Email from the dead

All I can imagine is this:

After a billion years of lonely, straight-line sojourning through the universe, a cosmic ray this morning transected the orbit of Earth. In some tiny fraction of a second, it passed through ionosphere, ozone layer, stratosphere, and Oakland, California, its trajectory flashing through a server box just south of Lake Merritt, popping a random bit deep in the latter’s architecture across the gap from “one” to “zero.”

With the result that three years’ worth of email piles up in my Inbox this morning, in a long implacable surge, every single last message of it marked as unread. Now, admittedly, on the long list of stressors we’ll come to know in this life, this has to rank as a minor entry, even a trivial one. But here’s the crux: it turns out that a surprising and disheartening number of these mails were sent by people no longer among the living.

There is, of course, something uncanny about this. And also something uniquely hamfisted, some unintentional but deep autism that rides at the signature frequency of our information technology and delivers a slap in the face just when you’re least prepared to accept or tolerate same.

I’m not necessarily sure I can even see a solution here. Oh, OK, sure, I can imagine a technical fix, deep in the nightmare of limitlessly-interconnected social ubiquity that I’m sure some people actually want to build: one where the distributed intelligence of the net infers one’s death from the variety of cues racking up in the available relational semantics, and quashes all traffic originating from one’s (Open)ID on its way through the pipes. Yeah, that’d do the trick. But that in any event is a dodge, and not an answer.

So I suppose we’ll just have to get used to this kind of thing cropping up from time to time: mail from the dear departed, set in present tense and voice, to be dealt with just like anything else that shows up in the Inbox – this bizarrely acute and explicit reminder of loss just one more feature of the labor-saving, planet-linking technology we so depend on.

As we used to say in the Army, though, that’s ate the fuck up.

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