I unfriended my mother recently.
That probably seems like a pretty rude thing for a son to do to his dear old muh-mah, but she started it. Six years ago that old lady had the audacity to shuffle off this mortal coil, evacuate her corporeal state, cease to physically exist. But still she lingered on Facebook–the birthday reminder, the Facebook friend-iversary, etc., each of which was a little jab in the gut. And she’s not the only departed one that Mr. Zuckerberg likes to remind me of. My Facebook friend list doubles as alternate lyrics to a Jim Carroll song–this one’s a suicide, that one choked on a piece of meat, here’s a couple of COVID victims. They were all my friends, and they died.
Facebook–excuse me, Meta–presumably has neither the means nor any interest in purging the departed from their user ranks. Claiming nearly three billion users is part of their brand, after all, and in the digital world building a brand is what it’s all about. Besides, I’m sure they still use the data that they gathered from my deceased friends for reasons that are technically legal but clearly unethical to anyone but a sociopath or a CEO, if you’ll pardon the redundancy. And so my dear mother and my absent friends are cursed to wander the Metaverse as techno-zombies, which would be much cooler if, as the name suggests, they were provided glow sticks, MDMA, and a sick beat.
This is your fate, too, and mine. We are no longer guaranteed the eternal peace that an overpriced box and six feet of soil once promised. We are doomed to immortality, digitally speaking.
That kind of staying power was once reserved for both the famous and the infamous: empire builders, artists, the greatest of thinkers and the maddest of the madmen. (Also: Bert Convy.) These people sought immortality, or at least accepted it as part of the gig. Such is the difference between William Shakespeare, the most famous author in the English-speaking world and the Beowulf poet, the anonymous writer whose most famous work predates old Bill by several hundred years. Don’t want your name spoken for centuries? Don’t stick it on everything you touch. At least that’s how it used to be. Now we’re all doomed to eternity as techno-zombies.
Even among the famous death promised a certain degree of mortality. The assumption was that death marked the end of one’s work, and that whatever he or she managed to complete prior to expiring would eventually slip into the public domain where it would inevitably be forgotten or remembered more for the work itself than its famous author. Think of Aesop’s Fables, for example, or Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
This was such a given that after Jimi Hendrix’s death in 1970 Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell, the other two musicians who rounded out the Jimi Hendrix Experience, sold their rights to that music for next to nothing. Little did they know that while Jimi Hendrix had ceased to be, Jimi HendrixTM was just getting started. During his brief lifetime, Hendrix released four albums–five if you count the Smash Hits collection. In the 50 years since his death almost 100 official Hendrix albums and EPs have been released. Jimi the Brand is worth significantly more today than Jimi the Person was while he was alive.
He’s not the only one. The estates of David Bowie, Prince, and Frank Zappa keep digging through the vaults to keep the money rolling in. This isn’t limited to new music, by the way, but any merchandise that will sell. Aladdin Sane t-shirts have probably outsold the Aladdin Sane album exponentially, for example, and it’s not just musicians who are doomed to brand eternity. James Dean only made three movies–three!–but his sexy mug has become a brand unto itself, often roaming the pop culture Earth with that other beautiful brand that used to be a human, Marilyn Monroe.
Sometimes the principals–or more likely a subset–of a creative team are the ones turning their former partners into brand zombies. If I never hear Brian May start another sentence with “Freddie would’ve wanted” I’d be one happy Queen fan. Poor Freddie Mercury, dragged from his eternal rest to justify whatever horrible thing Brian May and Roger Taylor think of next to keep the money rolling in.
Anyway, techno-zombies. I guess I’m a bit more on the “I brought this upon myself” end of the spectrum than my mother was. I published this, after all. That implies some degree of desire for digital permanence. Mom just wanted to see online pictures of her grandkids and have a way to play Scrabble with her son who lived 2,000 miles away.
So if upon my death my words and doodles continue to float around the Metaverse with my name attached to them so be it. But please unfriend me when I’m physically gone rather than drag my digital corpse around for eternity. It’s what Freddie would’ve wanted.