Digital Afterlives: Patterning Posterity Through Networked Remains

Tamara Kneese received her Ph.D. from the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU. In 2015-2016 she was a Research Fellow of the Consortium.

My dissertation, “Digital Afterlives: From the Electronic Village to the Networked Estate,” examines digital death care and mourning practices in a period of pervasive social media use. The project spans five body chapters and focuses on different aspects of digital afterlives, including the history of online memorialization practices, the growth of digital estate planning as a field, the preservation of digital archives and aggregated data, the relationship between transhumanist practices and digital immortality, and the infrastructures and care work needed to maintain digital legacies.

Now I am working on a book manuscript, Digital Afterlives, which considers the financial and affective logics behind the rise of digital estate planning. Given how intimately people are connected to the production of online profiles and accounts, digital interactions have increasingly come to feel like possessions, property, or even creative works. But these communicative traces are not legally recognized and do not automatically pass down to kin members. Communicative traces were first valorized with Web 2.0’s social networking memorials, spawning a host of digital estate planning startup companies. Networked estates depend on inheritance protocols and mourning rituals, as well as on the survival of third-party platforms like Facebook.

As an outgrowth of some of my ethnographic and archival research for my dissertation work, my next project considers technocultures of life extension and the genealogies of contemporary transhumanism, which includes practices such as mind uploading, radical life extension through nanotechnology, and cryonics. I’m fascinated by the ways that seemingly fringe techno-utopian ideologies are backed by major corporate establishments and embroiled in everyday practices like fitness tracking.

The Life Extension Institute, based in New York City, is a salient part of this history. The institute was founded in 1913 in an attempt to optimize American health, addressing aspects of everyday routine like hygiene, diet, exercise, and abstention from alcohol and tobacco. LEI proponents—who included many prominent individuals such as former President Taft, William James Mayo, best known as the founder of the Mayo Clinic, Yale economist Irving Fisher, and Alexander Graham Bell—believed that self-optimization could curtail the aging process, allowing for extended healthy life spans. In addition to individual health, LEI members were also invested in racial stereotypes and eugenics. They worked closely with the insurance industry, especially the Metropolitan Life Company, as well as with the medical establishment, assessing individuals and populations according to age, sex, class, and racial or ethnic background.

The Consortium contains many original documents from the Life Extension Institute. The New York Academy of Medicine had a wealth of resources, including numerous pamphlets and materials published by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. One pamphlet entitled “Life Extension Service for Insurance Companies” highlights the ways that the LEI could decrease life insurance costs by conducting physical examinations of workers. In pamphlets by Dr. Eugene Lyman Fisk, the LEI’s medical director, he calculates workers’ fatigue and attempts to locate the ideal workload for productivity, equating this balance with enhanced health. He also authored a pamphlet that details the physical assessments of industrial workers, weirdly juxtaposing the health hazards faced by Ford Motor workers (tuberculosis, job-related injuries) with the potential immortality of “germ plasm.” Through health metrics and other calculations of risk, in addition to physical and social “hygiene” practices that included eugenics, LEI members believed that the aging process itself could be prevented.

At the Chemical Heritage Foundation, I examined Howard B. Bishop’s personal papers in attempt to better understand the history of self-optimization. Bishop was a contemporary of members of the Life Extension Institute and lived in the New York area for most of his adult life. He founded the Human Engineering Foundation in 1940, after his retirement. The Human Engineering Foundation was located in Summit, NJ, a short train ride from NYC, and called for abstention from alcohol, caffeine, meat, and tobacco in order to prolong and improve human life. Like members of the LEI, Bishop was a wealthy and prominent member of society. His fortune came from his patents as a chemist. Like those at the LEI, he also equated self-optimization with life extension. At the Chemical Heritage Foundation, I found a number of advertisements, pamphlets, and correspondence related to the Human Engineering Foundation. The collection is so vast that I must plan another trip to thoroughly explore the connections between Bishop’s political and religious beliefs and his investment in life extension. Bishop’s Summit-based foundation is interesting to me for personal reasons as well, as my family lived in Summit for a while and still resides in the area. At a future date, I would like to return to the CHF to spend more time reading Bishop’s many personal letters and other ephemera!

At the American Philosophical Society, I found more pamphlets associated with life extension, including one by Irving Fisher on eugenics. The direct connection between life extension practices and overt racism is a chilling but important reminder. I also found other resources related to life extension and scientific knowledge. In a 1913 work by John O. Yeiser called Immortality Established Through Science, he connects the human brain to a machine, claiming that the brain “may have a defective keyboard and not be able to perform in every instance” (45). I found this comparison particularly poignant because it mirrors later cybernetic depictions of cognition. The connections between spiritual immortality and cybernetics are another important facet of my next research project. A 1928 book by Sir Oliver Lodge called Why I Believe in Personal Immortality also considers a scientific approach to communicating with the dead. As I move forward with my research, I plan to return to the American Philosophical Society to further explore the links between scientific knowledge and spiritual immortality.

Thanks to the Consortium, I was able to enhance one research project and begin another. My article entitled “Algorithms versus Actuaries: The Life Extension Institute and Predictive Modeling in Insurance” will be part of a special issue of Representations on Algorithms in Culture and will form the basis for an upcoming presentation at UC Berkeley’s Center for Science, Technology, Medicine & Society.  I argue that the connections between life insurance, labor, and personhood might help to contextualize the expansion of predictive analytics into everyday life. My time as a research fellow was invaluable and my work greatly benefited from the Consortium’s rich resources. 

Tamara Kneese