There’s a piece in the December issue of MIT Technology Review that lingered with me. It explores an emergent space the writer – Charlotte Jee – calls grief tech, where startups such as HereAfter AI, StoryFile and You, Only Virtual compete to convince us that death isn’t the end; that we can stay in touch with our loved ones after they’ve shuffled off this mortal coil.
Provide these companies with sufficient amounts of data and they claim to be able to create avatars that captures the quirky essence of whomever you feel a need to preserve. You’ll “never have to say good bye”, as one tagline goes.
I can’t help wondering about the psychological implications of not being able to tell the difference between a zoom call, and talking to the dead.
Mourning is often described as a process where the bereaved goes from shock to denial, through anger, bargaining and depression, onto acceptance and ending up with readjustment, or reintegration.
Provided that the grieving person has enough momentum to push through to the critical phase of acceptance, the process can be a valuable source of personal growth.
That momentum, I believe, needs to be propelled by the very real and wholly natural pain caused by the loss of a loved one. By consequence, numbing that pain would seem to risk stalling the mourning process in the twilight zone of denial. If that is so, the peddlers of “grief tech” is doing us a diabolical disservice, and one that I can imagine would be all too easy to fall for; who *wouldn’t* want to defeat death!
Round about the same time I stumbled across Jee’s story, I was reading Rob Scranton’s book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene : Reflections on the End of a Civilization. It’s part philosophical tract, part autobiography set in Irak during the first gulf war, where Scranton served as foot soldier.
In order to stand the constant encounters with death, he picked up the Budhist practice of starting each day with long meditations pondering his own mortality. When he was ready to roll his Humvee through the streets of Bagdad, he had convinced himself that he was already as good as dead. Accepting that thought made it possible to get through the day; he was a walking corpse anyway, so if he could be of even marginal help to his comrades it could be seen as a pure bonus.
Scranton carried this formative experience over to his current field of investigation, which is looking at the philosophical implications of climate change.
According to Scranton, the Paris accord isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. In fact it’s worse than worthless since it lulls us collectively into a false sense of security, when a clear eyed assessment of the situation shows that we’re really already screwed.
“We” that is, as in human civilisation. There’s simply no way it can ever survive the cataclysmic disasters that are already in motion and which will only accelerate from here on out.
If this seems overly pessimistic, contemplate the following lines, from a letter sent to the pacifist Albert Einstein by (realist?) Sigmund Freud:
“It is a general principle … that conflicts of interest between men are settled by the use of violence. This is true of the whole animal kingdom, from which men have no business to exclude themselves.”
Scranton uses this quote to drive home his argument that things will go from bad to worse as resources get scarcer in the wake of climate change.
It is indeed a rather bleak outlook.
So if civilisation is doomed, then what strategies can we deploy to survive that insight emotionally? Scranton’s answer offers the extreme counter-point to the rosy optimism represented by “grief tech” companies. In Scranton’s book, the only honest way forward is to face destiny and accept that we’re already dead, if not as a race, then at least as a civilisation.
That stance is not as hopeless as it would seem however, it means we’re free to “let go” and focus our efforts on providing whatever value we can to the generations of humans that will – hopefully – survive to start over and build a new civilisation beyond the upcoming meltdown. In Scranton’s words:
We must keep renovating and innovating perceptual, affective and conceptual fields through recombination, remixing, translation, transformation and play. We must inculcate ruminative frequencies in the human animal by teaching slowness, attention to detail, argumentative rigor, careful reading, and meditative reflection. We must keep up our communion with the dead for they are us, as we are the dead of future generations.
As biological and cultural diversity is threatened across the world by capitalist monoculture and mass extinction, we must build arks: not just biological arks, to carry forward endangered genetic data, but also cultural arks, to carry forward endangered wisdom. The library of human cultural technologies that is our archive, the concrete record of human thought in all languages that comprises the entirety of our existence as historical beings, is not only the seed stock of our future intellectual growth, but its soil, its source, its womb. The fate of the humanities, as we confront the end of moden civilization, is the fate of humanity itself.
Is there a middle ground between sticking our heads in the sand and bravely staring down death? I‘d like to think so. When the yearly list of terms to be officially included in the Swedish language was recently published, the word “väntesorg” popped up.
The fact that there are established equivalents to this word in Sweden’s neighbouring countries indicates that it represents a uniquely Scandinavian type of melancholy. Which might be why it’s difficult to translate its exact meaning into English. Broadly speaking, the word indicates a type of mellow sadness spurred by an incident which has yet to occur, not to be mistaken for depression.
A measure of “väntesorg” was recommended already by the Stoic philosophers, some two thousand years ago. They basically argued that we start to die the day we’re born and that life should be spent in constant practice to accept this fact, so that when death finally comes for us we can greet it with equanimity.
Stoicism has had an enormous upswing in popularity over the last decade or so, with a river of books, podcasts and TED talks. Personally I’ve been a bit put off by the fact that many of its evangelists are male white millionaires. (I love you Tim and Ryan but honestly how hard can it be for to accept the realities of your cushy life!?)
Nonetheless however, the core beliefs of stoicism do seem to carry some relevance. For example, the stoic practice of premeditatio malorum, an exercise in imagining as vividly as possible everything that can go wrong, has been copied outright by the agile community, where “pre-mortems” are routinely organised at the start of big projects in order to raise awareness of upcoming risks.
All in all, this meditation on death and disaster leaves me thinking that mourning should be seen as a skill to hone, rather than a discomfort to avoid. While that doesn’t mean you have to go all out dystopian (I’m no fan of dystopias), it does mean recognising the sobering and ultimately valuable effect of mindfully accepting death as an integral and natural part of life itself.