Commentary

Haunted By Real Life On The Internet

I think about a lot of things before I share online. But here’s one thing I never think about:

The unthinkable.

Daniel Miller didn’t think of that either. So he shared photos on Facebook and Flickr, wrote anecdotes in his blog and managed his finances using Mint. And then his one-year-old daughter died.

And the machine wouldn’t turn off. Every now and then he just wanted to take his mind off his grief and focus on something happier. But he was constantly reminded of his daughter by the sites and tools that were so integrated into his connected life.

Daniel explains what he calls the “infinitely connected triggers of her memory and the dumb machines” in a blog he writes to share experiences related to his family’s loss.

Someday I want to be able to sit and look at her pictures, even watch the videos, and remember how great it was when she was here. For now, accidentally seeing a thumbnail image in a directory on my computer or on my phone or on Flickr or on Facebook is enough to spawn an hours-long cycle of anxiety and depression.

… It actually goes out of its way to confront me with my pain. Facebook wants to show me memories in the sidebar. Mint tracks a college fund that –- until I worked up the energy to change it — bared her name … Now Mint sends alerts to my phone informing me that I have High Spending in Doctor & Health.

Daniel can’t escape his own digital trail. Yet he returns to the Internet to add to it. He is using the machine to express his frustration that the machine won’t leave him alone. The same technology that haunts him also provides a way to mourn and remember.

I was disturbed when I first came across Daniel’s blog. This topic seemed too big and too serious for the social web. Should this be shared? Does it benefit anyone to make it public?

On one hand, it represents everything that concerns me when it comes to technology’s increasing role in our lives. Maybe we’re porting too much of our lives to public online spaces at the expense of real life, personal interactions. On the other hand, I have a couple of friends who have suffered a similar tragedy and I’m confident they will get something out of reading Daniel’s writings.

Ultimately, this is where we live now. If the Internet is where we experience life, it’s inevitable that it’s where we’ll experience death as well. If you’re a young parent who just lost a kid, where else are you going to go?

Like it or not, this is home.

But if an increasing portion of our lives is now experienced or shared on the Internet, then we need to take a hard look at the ramifications of living in this new world. The acts of communication, sharing and remembering online are similar to their counterparts in our offline lives, but they’re not the same. And technological advances have wildly outpaced our ability to adapt to life online.

The period during which the internet has become a centerpiece of our lives is relatively short, and during that time, we’ve been more distracted and living more urgently than ever. We haven’t had a chance to reflect on the role this technology is playing in our lives. We’ve jumped headfirst into the machine without preparing for the potential outcomes of that decision.

Take it from Daniel Miller:

As discourteous as people can be, the machines are worse, they are just too dumb to understand. In a previous age the machines didn’t talk. Now they chatter on like children unaware of their words.

Dave Pell is a San Francisco based, Web-addicted insider, investor and entrepreneur. He has been blogging for more than a decade. This post first appeared on his blog Tweetage Wasteland.

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