What will it be like to live in a world where we all record our own deaths on tiny video cameras implanted in our foreheads?
We already have Google Glasses, which put the features of a Smartphone in your eye, and a few years back a San Francisco artist envisioned replacing the eye she lost in a car accident with a video-recording bionic eye. I imagine a day when some combination of these two devices becomes common, even mandatory.
How much more certainty would we have had in the George Zimmerman case had both him and Trayvon Martin had tiny video cameras implanted in their foreheads? Forget witnesses and expert testimony; just play their own personal “black box”. But in this future world, who would have access to these recordings? Would a court be able to obtain our deaths with a warrant? Could the government listen in without a warrant? Could we somehow set the facebook of the future to post our own deaths after we die? Would our deaths go viral? And if we anticipated they would, could we sell the right to our deaths in advance to media outlets? Could Wall Street buy and trade our deaths? This would surely lead to a death boom, creating a death bubble, followed swiftly by a death bust.
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As has been widely reported, National Public Radio reporter Scott Simon recently live-tweeted his mother’s death, as well as the tender moments leading up to it.
A few of his tweets:
“Mother cries Help Me at 2;30. Been holding her like a baby since. She’s asleep now. All I can do is hold on to her.”
“Her passing might come any moment, or in an hour, or not for a day. Nurses saying hearing is last sense to go so I sing & joke.”
“The heavens over Chicago have opened and Patricia Lyons Simon Newman has stepped onstage.”
The posts are tender, sentimental and therapeutic, for Simon, and for many of the millions of people listening in. An important discussion on grieving and how to handle the death of a loved one has resulted, and that is good. But the more far-reaching conversation is about death and technology. Just how private should we allow death to be, and just what will become of these deaths once they are released to the world?
“The purpose of Twitter is for @nprscottsimon to do what he’s doing,” tweeted Tom Killalea. Killalea, it turns out, is the VP of Technology at Amazon.com. The belief of him and others seems to be that social media has enabled us to share the death of a loved one in a way never before possible and that is a good thing.
Not everyone agrees.
“I felt an immediate jolt of revulsion when I heard about Scott Simon live-tweeting his mother’s death,” wrote Lakshmi Chaudhry on First Post, a popular Indian news site. “[It] erases the last boundary between the public and private. No moment, experience, emotion is too intimate or personal to share. Privacy has now become dispensable even in death.”
Chaudhry goes even further: “Simon is a natural successor to the host of live-tweeted births and delivery room videos and photos shared on Facebook. And he may well be a precursor to live-death videos and photos that will inevitably follow.”
I am on board with her here, live-death videos and photos inevitably will follow. In fact, in a way, this has already happened, and it is instructive to examine the precedents of Simon’s live-tweeted death.
Jamie Livingston was a New York photographer who took a single Polaroid picture every day of his life, beginning in college and ending with his death from cancer in 1997, at the age of 41.
Livingston’s photos are simple and stunning. For example, he was a film maker, and some days the single Polaroaid picture was a shot of a letter stating his film had been accepted in a festival, or a shot of one of his movies appearing on TV. A plot builds, a story forms. On other days the details are colored in. Livingston at a Mets game, Livingston seated on a chair, bearded and shirtless, playing a gorgeous wooden accordion. But the photo series does not really become epic until we know Livingston has unexpectedly become sick and will soon die. It is then that the project immediately takes a new turn. This is no longer just a series of photos of a young filmmaker through his 20s and 30s, this is the photographic record of a man on the march to his death. Death looming at the end makes it interesting.
I only recently learned about Livingston’s project, and it reminded me of photographer Angelo Merendino’s photographs capturing his late wife Jennifer’s brave battle with breast cancer. It is difficult to scroll through these pictures without streaming tears, they are absolutely heart-wrenching.
But there’s something important to note with all of these projects, they were intentional. The people dying were either doing the photographing themselves, or knew full-well that they were being photographed (or tweeted).
“What we are really after is a camera running straight to the netherworld. Live-tweeting the march to the bright light at the end of the tunnel. Live-tweeting the wait in purgatory. Live-tweeting heaven. Live-tweeting hell.”
What concerns me is a future where we do not necessarily know our death is being documented. A future in which we ourselves are unknowingly documenting our own death but have little say in what is to become of it.
Call such a situation ridiculous, but this is exactly what happened with 26 year-old Ahmed Assem El-Senousy, an Egyptian photographer who showed up at a rally in Cairo earlier last month in support of ousted President Mohammed Morsi. The Egyptian army opened fire on protestors, according to news sources, killing more than 50 people. One of them was Assem, who was videotaping that day. He caught the sniper taking aim on his forehead, then the camera goes blank.
With Scott Simon’s tweets, we felt okay looking over his shoulder to witness a death. But it feels a little horrific to click on the video Ahmed Assem El-Senousy filmed of himself being shot to death. Perhaps the attraction to each is the same, though. They are both rubber-necking. What we are really after is a camera running straight to the netherworld. Live-tweeting the march to the bright light at the end of the tunnel. Live-tweeting our final judgement. Live-tweeting heaven. Live-tweeting hell.
In & Sons, the new novel by writer David Gilbert, there is a character who documents his girlfriend’s death from a terminal illness. The man becomes so obsessed with the project he keeps it going, and on a regular basis he breaks into her coffin so he can document the decay of her corpse. As is often the case, it is the novelist who sifts through the happenings of our world and shows us the not so distant future.
As Chaudhry explains in her article on First Post, there are other precedents to what Scott Simon did. Back in 2011, Tampa Bay Times’ writer Ben Montgomery live-tweeted his father’s funeral.
“We’ve been writing about death for thousands and thousands of years,” explained Montgomery, “in books and magazines and newspapers, and subway tunnels and on the rear windshields of automobiles and cave walls. Tweeting just feels like another version of all that.”
Herein lies the crux of the matter. We were born in the wrong century for privacy. Death is interesting and people will tweet about it and it is important that they do. And surely the future will bring even more thorough ways of documenting a moment and transmitting it out to the world. My question to you all is: What will come of death then? What will it be like to live in a world where we all record our own deaths?
As radical as this all might seem to you now, just remember, the future is impossible to predict, but utterly inevitable.