Book Review: All the Ghosts in the Machine

When he was laid to rest this past October in a Kilkenny, Ireland, graveyard, Shay Bradley pranked his mourners with a pre-recorded message. In a video viewed hundreds of thousands of times on social media, one can hear him — to the surprise and laughter of those at his graveside — shouting from concealed speakers, “Hello? Hello? Where the f— am I? Let me out! It’s f—ing dark in here!”

This story may be amusing, but it illustrates several serious themes central to Elaine Kasket’s compelling and important new book, All the Ghosts in the Machine: how social media allows us to be present to others after we die, the extent to which we can control this presence and the effects this can have on those we loved. In this moving, empathetic and sometimes profound investigation, Kasket examines the intimate but rarely discussed connections between our brief life on Earth and our digital footprint on social media.

Kasket is a London-based psychologist and the author of numerous chapters for practitioner textbooks on counselling psychology and bereavement in the age of Web 2.0. Her new book is the result of her interviews with people in mourning as well as information technology (IT) professionals about how social media has disrupted and transformed this fundamental aspect of human existence.

While most of us have embraced numerous online services and integrated them seamlessly into our lives, few of us do so with an awareness of our own impermanence — how our profiles and content will likely outlast us, and the effects these may have on those who encounter them after we’re gone. Indeed, Kasket finds to her astonishment that only recently have social media companies themselves begun to face their customers’ mortality.

Facebook, for example, boasts approximately 2.5 billion users; what is less widely known is that millions of them are no longer with us — their pages now “memorialized” — and some experts estimate there will be well over three billion deceased account owners by the end of the century. For some of those Kasket interviews, their grief has been compounded by being locked out of the accounts of the departed and having no access to, or control over, their hundreds of posts and photographs.

The other growing problem she finds facing the bereaved is the sheer volume of what we produce: where a handful of cracked, faded photographs of a great-grandparent from the early 20th century are treasures to be preserved, deciding what to keep among thousands of digital images on a hard drive is overwhelming.

Even more problematic, she discovers, are the Black Mirror-esque efforts already being developed by IT entrepreneurs to allow us to maintain our social media presence from beyond the grave, pre-programming posts, messages and even calls to our loved ones, with little regard for the trauma this would likely cause.

The remedy, Kasket argues, is for all of us to think about our digital assets the way we do anything else we would normally account for in our wills: to name stewards of our blogs, videos and photographs, and to winnow down the hundreds of gigabytes of data on our devices to more manageable levels.

As well, she warns, while our data may outlast us, it won’t do so forever, being easily corrupted, erased or made obsolete. Printed pages and photographs, by contrast, are more likely to be passed on to your descendants.

Beyond Kasket’s practical advice for lessening the digital burden on those we leave behind, her book’s greatest value lies in its humanist conclusion: that, instead of compulsively, thoughtlessly and voluminously documenting our lives — and those of our children — we should instead be more concerned with living lives of meaning.

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press November 16th 2019.