Technology Is Impacting Grief. But Is It Helping?
Mourning in the digital age doesn't have to resemble a 'Black Mirror' episode. We explore how with WSJ reporter Joanna Stern and even...Animal Crossing.
In this Issue:
💻 Can Technology Help Us Talk to the Dead?
🐄 Letters From My Dead Mom in Animal Crossing
🎁 Register for our 5th Annual Mother’s Day gift swap
In the seven years since Modern Loss launched, we’ve witnessed a variety of ways in which technology has enabled us, sometimes unwittingly, to memorialize and connect with our dead loved ones.
People have spotted their dad on Google Street View, gotten to know a mysterious aunt better after reading her secret Amazon reviews, heard about a major loss after everyone else already learned about it on Facebook, built video games in the memory of their person and reeled from the absolute mindfuck of a TimeHop notification.
The ways in which we explore keeping our people close through increasingly advanced and expensive tech are so varied. You can catch holographic “live” performances by dead music legends. You can ponder the fact that Microsoft patented a chatbot that harnesses AI to create virtual models of real people (with no plans to develop it, as the patent filing predates current AI ethics guidelines). Heck, you can even animate old photos of loved ones with deep fake technology.
I’ll leave it up to you as to whether you find any of this creepy or magical. It’s probably a little of both. Because obviously, as we go down this rabbit hole there will be increasing attention paid to the ethics of how we decide what information to use, including whether consent is required from the very people who might be memorialized. And we have to decide for ourselves how much we actually want to remember.
But one thing is for sure: Just like with everything else in grief, there will be no one-size-fits-all as to how we fold tech into our losses, and within these expanding options, we may all find something that works for us. Especially if it’s ethically designed with empathy, love and connection in mind.
Below, you’ll read a piece by Joanna Stern, the Wall Street Journal’s senior personal technology columnist, on the experience reporting for her terrific documentary, “E-Ternal: A Tech Quest to ‘Live’ Forever” (which I highly watching and is embedded in this issue). And you might even get the warm fuzzies reading Alex Shevrin Venet’s surprising experience on the game Animal Crossing.
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- Rebecca Soffer
Modern Loss on the Air
We’re grateful to have been invited onto several local, national and international broadcasts this month to reflect on individual and societal grief at the yearlong mark of the pandemic. Watch us on Good Day LA, NY1, and CTV News (above).
Can Technology Help Us Talk to the Dead? (Spoiler: Yes)
It may not be exactly like Amazon’s 'Upload,' but the future of preserving our stories is here.
by Joanna Stern
Things they don’t cover in the Marriage Handbook: What to do when your wife starts sending messages to her dead best friend.
A few weeks after Mike died suddenly on a reporting assignment in May 2017, my wife began sending him messages about the news of the world and our lives. A clip from “Sister Act.” A Peloton milestone. A news article. Anything that made her think of him, to his memorialized Facebook page it went.
As a long time technology journalist, you’d think I would have understood it. But I couldn’t quite grasp it. Watching the woman I love in so much pain made me feel so powerless. I wanted to do whatever I could to comfort her and help alleviate the grief, yet I found myself thinking: We can’t even escape Facebook in the afterlife?!
Flash forward a few years and I have now seen people speak to the dead via text message, voice mail, Amazon’s Alexa and even a humanoid robot. And to my surprise, not even the most out-there technology created to “talk” to those who have died creeps me out.
How did I get here? A whole lot of curiosity about the topic of death and technology.
Nearly a year and a half ago, prompted by my wife’s experiences, years of reader questions about digital legacy and one very smart and pushy video producer, I started working on a Wall Street Journal documentary.
“E-Ternal: A Tech Quest to ‘Live’ Forever”, which you can watch here, explores how technology can be used to preserve our life stories when we die.
I started my reporting with a trip to England in 2019 to meet Lucy Watts, a wheelchair bound 28-year-old woman living with a life-limiting illness. Lucy, who didn’t think she’d even make it to her 20th birthday, thinks a lot about how she wants to live on digitally after she dies and what she wants to leave behind for those most important to her.
She taught me a lot about the nitty gritty of digital legacy—how to assign a legacy contact to your Facebook, etc. (You should really do that all now, by the way) Yet I learned the most about this topic not from Lucy or some tech entrepreneur, but from her mother, Kate Watts.
