using unreleased tracks from the murdered XXXTentacion for his song “Don’t Cry” or Justin Timberlake’s re-purposing of Prince during his halftime show spring to mind. Sterne alludes to this idea of voice recording simply being used for social function and I find that he is right on the money. These recordings of the deceased while labeled as touching tribute also have weight of the financial gain that those who utilize them receive. All in all, a recording is simply an exterior fragment of a person who was made of much more internal thoughts and feelings that they can no longer control or represent in death.