Aaron Szostak

The Experience in Death

It finally happens during the journey that we are confronted with death. Not as romantic as I thought of it growing up, not as dramatic or horrid as I saw it in films and media, not as desperate… in a way, inexplicable simple and plain and deeply sad. I can’t seem to have a good grasp on life, so attempting to understand death just seems pretentious. Things happen, that is the way it is. You dry your tears and keep going and as a result you might become a bit tougher, a bit older, a bit desensitized. You come to terms with the idea of not ever seeing that person again and you move on… until…you open your skype and there it is. Your grandpa. Top of the list under “contacts”. You know he will not answer, but you are still tempted to call. You can delete the contact, but that seems so cruel, so cold… Browsing through facebook, there he is again, his account with new content on the wall (is it still a timeline?), birthday wishes, new tags in pictures…

As a family, we were not able to speak comfortably with my dying grandpa about simple things, like transferring payments to different accounts, much less about things like type of funeral rite! Speaking about his wishes on his electronic persona never crossed our psyche. And so he is very much alive in hotmail, in facebook, in skype… How do we make decisions about a life that technically is no more? When do we unplug it? or how?

The topic of death in design is not new. CHI (a known gathering of designers and researchers in the area of computer and human interaction) has been holding sessions on the subject for the past few years; there are even many papers written about it. Researchers from the University of Toronto in 2009 held a session where they proposed “thanatosensitivity” to describe an approach that actively integrates the facts of mortality, dying, and death into human-computer interaction (HCI) research and design. I attended, and listened. It seemed like a natural topic to discuss, but yet, as a designer working in the field, it was not until someone close to me died that I began really thinking about the ramifications of who we are (and aren’t) in the digital world and our responsibilities in the subject as experience designers.

I would have liked to ask my grandpa what I should do with his accounts. Perhaps he assumed they would be closed with time, perhaps he would have liked someone to go through his things, his emails, and continue sending forward emails to his friends. Perhaps he would have liked someone to update his facebook accounts with memorable dates once in a while, to keep it “alive”.

I flew to Florida to spend time with my grandma after my grandpa passed away. She was very stressed, not herself, but wanted to spend some time and let the “secondary” people know. Secondary because not being immediate family members, they might not have found out yet. She mentioned the Barbosa family that used to come to my grandparent’s restaurant “Louise’s Pizza” at least once a year from Michigan. “You remember them, right? You waited their tables many times, or was it your sister?” They liked the food, but I suspect they kept coming back because they loved my grandpa. Countless pictures of them together were hanged in the dining room, my grandpa met the daughters, the granddaughters and many other members of their family that occasionally joined them to vacation in Daytona Beach. My grandpa and them kept in touch. They wrote emails to each other and perhaps even skyped, and they were most definitively friends in facebook. My grandma asked me to contact them. “I have their number somewhere” she said. I smiled.

As soon as my grandpa died, the moan of sadness travelled quickly through our networks. In less than a few hours, everyone knew. I asked my friends to post memories they had with Aaron Szostak, and so the comments started to pour in. Not in my “friends” list, that I remember, the Barbosa family joined the conversation. They told stories of them meeting, they talked about their favorite food, they were as present as any other family member, right there, in an instant. I spent the afternoon reading to my grandma all the comments people left on facebook and showed her all the pictures uploaded by family members and friends in different parts of the world. “Look! this is you when you got engaged!” (One of my second cousins posted gems like that). We laughed and cried and cried some more. My family decided not to hold any memorial ceremony for my grandpa. We decided or it was decided, I am not sure… but it wasn’t needed. My grandpa was being remembered by everyone who knew him, who was still alive, and who had an account.

When someone dies, you can request facebook to either terminate that account, or you can ask to manage it. When someone from my class died a few years ago, I believe her mom got the rights to manage it. I was appalled. I don’t think I would like my parents to manage my facebook account! It is very personal in some strange way, even though it is so public. Maybe because it is so public, I want it to be me and only me.

How would my grandpa have liked to have his accounts managed? I don’t know. I didn’t ask.

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