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.

Anthropological Sound (and other thoughts)

Sterne casually mentions early on in his chapter the way in which a recorded voice is abstracted from the body, similar to our definition of the abject as something which once belonged to the body now existing outside of it. Though I don’t think we consider the recorded voice to be abject at this point, the idea of a voice recording existing while the voice box which gave rise to those sounds rots in the ground merits further contemplation.

I was originally very skeptical of voice recordings aimed at an imagined future audience, mainly for reasons of human pride and narcissism I feel must be inherent in such a recording. However, I remember in one of my classes last semester we listened to a recording of a black Southern woman as part of our examination of Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological work. Hurston (one of Franz Boas’s mentees) recorded this woman herself, and the existence of this recording allows us to now examine Hurston’s use of dialect in comparison to how people actually spoke (and find that Hurston’s work was incredibly accurate and thorough). Some of Hurston’s recordees had also been enslaved and the phonograph gave them a method in which to tell their own story on their terms. As with Fewkes’s research, there is a sense of time stripping away this opportunity. Hurston’s method was to use her positionality as a Southern black woman to ingratiate herself into the communities where she was performing ethnographies, so I wonder how her recordings compare to those of Fletcher and Fewkes in terms of constructed and only external nature. Regardless, when we consider anthropological work, clearly the voice beyond the grave has intellectual and academic merit beyond self-important postulating.

To say that sound reproduction is both hypertemporalized and detemporalized, as well as storing time itself is very theoretical, but makes me think of how I use song recordings to tell time in my life. For example, when I shower, I track how long I take by how many songs I’ve listened to (assuming most songs are between three and four minutes as has become the standard) (another interesting investigation might be into why this time length is so popular). I also demarcate certain periods of my life by what song I was listening to on repeat (do not ask about the month where all I listened to was Landslide). I wonder how we can connect the despacialization of sound/communication as introduced by the telegram and phone and the detemporalization of sound as introduced by the phonograph.

On the Interiority/Exteriority of Voice Recording

Jonathan Sterne’s “A Resonant Tomb” likens voice recording to the embalming of a corpse, a comparison I don’t understand or with which I disagree. Sterne writes extensively about exteriority vs. interiority in methods of preservation – embalmment is concerned with preserving the exterior of the body instead of the inside – and uses this as the primary link between embalming and sound recording. He asserts that while “speech is traditionally considered as both interior and exterior,” recorded voices, especially of the departed, “no longer emanate from bodies that serve as containers for self-awareness,” and by that token, retain “none of [their] interior self-awareness” (290). His argument seems to be that the interiority of a voice lies in its point of origin – if it is no longer linked to a body, it has lost its core.

What about voices we hear when we can’t see the speaker, then? When we are too short to see the lecturer over the heads of the people standing in front of us? Is the speech any less substantial for us than for those who can see the body from which the voice is produced?

Later, examining the painting His Master’s Voice, Sterne writes, “when we see a dog listening to a gramophone, we understand that the important issue is the sound of the voice, not what was said, since dogs are known for heeding the voices of their masters more often than their words” (303). The painting is heartbreaking because we imagine the dog recognizing the voice of his master from beyond the grave, and not understanding his absence. Another of Sterne’s anecdotes mentions a priest who recorded a sermon for his own funeral. He begins to cry at the end of his recording, after preaching, and the sound “caused a shudder of horror among those who were present” (303).

These qualities, I think, are the core of voice, a true interiority that is not lost in recording: our ability to find identity in a voice, and its ability to manipulate our emotions. In Sterne’s closing summary, he writes that voice recording “does not preserve a preexisting sonic event as it happens so much as it creates and organizes sonic events for the possibility of preservation and repetition” (332). Perhaps the emotional burden of hearing the dead priest’s eulogy, for someone hearing it in person before he was dead, would have been different from the burden on someone present at the funeral. In this way, the sonic event has not been duplicated, per say. However, the voice still has the power to affect powerful emotion, which I think is proof of some eternal interiority in sound.

Sonic Memories

I know this idea of grasping for a sort of immortality in technology all too well, I fear. To avoid a sob story of sorts I’ll skip details, but last year my grandmother died after a surgery. While the initial reaction was likely similar to every death of a grandparent who was far away, what struck me when reading A Resonant Tomb was how much it reminded me of my mother as she grieved for the death of hers.

A few days after my mother came home from handling my grandmother’s affairs, my mother approached me with my grandmother’s cellphone, asking how to pull my grandmother’s voicemail message onto a computer so she could save it. My mother is also an aspiring videographer, and wanted to save my grandmother’s voice so she may use it in later videos.

