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I've written before on death and the internet, and how it will at the very least be problematic within technology. Back in 2006, I contemplated what death would be like for Facebook users, and the difficult, and incredibly messy, grieving period for kin left behind. Since then, I have friends I've known died, and experienced their loss through social networks. Pages memorialised into touching tributes, in a manner of digital presence that still makes the relationship of death and the internet difficult. Where before loss could only be contemplated in a seemingly private imagination, one can now express publicly to a soul that is no longer of this earth.
The fact that I still interact with most of my friends as mere text on a screen anyway, disguises the fact that I am having no personal contact with them whatsoever – it's enough for sustaining friendship, but there's very little to stop them not being there and me not knowing. In my original contemplation, I provoked the notion of a digital will, which could not only give the passwords and protections of your social profile to your estate, passwords and so on, but which could also program into your death certain activities. Your page could create an event on your death, and invite your friends to your favourite haunt. Or else, you might ask that your account tweet your love and support to peers on their birthdays, from beyond the grave. Obviously, people could write whatever they want into their digital afterlife, as complex as their imaginations allow, and even plan to interact automatically with new events. Give it 50 years, and whole websites will linger, themselves abandoned by swathes of users, as corridors for the dead, to mingle, poke and repost in conversations that are never read.
This challenge to the sense of mortality has interesting connotations for the role of the artist. One of the clearest motifs throughout art history is that of the skull, the memento mori, that reminded the viewer, and the artists, that their life was only passing, and that inevitably one day, it would all be over. Against this, the genius was granted a kind of immortality, with enough skill or talent. A similar memorial of life beyond the body was granted to those who paid for prime real estate in church yards, even sponsoring stones and statues within the churches themselves, or even in the form of whole buildings dedicated to them. Reliant on their work, artists slaved themselves to the highest bidder, but ensured their own immortality within enough skill or prominence in history.
Today, even with notoriety – a bastard relative of genius or recognition – one is barely guaranteed an obituary in a newspaper of any significance, and even the newspapers themselves are beginning to contemplate their own life without ink. Great artists, thinkers and figures now breathe their last breath, and cannot guarantee even inches of digital exposure, with the closest thing perhaps having their work manipulated with love into the letters of “Google” on their front page. That or a price hike of their work on iTunes.
Many more are rumoured dead before their time and shared before careers have even blossomed – with networks of devoted fans connected by networks designed to let good news travel fast, the eager swathes pick up on the merest whiff of death like rabid wolves, not fuelled with perversion or contempt, but simply impulsed by the need to share now nearly as essential as water or air. Death, once so precious, is now one of many tweets that can remain eternally, and in perpetuity as the thoughts of thinking thoughtless sand.
When Bruce Willis supposedly approached the issue, it became world wide news – what would happen to his collection of digital music once he had passed? These questions of are only beginning to be asked. Cory Doctorow in a recent TwiT podcast, posited a business opportunity to allow entire identities, passwords and databases of personal date, be bequeathed. Still in it's infancy, the internet will eventually have to deal with the question of death when it's mature enough to know what it really means, while our inevitable future echoes on and accumulates in a space without limit for ghosts in the machine.
Amusingly, the answers are not being sought with any passion for the lives of loved ones, but many of the questions being asked are posed by those for rights to copy and sell the works of the deceased. Within Cliff Richard's lifetime, a number of copyright laws have been extended and overturned to allow rights to his music to remain in his pension. Of these living rights, it is perhaps justifiable for some kind of control remain to those who made their work before the author had been declared dead. There was an innocence when one could create something that was exclusively theirs, and could also control and limit in precise terms how much it was heard and sold. But now, these limits are no longer even conceivable, and laws will soon be passed in this decade or the next, that no longer simply protect authorship, but which extend and the re-imagine the relationship of rights to their author against the will of those who create.
Where before death drew a line on the soul of creative work, natural limits made sense. What once were vultures picking on the carcases have evolved into whole cultures and communities, eco-systems of industry that exist almost entirely on the value of something dead. Ensuring new life could grow from the old is a natural progression, built into nature, and in most cases the spirit of those lost shared with reverence and respect. But now works, sometimes created before technology, before systems were created, and even before the knowledge and weight of world wars are exploited, and at significant cost.
Walt Disney is often cited here for example of the kind of things that happens. The intellectual property of Walt Disney – regardless of the disputed origin – includes characters like Mickey Mouse. Since his death, the brands and works that Disney create continue to be owned and mined, like endless coal pits, for value and capital. Behind the scenes much work is done to ensuring this property never be gifted to the public in which it is loved – and this includes lobbying for laws to protect their business, and imagined survival.
