August 4, 2008

Something is Missing in This New Virtual Afterlife


A FEW months ago, a friend emailed me with a link to highlights of a lecture given by a professor of computer science shown on the internet. Have a look at this, he said. You'll be interested. I clicked on the link (http: //www. youtube. com/watch? v=ji5_MqicxSo) and sat back to watch. The talk was part of a series of lectures in which leading academics were asked to give an imagined "final talk" in which they offered the wisdom they would like to impart if they knew that they were soon to die.

So, what was so unusual about this one? Well, the 47-year-old lecturer, Randy Pausch of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, began by showing CAT scans of his liver, and the tumours that were attacking it. This was no pretendy last lecture; he was suffering from incurable pancreatic cancer. Apologising to those who thought he should be more depressed and morose, the father of three young children proceeded to do some energetic press-ups on stage. Speaking on the topic of Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams, Pausch refused to engage in self-pity. He was upbeat, funny and passionate, moving from jokes to insights from computer science, to advice on collaborating with people from a variety of disciplines. Some inspirational life lessons were offered along the way. I must confess that my reticence-preferring Scottish Presbyterian sensibilities were jangled when the oration moved to the edge of showmanship, but it was an astonishing tour-de-force, an exuberant display of defiance in the face of death.

Now all this might only have grabbed the attention of 400 people in a hall in Pennsylvania, but this is the age of the global internet. When excerpts of the video of the speech were posted on YouTube, it created an immediate sensation. Some people were drawn to it from voyeuristic motives: after all, it's not often one gets to see a dying man dance with the grim reaper. But millions of viewers were also challenged by the sight of a comparatively young man naming his fatal condition and encouraging them to live their dreams, all done with dazzling bravura. Within days, Randolph Frederick Pausch was a household name in America and far beyond.

Last week, Pausch died at home. Websites were immediately overwhelmed with tributes, and blogs sprang up everywhere in a massive outpouring of grief. The internet is redefining the way many people mourn, as it is reshaping so many aspects of our lives. Those of us born and raised BC - before computers - are confused by it.

For our children and grandchildren, the internet is the global space in which they live and move and have much of their being. In BC time, indeed for aeons before computers, religion in various forms controlled the processes of mourning and provided anchoring rituals to help people deal with death. In AD - after dad - there is no such authoritative centralising force. Institutional religion's timehallowed mourning franchise is running out in some parts of the world, for good and for ill.

So what is replacing religion in cyberspace? The answer is ? religion. Well, sort of. It's interesting to see the pervasiveness of religious language within the blogs and other internet tributes. The letters RIP are everywhere. Angels proliferate.

These "thick" images are torn from their original doctrinal contexts and given a slimmed-down free pass. Web-posters address the deceased directly, as multitudes mourn someone they knew so well but didn't know at all. It's an ethereal, insubstantial world, this global Valhalla which is conjured up by pressing a button on a personal computer.

The notion of immortality is being democratically revised before our eyes, in our own homes. To live beyond death is to exist on YouTube, or MySpace or Facebook, with lots of tributes and images of candles and harps. Welcome to the global grief-fest.

Religion was notably absent in Pausch's pre-death discourse. He was an evangelist whose message was: live your dreams, live in the now, this life is all you've got, so live it to the max. In many ways, that's a good, strong, message. Yet as someone brought up BC but who enjoys a lot of things AD, I find it lacking.

I think of the many people in the world for whom life is a continual struggle for survival, or the children whose lives are cut short by illness or accident. I want something that speaks of hope of fulfilment for them, and I don't mean a picture on YouTube. Yes, that may be wishful thinking.

I want to eat my religious cake and have it, too. I want an embodied religious faith that says: live to the max here, enjoy the beauty of this world, nourish relationships, stand up for justice - but there is also something substantially "other" which cannot be expressed in limited and limiting human words.

Originally published by Newsquest Media Group.

(c) 2008 Herald, The; Glasgow (UK). Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.