There is an unspoken industry of computer-generated obituaries. Who are they for, and what do they do to the living?
You’re falling asleep, or waiting for the dentist, or riding the bus. You’re passively scrolling, taking in blue light and clickbait, when you see the announcement on an Instagram story or Twitter feed or Facebook post. Someone is missing or suddenly passed away, and it isn’t a stranger, but it isn’t someone you know, either. It’s someone you could know, a friend-of-a-friend, someone the next neighborhood over, the middle school teacher your older siblings had, a person who is completely real but only realized to you in that moment through the LED glow of the phone screen. It is at this moment that the distance between the digital world and the physical world becomes non-existent, a false wall torn down, each pixel of grief as tangible as ink and paper.
There’s this phrase, “real life.” It isn’t too new; Dostoevsky uses the term in The Idiot to separate the sphere of fiction and literary imaginings from the on-the-ground happenings in front of us. There’s IRL, which is short for “in real life,” something which demarcates the line between “the internet” and “everything else,” that “else” being something that is supposedly fundamentally more “true,” more “personal,” more “real,” all terms which can only ever exist in quotes. The careers, friendships, conversations, and emotions which occur when we interact with the internet are just as real as careers, friendships, conversations, and emotions which take place in the physical realm. It seems, in many places, that there is not an “offline” world of which to speak: digital networks are used to pay for coffee and subway fares, to navigate roads and sidewalks, to pull up concert tickets and vacation photos. And so, if there is no real life without the internet, there can be no real death without the internet either.
And of course, when I write you I really mean me. Hearing and seeing these expressions of grief and concern makes me worry about every person I know all at once, the kind of news that makes all the alleyways seem darker and all the strangers more sinister, the kind of news that makes me feel selfish for adopting grief and fear that is not mine to adopt. And, in an act of very human selfishness, I have a tendency to type the names of these half-strangers into my search bar and hit return, an anti-social urge to answer the very human question: What happened? One of the great intimacies of the internet is the ability to ask the questions which would be too inappropriate or too rude or too personal to ask out loud. The desire to acquire information which cannot be respectfully requested from another person feels like a very natural urge, at least among myself and the people I know, an urge abetted by the internet and the very concept of “The Information Age,” which often functions more as “The Age of Entitlement to Information.” And as this is a natural, shameful, and unspoken compulsion, there exists a digital market for a solution.
It should come as no surprise that those who are willing to capitalize on our antisocial, illicit urges do so in an antisocial way. When I last searched the name of a real person, a name which only came to me in missing posters and pleas for a safe return, a name which came to exist in my mind that day as a result of something very raw and real and human, I was presented some of the most clinical and fundamentally in-human writing I’ve ever read. The uncanniness and insensitivity with which these articles were written left me disgusted with the authors, the structures of the internet, and most of all myself. After all, it was my thirst for answers that provided some of the clicks upon which clickbait feeds.
This is hardly news to anyone who has searched for the name of someone and gotten suggested results which prey upon our most morbid curiosities, the Google Search Bar urging us to couple these names with “what happened to…” or “cause of death.” It seems there are at least dozens, if not hundreds or thousands of websites which scrape the internet for information and create algorithmically-generated postings specifically designed to generate clicks, written in the language not of human beings, but of search engines. And these types of articles are not new, they did not begin with ChatGPT or OpenAI; I recall encountering them for at least the last half-decade. The end result are multi-paragraph piles of dehumanizing, sensationalizing nothingness posted to WordPress blogs with titles like EternalHonoring, EarlyMemorials.com, TheWorldObits, and dozens of fake law firms claiming to issue legitimate statements. They gather their content from whatever public websites provide information about their subjects, most articles seemingly written entirely off information found on LinkedIn, the missing and deceased reduced to the points on their resume and the language of a human resources handbook. If you click on the “authors” of these pieces, you’ll find dead-end links to non-existent profiles. The articles have the linguistic precision of a press release, the cold distance of an encyclopedia, and the veracity of a 4Chan post. One piece, from Bao Law Firm (which is not an actual law firm, but a “hub for reliable sharing and advisory of business financial knowledge”) refers to how “the public eagerly awaited the comprehensive autopsy” which was “anticipated with bated breath.” The webpage ends with the disclaimer:
“Please note that all information presented in this article has been obtained from a variety of sources, including wikipedia.org and several other newspapers. Although we have tried our best to verify all information, we cannot guarantee that everything mentioned is correct and has not been 100% verified. Therefore, we recommend caution when referencing this article or using it as a source in your own research or report.”