What I think is special about this is we now no longer run into the problem of the phonograph’s lackluster recording quality, as a digital audio file is a bit-for-bit exact copy of the speaker’s voice. Archival-quality recording material is no longer needed, as the voice file could be put onto a CD, a flash drive, or maybe even the cloud. But then this raises a question similar to the one Be Right Back was asking, is this extended preservation good for you?

This ability to hear someone as if they were sitting next to you, despite their death years ago is a definite double-edged sword. A person can be memorialized, using their voice to remind those who love them of whatever goodness they left in the world. A musician’s best music can be immortalized and can influence generations beyond merely the time they were alive. But also this constant, true-to-life reminder of loss could also cause someone to become stuck in a more comfortable past, one where they don’t have to face the harsh realities that await them when they take off their headphones.

Hearing the Voices of the Dead

When reading “A Resonant Tomb,” with all of the focus on preserving someone’s voice beyond their death, I was reminded of characters in films and television shows such as Cole in M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 film The Sixth Sense or Klaus in the new Netflix show The Umbrella Academy. Both of these characters can “see dead people,” as Cole says in that famous scene, but what seems to be more frightening to them is not only the visual aspect of being able to see ghosts, but more so the fact that they can also hear these dead people speaking (or weeping or screaming or whatever the case may be).

In Jonathan Sterne’s article, he writes that sound recording was “aiming for the preservation of the voice in such a form that it may continue to perform a social function” (297). This reminded me of the two examples mentioned above since, in the case of The Sixth Sense and The Umbrella Academy, the dead characters speaking to Cole and Klaus are doing so in order to pass on some sort of message to those who are still living or to gain peace so they can move on to the afterlife. Furthermore, later in the reading, Sterne examines the painting His Master’s Voice (aptly, the cover image for this unit of our class), stating that “When we see a dog listening to a gramophone, we understand that the important issue is the sound of the voice, not what was said” (303). The same is true for both Cole and Klaus; what is alarming is not necessarily what the ghosts are saying, but rather the fact that they are hearing the voice of someone that no one else can. This implies that Cole and Klaus won’t stop being haunted by the dead beings until they rectify their situations and allow the ghosts to be at peace with their deaths. 

Finally, on a deeper level, sound is obviously a major part of visual and audio media such as films and TV shows, and therefore the actors who play and voice these characters are embodied and stored in time. After all, no matter how many times you watch a movie or video or how many years it has been since it was created, the people within that video exist within a “carefully bounded frame” of “repeatable time,” in the words of Sterne (310). In this way, sound recording, films, and television gives us the opportunity to relive the past in the present.

Immortality through Technology Has Always Been (And Still Currently Is) Impossible

Having spent the last several class periods discussing Edison’s spirit phone, Be Right Back, and attempts at immortality through AI, I’ve come to realize that all of our attempts to achieve immortality through rapidly advancing technologies have been fundamentally futile. While we have been trying to use the phonograph, photographs, videos, and now even artificial intelligence to preserve and capture ourselves, none of these efforts have come even close to truly capturing our essence.

 

This is not to say that we can capture some elements of ourselves and indeed it is becoming easier to capture more of ourselves as technology continues to develop. However, as Sterne describes the phonographic recording as “a resonant tomb, offering the exteriority of the voice with none of its interior self-awareness” and Rahnma describes AI as missing “context,” both hit on the essential failure of technology to holistically capture who we are in our entireties. For example, my roommates and I went down to the Charlotte Fillmore this past week to see one of our favorite artists, Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals, perform live. Now, if you go on Apple Music or Spotify, you can listen to lots of recordings of Anderson .Paak’s songs, but none of those capture the joy and energy he brings to his concerts. None of the recordings capture the collective experience of seeing Anderson .Paak live and thus none of them have the self-awareness that Sterne describes. We see a similar experience with pseudo-Ash in Be Right Back as the AI robot version of Ash fails to impress Mar because he does not adequately capture the idiosyncrasies and nuances of Ash’s personality. What exists, be it a recording on Spotify or an AI robot of our dead boyfriend, still is not the same as the real, living manifestation.

 

Rahnma also outlines the limitations of the AI renderings of our personalities, explaining that the digital personas created by AI are useful for counseling but do not capture the context to be legitimate replacements for our actual living selves. The AI rendered persona of a CEO, for example, is still not capable of running a company in the way that the living, breathing human being can. All told, our efforts to capture or preserve ourselves through technology render versions of ourselves that could not hold a candle to who we really are as individuals. Certainly, our efforts have improved as technology has advanced, but even with the most advanced technology at our disposal today, we have still been futile in our pursuit of immortality.