Death in the Digital Age

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Giovanni Cucci, SJ

 Giovanni Cucci, SJ / Culture / 8 July 2020


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Our ambivalent relationship with death

A revealing test of how much digital technology has changed our way of life is our relationship with time. It has been established that our awareness of time diminishes as we navigate; we find ourselves at the end of the day without being aware of its actual duration, just as it is equally difficult to remember what we saw during the hours spent in front of the screen. Everything seems to flatten out in the instant, with no memory and no sense of duration. This concentration on the present dimension of time was not born with the web, but is part of a more general cultural climate that has profoundly affected our relationship with time.

Our relationship with death is an emblematic benchmark. Until the 19th century, life expectancy on average did not exceed 30 years. Those who lived to 50 years had generally already seen the death of their parents, spouse and most of their children. But familiarity with death led to a proactive attitude toward life, because it was animated by the perspective of the afterlife, for which the present was anticipation and preparation. It also offered a sense of continuity with loved ones, a tradition and a task that those who remained were called to continue.

Now flattened on a merely horizontal plane, today death has become “wild” – to quote Philippe Ariès’ famous expression – it is no longer part of the cultural landscape, and from being a step along the way, it has become the end of the line: “If there is no longer anything on the other side, death is no longer conceivable […]. In the 21st century, […] the claim to the right to die with dignity and the awareness of the question of euthanasia are inscribed in the representation of a shameful death because it marks the defeat of the individual as the builder of the self.”[1]

On the other hand, when something is removed from ordinary life, it ends up entering human existence in another form. The fantasy version of death attracts young audiences especially. This can be seen in shows and narratives related to the afterlife, such as vampirism, or the horror genre. Stephenie Meyer’s novel Twilight (the first in a series of four, all crowned by great popular success), which tells the love story between a girl and a boy-vampire, had sold more than 17 million copies by the time the movie series commenced in 2008, which further contributed to its growing popularity.

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