The Walt Disney estate are very clever in how they utilise their intellectual property. They haven't dared to make new Mickey cartoons for adults, or those who would pertain to remember what Mickey used to be like, for a substantial time. One can deduce this is a paralysis through fear, afraid of what people would think of them for betraying but knowing the inevitable backlash could end their business. But they do their experimentations in the form of pre-school children's shows, an audience for whom the memories are new, and cannot be shamed. Through this indoctrination the value of the brand is sustained; shopping malls and theme parks are thriving with the cultural cache of a brand that has been dead for years. I'm not saying this practices are any more moral, but at the very least they value the memory of their audience in some way.
I bring this, potentially morose relationship of death and copyright to our attention, as there is little more important to our culture. The relationship of nature with technology, one built by humans the other the story of how humans were built, is dangerously close to become so entangled that we forget where we end and technology beings. Memory is one of the areas in which two worlds collide – on one hand it is a figure that dictates how much data a computer can hold, interchangeable and upgradeable at ones heart's content – yet on the other hand, it is the past lived through the flesh, it is the only thing of what we have left for what used to be. A world without technology only exist inside us, it will always be the last vestiges of culture and passion. As such, it needs to be treated with respect.
This weekend past Children in Need featured a sequence in which Chris Moyles – the self proclaimed saviour of radio 1 – danced with the reanimated holograms of the kings of light entertainment, Morecambe and Wise. Without a doubt the most influential and well loved double act in British entertainment history, the duo are one of the few treasured links from broadcast television to the thriving Vaudeville scene from which they emerged. Their relationship to history is fascinating, as time slowly marches on, fewer and fewer will remember seeing them perform when first broadcast – the memory of them persevering through generation to generation, as each round christmas dinner recount that skit or bit where this or that did dance and lark. And despite revisiting through garish clip show in the past 20 years since their death, their memory has not been lost, and even us new kids on the block have a
memory of fondness.
Partly, this will be down to our access to the show – in a broadcasting world where there was no space, nor indeed inclination or conception, or keeping records of what went on TV, much of the BBC's earlier years were thought lost, until keen collectors, and hobbyist pirates revealed their glorious wares. Notably Bob Monkhouse – a figure of comedy himself, and this I believe is no coincidence – had a shed full of old tapes and videos. Certainly it was rare to have enough money for the equipment, and indeed the nous to know this kind of equipment even existed, but his position as a comedian knew o
f the importance of our relationship to the past, in a craft that constantly refers, repeats and listens to those that come before it, and acknowledges our debt.
And so it was with sheer disgust that I heard, through twitter, that Children in Need had revived Morecambe and Wise for their latest endeavours. As a fan of comedy, and a fan of the sanctity of life, I have sincere objections to their actions. Here is a preview video from the BBC explaining how the bit was made:
I understand the night is for a good cause, and I know how hard it must be to fill hours – literally hundreds of minutes – full of content that gets people giving their money. In an economic climate that is itself near death's door, in which the only capital is dead capital, old money endlessly recycled and shared, even artificially inflated by the doctors and wizards of the Bank of England, it is no doubt tough to get people to part with what little they have. But god damn you for your insolence – how dare you.
If you must, traipse the cohort of commercial whores, punting their wares for a few well exposed minutes of good will. Let them trade and trash their memory, flirt and spurt from mouth and flesh into the lens, pierce their very hearts against obscurity, let them be dragged by your dirty blade into the spotlight, and bleed their lives in whatever crass, disinterested manner they permit you to. Peddle breast for a few bucks, let torso be sold, and let gut be gauged to the highest bidder. Fine. But don't demean those who can't give their consent, who didn't belong and have never existed in these over saturated media dungeons you call modern broadcasting, and who don't deserve your abuse. Get Terry drunk it's funny. Let him slur and fart his way through a nightmarish evening of untalented skeletons and now soulless enthusiasts that litter the halls of the media. But don't for god sakes shit on the dead.
These men are loved. Adored. They gave their entire life to show business; rehearsed, rewrote and rekindled every word in their calloused mouths for the love of laughter. Not a single improvised line was real, but scripted to death. Their knowledge of the craft of comedy – and dance and song too – go back not only their lives, but the lives before them. They built their work, their reputation and their entire lives on the passions of an industry that knew how to do things, and do things well – and deliberated every gesture, movement and intonation with almost military precision.
I do not care if the technology, or even the fashion of the time, allows one such transgressions. These holograms are a travesty of art and science, a systemic industry of horror and trolling. Even if you are as utterly devoid of creativity, have a drought in talented writers and performers – which I guarantee from the circuit I work in (in my spare time I pretend to be a comedian) is not the case at all, far from it – then at the very least recreate their spirit, and relive their memory through the bodies and work of other people. But to re-imagine the memory through such a crass and cowardly truce of light and deceit, even if pieced together from actions they had done before, and with the blessing of which ever estate or body that owns rights to such things, it is a disgusting act that desecrates them far worse than. No one, as far as I know, has asked for these ghosts to be re-woken out of anything other than shallow lust.
