Sunday, 6 January 2013

An analog life and a digital death

Una in Nigeria dancing to Highlife

On the first of September 2012 my mother died. She had lived a full 87 years. She grew up in the highlands in the 1930’s and remembered that even through the Scottish winter there were children who walked barefoot for several miles to attend school. She went on to excel at medical school in Edinburgh and then to live and work in the Yemen and the soon to be independent Nigeria. Returned to Scotland and taught, researched and wrote five books. She had five children and was married twice, the second time to an eminent Scottish politician. She was never a philistine and always looked forward to the future and was enthralled by developments in science, the arts and culture. She intermittently used personal computers to write, and produced her unpublished autobiography.

Four years ago my mother asked why she didn’t have a blog. Everyone else seemed to have them, why had we not made sure she had her own. It was more an accusation than a question. I agreed to set one up for her and collected some images and started to design the site. When we discussed what she would like to write about, it became evident to her that she could not think of anything. Or rather anything that would be of sufficient interest to either her or potential readers. She did not want to look back and her life at that time, like so many older people was a dull routine of empty days and occasional family visits. So she never got her blog.

Sometime during the last couple of weeks of her life I searched for her on Google. There was no trace. Eventually I found her name in relation to her husband and she was wrongly assigned in Wikipedia as the wife of her long term companion.
She found this discrepancy funny.

She was a member of perhaps the last non digital generation. Despite her full life and achievements, all her work and writings were before the internet. She never used email, or as far as I am aware joined any online groups or networks. So we were spared the task of reviewing her digital legacy and personal digital correspondence. The need to close online accounts,  and the apparent hassle of having to prove that she had died.

The paradox is that, us, her family relied on Facebook and email to keep each other informed of her health. We were in daily contact, scheduling when we would visit her, messages for the doctors, selection of care homes and all the network of issues surrounding the support of a loved one. We lived in different locations, in UK and abroad. Facebook was our principle method of conversing.

Upon her death it was Facebook which was the best method for us to notify our social circles of our loss. Telling the reduced group of her surviving friends was mush harder analog process. Trolling through her address books, phoning and sending letters.

The process of arranging for the burial, selecting the funeral director, and all the choices one makes is arduous and time consuming. It is done at a time of high emotion, again in a large family there are group decisions to be made, shared responsibilities. The funeral business is a human face to face business. At least in Scotland it is almost devoid of any digital element. This makes sense as the personal touch is important, but to a generation used to Amazon, it is odd that you cannot do any of it online. Select the flowers, view the options for the coffins, is all done via brochures and poorly produced leaflets.

She was part of the last generation who lived a full and rich analog life. Within ten years I doubt there will be any more UK citizens who will die without making some form of digital footprint during their lives. After her death my mother now has a digital legacy. The burial notice and obituary and videos of the speeches at her funeral are all online. We have scanned and uploaded important photographs from her collection of family photos onto Shoebox. The largest legacy lives on in our Facebook pages and the messages of condolences and the continued exchanges and remembrances of family members.

1 comment:

  1. Una's sidelining by the academic establishment was shameful: she should have been made a Professor at the same time as her male co-evals. Maybe someone could be pursuaded to reprint her Penguin book "Magical Medicine"?