Immortality and the Internet

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My grandmother is immortal.

Frances Friedman, director of Hudnall Planetarium at Tyler Junior College for many years, lives on four years after her death. It’s not because of the planetarium shows or scholarships given in her memory. It’s because I just named her, and because a memo she wrote over ten years ago happens to have been posted on the net.

Where does she live? I don’t know. I don’t know what state or even what continent houses the computer where her words are stored. I don’t know for certain that Google won’t go belly up, that the Wayback Machine which scours and saves everything on the web won’t vanish tomorrow. But I suspect the chances of an asteroid pulverizing the earth next year are much higher. Short of those calamities, Frances Friedman will probably live forever.

I’ve virtually guaranteed it by mentioning her in this article. That puts her name on the web in several places. Once upon a time, people chanted a name to invoke it. Nowadays, repetition makes it almost certain that a post, name, or image will get swept up by a web archive somewhere. Even one instance is usually enough.

Children don’t understand the danger, and we don’t yet understand the implications. Nearly everything you’ve ever said on the web is saved somewhere. Search engines’ success is measured by how well they’re able to retrieve anything posted on the web. Government and private agencies are just as determined to have the world’s secrets at their fingertips. The truth is out there. So are the lies, the fictions, and the mistakes.

Kids share their thoughts, the details of their lives online, and they’re often naive enough to do it under their own names. They’re too innocent to realize that predators aren’t the only ones they need to worry about. What about the employer who, in twenty years, searches the web and stumble across that wrist-slashing poem some kid posted during a “nobody understands me” phase of fourteen-year-old angst?

The oldest things you post on the web are often the ones that turn up first in search engines. I should know; I’m still trying to get away from that term paper I posted online in 1994. My first homepage where I uploaded it is long gone, but there’s a bevy of websites hosting now, presenting it as a scholar’s work. People cite me as an authority. I know better.

Don’t believe everything you read on the web. Who wrote it? How do they know?

Remember that nineties joke? On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog.

You’ll notice I’ve not named myself. I don’t think I’ve said anything to be ashamed of, but I still err on the side of caution.

Let me share with you my translation of a poem written over two thousand years ago by Horace, a Roman writer supported by the emperor and his court partly because Horace was a namedropper. Immortality through literature was a popular theme among Latin poets, who used the same word to mean both “poet” and “prophet.”

Not by ordinary nor feeble wings
will I, a poet in twofold form,
be borne through liquid heaven,
Nor will I linger long on earth;
Mightier than the envy [of rivals],

I’ll leave cities behind. Not I, the blood
of humble parents, not I, whom you call,
dear Maecenas—I’ll not meet death
nor be drowned by the waves of the Styx.

Even now the scaly skin settles
on my shanks, and I am changed into
a white swan on high, and soft feathers
sprout from my fingers and shoulders.

Now, more famous than Icarus son of Daedalus
I’ll visit the shores of thundering Bosphorus
the Gaetulian Syrtes, and Hyperborean fields
As a singing bird.

The man of Colchis will know me, so too
the Dacian who feigns not to fear the legions
of Mars [Romans], and the far-off Geloni;
the Spaniard and drinker of the Rhone will
learn from me, worldly-wise.

Let there be no laments at my empty funeral;
let there be no crowd of mourners, no wailings;
hold the noise—spare me the empty
honors of a mausoleum!

—Horace, Odes 2.20

Back then, you needed a publisher, not to mention two thousand years of scribes and printers willing to copy out your words and preserve them. Now you just need an internet connection.

Goodnight, Memaw, wherever you are.


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