There is no other way to put it: I find these web pages to be deeply, unshakably upsetting. Despite a high saturation of words, images, and videos of violence, I try to remain highly sensitized to the information I take in from the internet. As a digital native, I was raised on the border between the provinces of LiveLeak beheadings and Tumblr BDSM porn, things which make it all-too-easy to believe the internet is this cold, image-producing machine with an output of files. Constant exposure to these things leads us to believe that no aspect of life is private, intimate, or personal—anything which is able to be captured and uploaded to the internet is empty content, proprietary filler material for its host site, decontextualized and stripped for parts until it is a collection of hashtags, pixels, lines of code. Speaking with friends my age, usually the ones who were equally unathletic and unpopular and thus inundated with the content of the grotesque, we share a desire to actively re-sensitize ourselves to the tenderness of human experience.
It was precisely the completely desensitized language of these articles which felt so profoundly negligent, so maliciously uncanny. Something that was real, which was happening now, to a real person who was missing, who was somewhere, the hearts of the people that love her thumping real blood through their real veins, all of that pain and feeling consumed as content and regurgitated into a neat package of search result optimization and algorithmic clarity. My feelings morphed from upset to disgust towards the individuals who create these sites and train them to reduce real people into per-click optimization, the human beings systemitizing dehumanization. Perhaps strangest of all, the function of these websites for their creators seems unclear—each of these websites was created by a person just as real as the subjects they cover, the result of human time and labor and perhaps money, but with little obvious benefit to site owners. Some run ads, but plenty don’t. Most don’t sell products, nor do they drive traffic to other websites.
The only hint came a few days later. I was still disturbed and captured by these sites, I knew I wanted to write about them, and I knew I’d have to revisit the ones that had me so unsettled a few days before. I typed in the same search terms I had previously, still guilty that I was driving web traffic back to these sinister places despite my purely investigative intentions. But they seemed to have disappeared completely from the internet. I used an advanced search to only include results from a week beforehand. Still nothing. But two-thirds down the page sat a small clue, one line in italics: Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe. All of the original results were only shown to me because my VPN placed my computer’s address somewhere in the United States, a place which lacks the extensive data privacy legislation in place in Europe. This legislation requires websites to provide ample information and choice about web cookies under “the right to be forgotten.” Surely enough, upon Inspect Element inquiry, most of these sites were running multiple third-party cookies, collecting the data of their visitors and selling their personal information. It is not enough for these websites to depersonalize the missing and deceased, reducing their names into analytic benchmarks; website visitors themselves become metabolized into this system of compacting human beings into commodifiable sets of data.
The incident which led me to these websites ended in tragedy. An untimely death quickly sensationalized, both by flesh-and-blood journalists writing in the media and by computers writing by algorithm. On Twitter, the letters which once formed a person’s name—the set of sounds which denote an individual in all their complexities and nuances, the name parents wrote in birthday cards and teachers shouted in roll-call—have now congealed into a hashtag, an invitation for invasive inquiry, fodder for “content.” A person, still a person in the hearts and minds of those who knew her, becomes a piece of data. The unquantifiable radiance of a young person gone too soon becomes an easily quantifiable metric and currency in an attention economy.
These holographic graveyards, empty and intangible evocations of memory, are not un-real just because they live on the internet. There is a wholly human industry of “true crime” which similarly mobilizes morbid curiosity to transgress social norms of privacy and respect. And just as these technological treatments shape our perception of death and dying, so too do they influence our perception of our lives and our selves. If the individual can so easily be reduced to a phonetic unit of digital information, our self-conception can become increasingly metricized and thus atomized. The profit motives of the internet as it exists now encourage every aspect of life, including death, to be gamified, quantified, optimized. Life and individuals become systems of data-points, holding a single mathematical utility which stands in such stark contrast to the communal and non-linear nature of grief.
We experience the world through systems. We ask our search engines for the uncomfortable details of private matters exactly because we want to understand, digest, and systematize the maddeningly illogical and oftentimes random nature of violence. The systematic transformation of death into content occurs on an algorithmic level, but that does not make its implementation separate from the personal greed that sparked its inception. Constructed systems—financial, social, technological—are upheld not by some supernatural or divine force, but by individuals who have some level of interest in upholding them. If we are to visit our manufactured, in-human, holographic graveyards, we must remember that they are constructed at some level by human desire. And, in remembering this, we must urge ourselves to transform our own human force into things which are warm, communal, empathetic, kind, and, for lack of a better word, real. ❦
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