Hallo again to all.
One of the hazards of increased age is that it becomes more common for your friends and loved ones to die. One of the hazards of increased global communication is that when your global friends die, they mostly just vanish.
When we were young and still in school, however long ago that might have been, we saw death only in the abstract, as a concept. When first we experienced the death of someone we knew and loved, it began for us a transformation that took more than a little while, in which we gradually came to grips with 'the meaning of death'. For all of us, each passing decade brings more death, requiring more mourning, more adjustment, more faith.
Meanwhile, this week the secret-breaking power of global electronic communication came to the foreground. The leak and global distribution of the contents of American diplomatic cables has made headlines and turned heads in every country in the world. In past decades, distributing information on this scale required printing presses or television stations, both of which are easily seized and controlled by embarrassed authorities. Decentralized digital international communication — internetworking — distributes information worldwide without the need for a seizable centre, and (less obviously) distributes full master copies of the troublesome information to so many places that it is impossible for any authority to retrieve and suppress all copies.
Leaks of diplomatic cables were on the main stage this week, but social networking has been Topic A for discussion and analysis all year. There is a growing notion that an online virtual community is comparable to an in-person community. Differences remain, of course, and it's not clear whether those differences are intrinsic or just passing phenomena. For example, it is still newsworthy when virtual assets inside the universe of some social network change hands for real money, but that's not really new to social networking. (The buying and selling of trademarks has been going on for a century or more, and what, really, is a trademark besides a virtual asset?) And attempts at making virtual-community analogues of familiar institutions such churches have remained curious niches.
Virtual communities are real, global communication makes those virtual communities global, but the people who are in them still die, because, at the end of the wire, they are just ordinary people. We remember vividly the first time that someone we knew only in an online community died. His name was Mark Emory Graham, and he was the verger of All Saints Episcopal Church in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. He had a global community of online friends as well as the friends who knew him in person. He died in April 1996.
It is now about 15 years since the good Mr Graham died, and it is instructive to look at how he has been remembered. Not just a verger, but active in the creation of a Vergers Guild in the USA, he was the obvious choice to be the namesake of the Mark Emory Graham Chapter of the Vergers Guild of the Episcopal Church, on whose website there is slight mention of him. He is noted on Block 05028 of the AIDS Quilt. Search engines are able to find a few of the email messages that were the core of how we got to know him. The US Social Security Administration remembers him in its Death Master File as 261-88-6695. His memorial online is about as tangible as was the online community where people got to know him. We hope and trust that his family and friends know where lie his remains and still tell stories about him, but there is no obvious link to them and to that, online, for those who knew him there.
Meanwhile, here in the place where we eat and sleep and breathe and exercise, we wanted a more tangible way to remember a relative that we loved. We had gone to his funeral, but then came home and that was over. We have a shoebox of pictures of him dating back to when he was a baby, but that shoebox sits mostly on the shelf. We made a website with a selection of those pictures, and family members looked at it briefly and felt sad, but then stopped. His physical remains are far away, requiring an airplane trip for a visit. His memorial was just our memory, which is linguistically sensible but not satisfying.
We found a satisfying answer in technology, but mostly not the familiar online technology of networks and communications and computers. We used a service (admittedly, an online service) that produced a hardbound book of photographs from the electronic mishmash on hard drives and web sites. It's a real book, printed on a printing press with real ink on real paper. Admittedly it's an unusual, high-tech printing press, but it smells real. There is something so near, so physical, so tangible about a book, that a memorial book just works beautifully. We had several made for close relatives who missed him as much as we did, and we all cried together at how effective was the book at wrenching him back to life, in our hearts, for a little while each time we picked it up.
We might be Anglicans Online and you might know us primarily online, but we assure you that there's nothing like an old-fashioned hardback book, tangible and clutchable and beautiful. We're pretty sure that every copy of this book will last longer than we will, by which time there's no telling how much trouble the world's governments will have gotten themselves into because no one can keep a secret any more.
See you next week.
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