A Graveyard on the Cloud

Or the peculiar art of internet embalming.

[There is a particular phenomenon of the internet age which has long since struck me as rather peculiar. I write this—admittedly rambly and uncertain—piece, in order to attempt to grasp it a bit better. This is still a preliminary version; I'd like to hear the reader's opinions and reading suggestions on the subject, if they have any. - F.]


“Welcome aboard, Mr. Pilgrim,” said the loudspeaker. “Any questions?”

Billy licked his lips, thought a while, inquired at last: “Why me?”

“That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?”

“Yes.” Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three ladybugs embedded in it.

“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”

- Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-five

A long time ago I used to accompany quite avidly the news from the video-game realm. E3, the industry equivalent to a yearly pilgrimage in search of divine revelation, was a grand event for me; I was always eager to find out about the newest gadget which would display even more polygons all at once. Fierce opinions of all sorts were had as to which of the newest game systems were actually the best (a point of pride for any fanboy). Out of this passionate milieu, a veritable world of writers and general media journalists sprung up, divinely ordained to spread the gospel of the bytes to the masses of the great unwashed—that is, the gamers.

The religious comparison is not merely a flight of fancy or a joking affair; for the devoted, these were serious metaphysical concerns of utmost importance. And the preachers often were beholden first and foremost to the game companies, at times little more than mouthpieces for the advertising departments of Sony and the like. These were truly dark times, and the poor gamer could hardly distinguish interesting news from thinly veiled propaganda pieces.

A few of those journalists decided to rebel against the machine, and draped themselves in the mantle of customer advocacy. One in particularly stood out, not for being particularly interesting, but simply because he was rather good at being angry and cynical, and also because his british accent did lend him some measure of charm. He went by the moniker of Totalbiscuit, the "cynical brit".

Some, I'd imagine few, of my readers might have been struck with a sudden remembrance of the old guy, always cranky and bothered. He was, for better or for worse, a fixture of those years when the gaming industry was respected by no one, little more than Hollywood's wannabe sibling. Why am I talking about him, and about gaming in general? I assure that I have no desire to do hagiography, nor do I remember those times particularly fondly, so that it would warrant digging them back and sharing them for those that were born too late.

No, I remember him precisely because of something completely out of his control: because he is now dead. He has been dead for many years now. His furious expletives and tired reviews are no more. No longer will computers resonate with his booming voice, trained in a radio station devoted to World of Warcraft, and no longer will he comment on the gaming industry's newest follies. Indeed, he is no more.

Or he would be. His job consisted, as it were, of creating nearly daily new "content" (the strange word people use for the material uploaded to the internet) in the form of vlogs, podcasts, reviews, and the like. There are thousands upon thousands of hours of John Bain (Totalbiscuit's actual human name) talking, thinking, complaining, laughing and the like forever immortalized on Google's hell-servers. If one wanted, one could watch him every day, and it would be as if he never died at all. This is the point of this piece. There is something rather strange happening here; and it would be perhaps useful to try disassemble it, and maybe, perhaps, understand it.

***

Human beings have known, since long ago, that they are mortal. To die has been, for the longest time, to cease to exist in flesh, and to then exist only in memory. Before writing was invented, this was most likely often a short-lived business; one would only be remembered by those who knew them, or insofar as someone made them present through the act of story-telling, through the life that the spoken word breathed into the long-bygone.

Once writing was invented, the writer could then leave their words forever (or as long as the material in which they wrote remained intact). This created a new kind of death: the word-corpse, that is, the words that are divorced from their speaker, but that remain, to be read in an moment wholly alien to that in which they were written. Though these words had no life of their own anymore, in the act of reading the reader infused a bit of his life into them, in a kind of spiritual blood transfusion, so that meaning once again could surface from the depths of the word.

