Computing After Lives. The Bonding of Thanatos and Technology

Essay 2017 13 Pages

Communications - Public Relations, Advertising, Marketing, Social Media



Thanatechnology; theoretical; big data; computational afterlife; new media research.

For when we calculate the magnitude and motions of heaven on earth, we do not ascend into heaven that we may divide into parts, or measure the motions thereof, But we do it sitting still in our closets, or in the dark.



Thanatos and technology have bonded. The use of thanatechnologies through the rise and integration of internet services has seen death become part of media and computational logics. Social practices and conventions of death and grieving are moving online. Like with other aspects of mediatisation research (Ekstrom et al. 2016), media-embedded processes driving social change are becoming the norm. The paper studies this procedural change on death - how big data services and applications are dealing with notions and possibilities of a computational afterlife.

As Iliadis & Federica Russo lament (2015), ‘organizations own vast quantities of user information and hold lucrative data capital, wield algorithms and data processing tools with the ability to influence emotions and culture.’ (p.1). Our changing relationship to death through technology is seeing the dematerialization of the interface (Miller 2015), in a world narrated by ‘new’ media savvy users and controlled by profiteering big data companies. The panoptic lens on contemporary human culture, big data is part of the ‘third wave’ of the internet - where ‘every part of our lives will inevitably rely on an internet connection’ (Case 2016).


New media requires a new philosophical approach, as has been called for in contemporary media studies research (Hansen 2006; 2006). Through a phenomenological analysis of a Jungian take on death - existence, imagination, meaning - the paper will theorise the social and cultural conditions of a normalised thanatechnological after-life. With this in mind, we will envelop the investigations as outlined to develop an interdisciplinary approach for future thanatechnological media possibilities.

Using critical data studies (CDS) the paper will investigate big data giants Facebook and Alphabet - seeking to bring clarity to how big data infrastructures manage a posthumous computational life. Servicing one’s afterlife identity with, and within big data is granting these companies custodianship of the meaning around death. Big data is seeing the proliferation of the cloud alongside a revolutionary change in how people see and use the Internet.

The paper will then investigate three applications that are seeking to restore the posthumous legacy in computational format. Lives on, with its slogan “when your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting,” (re)imagines aspects of the user’s presence whilst being alive

- algorithmically carrying out what would be their “alive” activity. With Me allows users to create virtual reality avatars out of the data that is supplied - opening up possibilities for the quantifying-self to gain a kind of material-life. Perpetu allows the user to designate beneficiaries who will receive information after the account holder passes away - their data downloaded, archived and sent to designated recipients.


The renowned feud between psychoanalysts Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud is said to be primarily driven by their dispute of Thanatos. Whilst Freud saw death as the primordial opposite of life, ‘purely destructive, deadly and evil’, Jung’s work ‘moves Thanatos closer to existential-phenomenological thinking about the fears and aspirations attached to the image of death' (Welman 2000). Death can, therefore, be seen as the phenomenological embodiment of the Self’s existence, imagination, and meaning.

For Jung, death was a state of repose. The arch of life made death inevitable and expected, possibly desired, inducing a psychological state that symbolically connects finitude to conceptions of the Self - a mysterium coniunctionis (Jung 1962). Thanatology puts death within this archetypical symbolism, ‘still far in the distance and therefore somewhat abstract’ (1930). This hermeneutical approach makes the abstraction of death vulnerable to subjective mediation, having it’s meaning constantly being negotiated, adapted and practiced. Ideology then, both political and technological, shapes and modulates the conceptual grounds of Thanatos. If ‘the unconscious psyche believes in life after death’ (Jung 1930), then the conscious psyche appropriates an afterlife as existential to being alive. For people to confront their existence, reach their “goal” or purpose, they must contend with thanatological rules and conventions posed and imposed - ‘death is a goal, to run away from it is to evade life and deny it purpose’ (Jung 1962).

Thanatos stems from imagination, widening the conceptual Self and proliferating the ego. Its our imagined ego - the thoughts, feelings, emotions - associated to what “life would be like without me,” that draw thanatological desires, imaginations, and meanings. In Jung’s view, transcending these (re)imagined egotistical factors leads to a path ‘of a fuller life, of a wider, more comprehensive consciousness’. Death’s espoused symbolic imagination thus becomes existential to the proliferation of the ego-Self. Conceptions of death must transcend essentially ‘subjective aptitudes’ and intersubjective meaning that sets the ego’s conceptual boundaries. People’s meaningful evaluations revolve around these boundaries, which is imaginatively cast by the (un)comprehension of Thanatos.

