49. Digital Effigies

Randomly finding personal home pages, profiles and the like of people that are gone is an eerie experience. Sometimes it’s spelled out for you that a person passed away, other times you sort of… Deduce it. Most people must have experienced this in some form or another. Let’s consider two recent cases of mine that I struggle to let go:

I read up on an obscure Unix-related project a while ago. A couple of sites alluded to someone who championed and developed this piece of niche software. So I read on and happened upon a personal page. The person was well-read and opinionated. All activity ceased after a certain date and later I found a cryptic note elsewhere. I connected the dots and figured that something must have happened. I kept on reading and I found out that this individual died at a young age by choice.

Collaborative software projects usually involves public correspondence like mailing lists and this project was no exception. If I’m troubleshooting I’m bound to end up reading old emails, git commit messages and sources of that nature. The discussions I passively take part of tend to radiate liveliness. Being aware of a participant’s passing puts perception at odds with knowledge. The words’ strange finality isn’t there if you’re unaware of it.

The other experience was similar but not identical. I was searching for terminal based games. I found one and bumped into a small issue. The documentation didn’t provide any answers. I traversed repositories and web pages. The last commit was relatively old and the links I found were broken. People abandon stuff like this all the time so I didn’t think much of it. I went on like this for a while.

At last I accessed the developer’s page through archive.org. This person actively used social media, communities and had a dozen or so unique profiles. After a certain date communication ceased. This time explanations were scarce. Where this individual previously wrote regularly there was now only void. The answer might be more mundane and less solemn than I imagine. Given the subject matter the adage “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” couldn’t be more prudent, albeit morbidly fitting, advice. However, this was a young social, creative and industrious person. And from what I can gather, a computer science student. An unlikely candidate for turning to anarcho-primitivism and vanish into the woods.

If you use the Internet for more than basic stuff you leave traces similar to the ones above. Especially if you’re collaborating with people. When you cease to exist a kind of digital effigy displaying conversations and creative works is left. Frozen in time. If you sift through all this stuff these people appear to be living. Happily reading in ignorance and slowly grasping that something is amiss often leave me in a gloomy state.

I’ve got no points to make or substantial concluding words. So I’ll end with the unuttered and unanswered question that enter my mind at these junctures:

“Who were you?”