“I can't imagine what life is going to be like once she's gone,” Kate told me while we had tea in the kitchen. “Nothing will replace her.”
She told me that she doesn’t know if anything Lucy plans to leave for her will make the grieving easier—or harder.
“I think I'd cope with the written word, but I'm not so sure I could cope with actually a visual picture of her telling me something. I don't think I could cope with that,” she said.
That conversation with Kate made me realize that these tech tools are first and foremost about the survivor. They’re not about emulating or pretending the person we loved is still here like some creepy “Black Mirror” episode. They’re a way to keep connecting, remembering and being reminded of the person, their life and what they meant to us.
Meeting James Vlahos only confirmed that for me. James, a 50-year old entrepreneur living in Berkeley, Calif., sometimes sits at his computer and talks to his dad—or his “Dadbot.” In 2016, he recorded 20 hours of interviews with his father, who had just been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He eventually transcribed everything so that it could be a searchable archive. Then he created a computer chatbot that responds to messages with text, audio and photos of his father.
James now runs a company called HereAfter AI which creates legacy voicebots. He records audio of you telling stories about your life and then turns it into an app that lets you converse with all that via a computer. Currently, it works on the Amazon Echo. Install the app (or Alexa Skill), launch it and instead of hearing Alexa’s robotic voice, people hear you.
As you’ll see in the film, it turned out to be a good solution for Lucy and Kate. It was even more meaningful to Lucy that we completed her HereAfter bot during Covid-19, as her mortality has been even more top of mind during this high-risk time. It might have turned out to be a nice solution for my wife and Mike. But there was no predicting that a tree was going to fall on a 36-year old journalist's car.
That’s the thing about death—most of the time, it takes us by surprise. There’s no way to fully understand what the void in our lives will feel like when our person is gone. And there’s no way to magically wave it away. But sometimes posting a message, sending a text or even talking to a robot can fill just a bit of it.
Joanna Stern is an award-winning journalist and Emmy-nominated video producer. She is the Wall Street Journal’s senior personal technology columnist and executive editor of video. You can follow her on Twitter.
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Letters From My Dead Mom in Animal Crossing
We never meet the video game’s Mom character, so my mind fills in the blanks with the face of my own.
by Alex Shevrin Venet
“How is your new life treating you? Are you eating well?” the card read, signed: “Mom.” I felt warm for a moment, appreciating that unique blend of love and annoyance you feel when your mother asks about your food habits. But that warmth was soon followed by unease. You see, the card was a digital one on the screen of my Nintendo Switch, and my mother had been dead for over a year.
This was the first, but not the last, letter from “Mom” I would receive addressed to my character in Animal Crossing. For those not yet in debt to Tom Nook, Animal Crossing is a relaxing game in which you and a crew of cute cartoon animals live together in harmony on a deserted island. You can go fishing, grow fruit, craft items, and earn bells. You can customize your character to look like you and have your name, but otherwise the real world is far removed.
So I was caught off-guard the first time I opened up my in-game mailbox to find a letter from “Mom” among the notes from animals who populate my island. Since we never meet the Mom character in Animal Crossing, we’re left to imagine her ourselves. My mind fills in the blanks with my own mother’s face.
Animal Crossing is an escape, a day trip into an island where the worst that can happen is getting stung by a bee. Letters from Animal Crossing Mom break through the illusion and remind me of my very real grief.
My mom died in 2019, fourteen months after her diagnosis with Stage IV lung cancer. The last birthday card I got from her is one of those flowery Hallmark cards with a poem about daughters. She signed it simply, “love, Mom.” On my birthday this year, “Mom” sent me a letter in Animal Crossing. It read, “you’ll always be my baby.” Attached was a birthday cake, which I placed on the kitchen table in my on-screen house.
When I was little, my mom used to make elaborately decorated birthday cakes, like a replica of my favorite stuffed animal Ballerina Bear. I teared up, overwhelmed, opening my gift from Animal Crossing Mom, knowing I won’t ever get a real card or cake from my mother again. At the same time, it was a strange comfort. It felt good to pretend, for a moment, that my mom could send me a message from the beyond.
Read the full piece on ModernLoss.com.
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