Therefore, the phenomenological embodiment shows thanatomimetic modes as the existential product of the ego-Self’s imagination and meaningful discourse - ‘Thanatos as operating along an ego-Self axis” (Welman 2000). This egocentric and dogmatic embodiment puts into motion practices and conventions that socio-culturally amalgamate to fundamental psychological developments. The mortal coil, so to speak, is then comprised of the ego-Self and conceptions thereof - to break the conceptual shackles of mortality is to free the authentic Self from the ego; when ‘one is liberated in such a way that for the first time one can authentically understand and choose among the factical’ (Heidegger 1996). For Jung, to accept death, however, forebodes the existential authentication, and desire, of the naturally bodied Self; ‘the most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely’. In the face of this complete acceptance, a person must confront the perceived normalisation of thanatology in a given socio-cultural climate. This thanatological "nexus of meaning" under Dataism sees the normalised abstraction of death as technological.

With limited usage in media studies, thanatechnology has come to mean how technology is used to process grieving (Goldsmith 2013; Gilbert et al. 2012; Gamino et al. 2012) specifically, notions of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance (Kübler-Ross 1969). As theorized, I believe a better phenomenological approximation of thanatechnology should be defined and explored. For the purpose of this essay, thanatechnology studies the interplay between Thanatos and technology - how psychological and computational developments are symbiotically embodying a thanatechnological archetype.

To conceptually pin this archetypical phenomenon will enlighten the occult socio- cultural forces within a strengthening thanatechnological relationship. Death in Dataism forebodes a cascade of socio-cultural changes, disrupting ontological and phenomenological norms of Self- authentication. The integration of a (de)materialised computational afterlife, will change the very nature of ‘what one is going to cease to be and already what one is going to become - one lives one's death, one dies one's life’ (Jean-Paul Sartre).


Death is now in uncharted territory. Erez & Baptiste (2014) see big data as a lens on human culture. Big data offers an intrinsic tool for studying society and culture, 'making it possible to predict aspects of our collective' (p.14). Recent discoveries in quantum mechanics are allowing us to saturate the material world with big data, processing and routing across time and space; a network composed of not just binary codes, but of meaning. Our data footprint we accumulate throughout out lives is being embedded into the algorithmic nature of big data. This accumulation is 'doubling every two years', seeing 'our lives gradually migrate onto the Internet' (p.11). This migration into a digital age is seeing death/deletion come under computational logic. With the thanatechnological use of internetworking services, our afterlives become part of big data. The computational persistence of our identities directly affects the living user experience, or "filter bubble" (Pariser 2011). This presents a myriad of ethical challenges to the custodians of the afterlife Self - particularly under the shadow of a technological singularity (Vinge, 1993); where ‘all knowledge - past, present, and future - can be derived from data by a single, universal algorithm' (Domingos, 2015:27).

Cloud technologies are putting processing power within the algorithmic mainframe of data networks. Pods station the communicative highways of the Internet; an internetworked machine-learning algorithm,

soaking up vast amounts of data, amalgamating to the power of a (dematerialised) super-computer (Google 2017). As Seb Franklin (2012) laments, this dematerialisation is presenting ‘the cloud as a diverting interface, unchained to the limitations of the material world’ (p.459); ‘connectivity with no nodes (or individual subjects), only a shapeless bundle of edges throughout which communication can occur and thus be captured parsed, measured, and defined’ (p.461). Cloud services are restructuring the once horizontal-based protocol network into a vertical one. Using the cloud and its encompassing services aliases information and communication as the pedagogical consumption for machine- learning algorithms.

Thanatechnology is centralising around the internetworked columnist cloud providers, such as Alphabet or Facebook. Cloud computing is vital for these companies to sustain big data growth - massively interconnected server farms exchange a capacity of 337 terabits a second (Markman 2016). These big data factories are enabling cloud technologies to surpass horizontal protocol-based network's capacity of speed, storage, and power. Last year the cloud computing sector grew to $204 billion, one of the fastest growing technological sectors (Markman 2016). Death is thus moving into the cloud. Through this motion, a user’s identity will persist in the “living” environment and experience, captured within the private internetworked data farms of cloud services. These data columns, as we will critically study, hold the rights, privacy, and agency of the deceased user (Mayer-Schonberger 2011; 2013).



Mostly renowned for owning Google, Alphabet also owns biological engineering firm Calico, Capital investments, data security service Hooli, self-driving car project Waymo, and video-streaming site Youtube (Miller 2015). The company made $90.3 billion US dollars last year and hires 72,053 full-time employees (Statista 2017). Although Google owns its servers, cloud, and service, this corporate internetwork has an authoritative parent- company that has other investments in big data. In 1999 Google could scan and build an index of 50 million in one month, today the same action takes less than 1 minute. In regards to machine-learning algorithms like the cloud pods, ‘16% to 20% of queries that get asked every day have never been asked before’ (Sullivan 2013). In total, Alphabet’s hold on big data is insurmountable - ‘socially constructing artifacts that reflect the contexts and processes of their creation' (Mulder et al. 2016).

When a user dies, their data - activity with Google search, email and cloud services is algorithmically data mined: the ‘process of customization and personalization will mean that the supposedly independent or objective algorithms producing Google’s search results will actually yield a different result for every person’ (Leaver 2013:1). This data is so extensive that the Google Now application can algorithmically predict what a user would search, or imagine, without their direct input.