It should be said that for the longest time this was a privilege for few that could read, or the few that could listen to someone else reading for them. This was so unusual an occurrence that the idea of texts having an author was rather alien. Texts surely were written by someone, but this, in those times, did not mean that the text was an extension of the spirit of the writer (as it is nowadays, with our ideas about plagiarism and copyright), but often a kind of collection of words written together, even if by the hands of a single person. There are countless manuscripts from medieval or classical days which are wholly anonymous. They simply are. (Which does not mean there are no authors from that time at all; a cursory glance would yield Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, St. Augustine, etc. etc.; the point is that this meant something rather different from what it means nowadays.)

Closer to our time, after the printing-press made it rather easier to copy texts, this started to resemble more and more our understanding of authorship (but, as the perennial discussions about who helped Shakespeare to write his plays—they are nowadays understood, so far as I gather, as a collective effort), and more and more we could then worship the idols who wrote the words we love. (In my case, Tolstoy is a favorite). And yet, this was still a limited affair, and no biographer could possibly make a dead person as alive as they once were. Memories of the deceased quickly faded, and they too became history. Even a figure who wrote a lot, and spoke a lot, like Mark Fisher, still seems like he died in the old way: though we have his words, speaking about theory and about life, the man, as he breathed, as he laughed, as he went about living, is now only survived in the memory of those close to him.

Which brings me back to the question before. There is no analogue in the entirety of human history for Mr. Bain's predicament (or any person who was in the same profession and has met a similar fate). "Content", as it is said, is nothing but in a sense the reproduction of a person into video, into internet eternity. We can still see him move, talk, and go about living—living in the time in which he was still alive. And to talk about one of those "livestreamers", who record themselves live, not even in an edited way, is even more striking: it is as if we had become voyeurs to the life that the dead left behind. Instead of being forgotten and commemorated, we seem to now no longer forget, and thus, no longer commemorate. Mr. Bain is dead. He will never give his opinions about the newest consoles. And yet he is still here, forever complaining about a particularly bad video-game.

***

It is hard to talk about this phenomenon. The best analogy that I am aware of is the way Kurt Vonnegut talks about the aliens from Tralfamadore in Slaughterhouse-five: they can see in four dimensions, and, as such, they always see the whole of time all at once, so that any particular moment is always happening, has already happened, and is still to happen. All moments, therefore, are like small sections of time encased in amber, forever still, and yet in perpetual motion.

The dead of the internet age are no less dead than the dead of the Great War. And yet, the strange reality of having not only photographs, but countless hours of recording with them seemingly being alive (in that moment) but actually dead (now) makes this a surreal idea. It is a strange feeling, one that brings to mind the notion of hauntology that Mark Fisher talked about in "Ghosts of the Past". The feeling that time is out of whack, that the future has been cancelled—but here has not the past been cancelled as well? If we have thousands upon thousands of hours of Mr. Bain speaking, and speaking as if he were speaking right now, is he as dead as the dead used to be? Can we really say that the past is actually in the past?

I wish not to be callous. Mr. Bain is a useful example to talk about a difficult subject, and obviously for his loved ones no amount of videos will ever be able to replace his living, breathing existence, now forever lost. To his viewers as well, his past videos may be nostalgic, but they shall never produce the "new". In the internet age the "spiritual blood transfusion" I spoke about is not at all the same, and we can hardly infuse life into those old internet videos. They have their own principle of motion, devoid from ourselves. Our only choice is whether to press "play" or not.

And it is this which precisely bothers me so much. He is dead, as are many others; his videos cannot possible "resurrect" him. What are they, then? They are not like the words of the books, and nor like the spoken memories of him. They seem to inhabit a strange dimension in which he is neither dead nor alive, neither forgotten nor remembered, neither here nor there. He is forever, and yet he never was.

Surely we cannot possibly be so naive as to think that those remains, of him and of others, have no effect upon ourselves. And as the years go by, I can only wonder (and in respect to myself as well, when I finally shuffle off this mortal coil) how large this effect will become. Imagine the day in which all the biggest stars from today's youtube, from Logan Paul to Pewdiepie, are no longer in this world, and their millions of hours still remain to be watched forever. This is a phenomenally strange thought. Can we no longer truly die, then, unless we are completely divorced from the internet? I remain, for now, at a loss for words.