I get that people know what they like and they like what they know. This shouldn't mean to give them what they already know, and repeat it ad finitum, or perhaps more succinctly, ad nauseam. But nothing is a surer destination than cultural suicide if nothing new is created, and if no new space is permitted for this new to emerge. Let a new generation find their own passion, let them watch and grow with fresh talents, new works that build themselves in the shadow that they choose to cower within.
People often despise adaptations of Shakespeare. These re-imaginings, it is said, gut the glorious text written by Shakespeare, fuck the heavenly hand that wrote the words and spew out verse like slop in buckets, cesspools of post-modern bullshit. They couldn't be further from the truth – but you are entitled to your opinions – re-imaginings of these works make decisions attached to the spirit of the work, re-interpret and breathe new meaning into work, through body and language of theatre that rebuilds and remixes through talent and ingenuity. But their work is a remix of rebirth, not some monstrous approximation and desecration of the past. They don't traipse the body of Shakespeare through the mud, but discuss its meaning and relevance today, no matter how the primary material is treated. The past should be used to influence and inspire, to haunt our thoughts and justify our actions. The joy of the past is that it remains dead, and that we can have our way with it.
Don't with one hand re-animate the dead, and in the other demand people pay for content so that artists get what they deserve. The two are one and the same issue. Artists are losing out on jobs because of an industry that disputes the value of the now, over the bankable value of that they already know and have sold before – without any love or heart in what is being made. Don't you dare create new memories, entirely new narratives and stories for which those who it damages most will not be able to participate. Memories for which these individuals can have no control. Let these two stolwarts of British culture sleep – they were worked to death by our want for entertaining, and it is our payment to them to let their memory and work shine as they remember it.
These sorts of telethons are themselves a dying breed. It won't be hard to imagine a time when television isn't experienced as producers co-ordinate it – these events won't be guaranteed achieving the passive eyes in the same way they do now. TV just won't work like that. Sure, live events will continue to be screened, but the viewers themselves won't be glued to their chairs without the content to sustain them. There will be no obligation to the stream as there is to the aerialed box, and the demand for spectacle, creativity, humour and experience of seeing something live will still exist without them. The future will demand, and on demand, something of their own.
Sure, the technology exists for this kind of morbid animation, but we shouldn't let technology be used to destroy what it is to be human – and especially not to manipulate and delete the memory of those which have come before us. This technology should allow us to tell new stories, to communicate in new ways, to develop new narratives and shared experiences which are relevant and our own. To educate and innovate in immersive worlds, places which heighten our memory and participation. To extend our memory so that nothing, however glorious or sad, is lost.
Nature is cyclical. The seasons bring birth and death into some kind of balance and order. Even our more primal culture has survived on this system of recycling, and we owe a debt of gratitude to the myths and legends that inspire our stories, that have survived through oral performance and tradition, and have given birth to the many off shooted tribulations and tales that seep into our lives today. In many ways our technology must help us return to this way, ensure the means by which we can consume with balance, turning refuse into fuel, and restoring the balance to life which our culture has thrived from theft.
Instead, this technology is being used against this order. The pervasive sentiment of rebooting for profit in the face of creative drought emerges and is informed through the technology we use. Despite a world of interesting things being written, performed and shared at an unprecedented level – in a world in which everyone can hope to be an artist of some description – we are slavishly rebooting franchises before they've even learnt to walk. We treat intellectual property like legends of ages past, when they are little more than ripples of a stone thrown into puddles years ago.
I understand completely that there is a complexity to what I am arguing that deserves more nuance than I have allowed. What distinction is there between the use of remixing film footage than remixing through some other technology? Other than the limitations of the technology of one generation against those of another? Even within film, I am thankful that worlds have been rebooted – I wouldn't for a moment wish that Christopher Nolan didn't get the chance to tell the Batman stories the way he has – and in doing rescuing the hero from his camp silver screen beginnings. One form of reuse and renewal over and above the reboot and reanimation. How is one beautiful, and one monstrous? How can we know that Morecambe and Wise weren't the same authorial, godlike breath that
Perhaps my own reaction is that of a world I am more familiar. The same sacred affection I hold for Morecame and Wise is little different to that shared by someone for Adam West's caped crusader – and the theology shared by millions of a religious order I find illogical and near intolerable But, the issues of copyright and technology in regards our memory, tradition and mortality, have a far more entangled relationship than has ever been suggested. We should pay close attention to the times in which these worlds were born for sure, and guarantee that our laws and actions reflect the times in which these works were created. With the internet perhaps we can understand that memories are there to be shared by all, and always respected.
I don't have the answers, but I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
And that my friends, is how you write a piece about the BBC and dead talent without
making any references or jokes to Jimmy Savile. Good luck finding another one written in the next 12 months.