Google - including Gmail, Youtube, Google Docs, Google Drive, Google Analytics - amalgamates enough data to accurately (re)imagine a user's life despite their material presence. This is no easy feat, user's information travels on average 1,500 miles to get to a Google data center and back (Mitchell 2012), with over a 1,000 supercomputers to produce results in 0.2 seconds (Dean 2010) - over 1.3 trillion results a year. As the global population ages, after a surge through the 90s and 2000s, Google search rates have seen a 10% to 15% decrease in recent years (Google Search Statistics 2017). This leaves the deceased search results to amalgamate and eventually outweigh the living, taking up over half of all web search volumes (Sullivan 2013).

Although the Gmail account of a user becomes deactivated after 9 months’ inactivity, ‘the stored email still takes up space on Google’s servers, but with no one using the account’ (Leaver 2013:3) . With more than a billion users on Gmail alone, ‘ Google appears to enshrine the rights and privacy of individual users…the ownership or transfer of individual digital assets after death is neither a given nor enshrined in Google’s policies’ (Leaver 2013:4). To make this step into the legacy and privacy of a user’s afterlife shows the companies willingness and direction - “because of our concerns for user privacy, if we determine that we cannot provide the Gmail content, we will not be able to share further details about the account or discuss our decision (Google “Access” 2017). Thanatechnological meanings thus are strictly guarded and utilised within Google’s machine-learning algorithmic framework. This identification of Alphabet exposes their critical framework as dependent on the phenomenological abstraction and appropriation of death online.


Driving and aggregating more web traffic than Google (Ingram 2015), Facebook (previously Facemash) will have more than 2 billion users interacting and communicating with the service by 2018 (Petro 2012). The big data monolith is valued at $100 billion, owned by Facemash creator Mark Zuckerberg, Accel Partner investment founder Jim Breyer, mobile sharing site Path’s Dustin Moskovitz, Uri Milner of Digital Sky investments, Napster’s Sean Parker, Paypal founder Peter Theil and even Microsoft’s Bill Gates (Dunlop 2017). Along with connections to data mining and profiling companies Datalogix, Epsilon, Acxiom, and BlueKai, Facebook owns more than 50 companies including social media services Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp, ConnectU, LuckyCal and interactive firms Wildfire Interactive and Oculus Rift.

As Goodwin (2016) laments, ‘an average of over 1,000 minutes per month are now spent on it by its users. For many, most notably users in eastern Asia, Facebook is not just the Internet - it's bigger than the Internet’. With servers farms that scale to 487,000-square foot (Data Center Knowledge 2016), these big data farms, as explored with cloud computing, are restructuring the data trails and traffic of the Internet. Facebook processes at least ‘2.5 billion pieces of content and 500+ terabytes of data each day…pulling in 2.7 billion “Like” actions and 300 million photos per day, and it scans roughly 105 terabytes of data each half hour’ (Constine 2012). Facebook’s new underwater cable Marea, whom they are sharing with Microsoft, has a capacity limit of 160 terabits per second - “this one cable will be able to do almost half of what all the cables do” ( Markman 2016).

Most of the user’s communicative lives that will be traveling through such a network will be dead by 2065 at current rates. For Facebook, when a user dies their page is memorialized by default - ‘setting the account so that no one can log into it, and that no new friends (connections) can be made…meaning that most friends will be able to post on the memorialised profile to remember that person in various ways’ (Leaver 2013). The communicative information supplied to Facebook thus endows the service as the curators of the user’s memorial. If a profile isn’t memorialized, then it is deactivated - removed from public perception but still stored on Facebook’s private servers. With growing aspects of use, especially among younger people, to ‘communicate our own life story’ (Larsen 2016 p.24), Facebook’s servers are harboring the (inter)personal digital legacy of it’s users. As Pattwell (2015) points to, companies like Facebook, are ‘incorporated into out collective imaging of the internet and will likely have consequences. (p.2). One of these consequences is thantechnological, Facebook is restructuring the wider social network, making moves to keeps its users persisting posthumously through digital memorialisation. Indeed, your social media presence can even start before birth, with the ‘sharing of fetal ultrasound images is now a common practice’ (Lupton 2013). Facebook thus can have the information of a user after they die and even before they are born.



The application Perpetu allows the posthumous control of information across a range of services: Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, LinkedIn etc. The user can allocate whether their information should be download, archived, or sent to designated beneficiaries. Perpetu offers the construction of one's "virtual graveyard", where the user can automate their digital legacy from beyond the grave - deciding what information gets leaked at a particular time or to a particular person. The application of Perpetu, and services like it, is a growing industry - the computational funeral directors of the ‘networked Self’ (Cohen 2012). The Pro-version offers “full online legacy support,” where the user’s complete online presence is managed after they have died.



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
434 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
University of Auckland
computing after lives thanatechnologies




Title: Computing After Lives. The Bonding of Thanatos and Technology