Does death exist online?

When someone we knows dies there are certain rituals we all observe; we attend a funeral and we try to say goodbye, but do we need to take part in those rituals if we can live forever online

Most people lead a double life nowadays: one in the physical, real world and one online. In the former, limited by deteriorating skin and bones, at some point we will all cease to exist, but do our online selves ever really die?

Not wanting to delve too deep into stoner philosophy, but with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and a litany of other social media apps and websites, does anyone really cease to exist and do we need to grieve if we still have an almost palpable presence to communicate with? In the past anyone who continued to have contact with the dead would have been ostracised and recommended therapy, but now is it really so crazy that people continue to message Facebook accounts after loved ones have passed away?

“For something like Facebook people’s responses have been ‘when I sit on a park bench and I say a prayer and I talk to her, I don’t know if she hears me, but when I write to her on Facebook she hears me. I know it’s not logical, but that’s how it feels’,” says Stacey Pitsillides, lecturer in Design in the Department of Creative Professions and Digital Arts at the University of Greenwich.

But taking death online hasn’t just allowed people to maintain bonds forged in life, it has also created a legitimate space for people who might not be comfortable grieving in the real world. For example, people who suffer miscarriages or people with extramarital partners can find comfort in an online community of people going through the same things as them.

Message me when I’m gone

Our online presences have in some ways disrupted death. Age-old rituals and traditions no longer serve as a full stop at the end of a life well lived; we can think about ourselves as having a continued relationship with people that have died. This phenomenon may have been brought to the Western world by virtue of lingering digital existences, but as Hannah Rumble, member of the General Council for the Association for the Study of Death and Society (ASDS) and the editorial board for the academic journal Mortality, explains it has long been a part of the grieving process in other parts of the world.

“There is this new thing that people do, which is talking to the dead,” says Rumble.  “It follows a lot of cultures and traditions in Japan and Africa and in other places where actually talking to the dead as ancestors and figuring out what their place is in your life is quite an important thing – that kind of negotiation of actually I want to continue a relationship with you and not let go of it.”

Thanks to the digital world, we can see new rituals around death being constructed, and we are moving beyond traditional right and wrong ways of grieving. “People are making up their own rituals and the fact that these things are appearing online is quite good for people to begin to create the kind of space that allows them to feel comfortable enough to say in the middle of their friendship group, ‘I miss you and I wish you were back here’,” says Rumble.

At the wake

Whether you believe continuing relationships online after death is a good or bad thing, most people would agree that they have no right to impinge on others’ chosen method of grieving. Arguing that it’s a good idea to almost voyeuristically thrust yourself into the midst of others’ grief takes another level of apologist though. But Andréia Martins, journalist, anthropologist and PhD student at the University of Bath’s Centre for Death and Society, argues just that. She explains that in her native Brazil one of the most important rituals following a death is the wake, and Martins is an administrator for a group of Facebook users who tune into strangers’ virtual wakes.

“On a Sunday afternoon they [the viewers] can be at their homes in front of their computers watching the virtual wake of a stranger and they will debate what they’re seeing,” says Martins. “They can make comments about trivial things like the amount of people in the room or the amount of flowers, if there are people crying, but they will also share their own experiences of death and dying, so it can be quite a therapeutic thing to do.”

Martins says she has identified three reasons why people would want to be virtually present at a wake organised for someone they don’t know. Firstly, curiosity draws people in; some people want to be aware of how friends and family behave at a wake. Secondly, if some young people weren’t allowed to attend a funeral for a family member they take the opportunity virtual wakes present to be involved in such a peculiar event, and, thirdly, if someone has recently lost a family person or a friend they may want to see others going through the same experience.

For some virtual wakes may be a morbid experience, but in Martins eyes – and I’m sure to their viewers as well – they have contributed to people having a “nicer relationship with death”.

The afterlife

What people who continue to message Facebook accounts, once their family and friends have passed away, have stumbled upon is that when we die we leave behind vast digital archives that contain our personalities, our fears, our interests and our desires. These archives are created incrementally from information that appears ephemeral, but adds up to us, a complete reproduction of our character. It’s not outrageous then that people would use that information to bring people back from the dead.

This idea has already been explored in fiction. In the sci-fi drama series Black Mirror, a young woman named Martha subscribes to a service that uses her deceased fiancé’s social media accounts to create a digital avatar capable of mimicing his personality. And this has already moved from fiction into real life; a Russian woman Eugenia Kuyda used artificial intelligence to bring back her friend Roman Mazurenko. The bot Kuyda created was able to impersonate Mazurenko and interact with people in text form. While it only represented a shadow of the real man, some people found it therapeutic.

Not everyone will be comfortable communicating with people once they have died, but soon enough everyone may have to ask themselves the question: if you have a chance to keep hold of your loved ones, albeit in another form, would you take it?

Researchers discover remains of “Triassic Jaws” who dominated the seas after Earth’s most severe mass extinction event

Researchers have discovered the fossil remains of an unknown large predatory fish called Birgeria: an approximately 1.8-meter-long primitive bony fish with long jaws and sharp teeth that swallowed its prey whole.

Swiss and US researchers led by the Paleontological Institute and Museum of the University of Zurich say the Birgeria dominated the sea that once covered present-day Nevada one million years after the mass extinction.

Its period of dominance began following “the most catastrophic mass extinction on Earth”, which took place about 252 million years ago – at the boundary between the Permian and Triassic geological periods.

Image courtesy of UZH. Featured image courtesy of Nadine Bösch

Up to 90% of the marine species of that time were annihilated, and before the discovery of the Birgeria, palaeontologists had assumed that the first predators at the top of the food chain did not appear until the Middle Triassic epoch about 247 to 235 million years ago.

“The surprising find from Elko County in northeastern Nevada is one of the most completely preserved vertebrate remains from this time period ever discovered in the United States,” emphasises Carlo Romano, lead author of the study.

Although, species of Birgeria existed worldwide. The most recent discovery belongs to a previously unknown species called Birgeria Americana, and is the earliest example of a large-sized Birgeria species, about one and a half times longer than geologically older relatives.

The researchers say the discovery of Birgeria is proof that food chains recovered quicker than previously thought from Earth’s most devastating mass extinction event.

According to earlier studies, marine food chains were shortened after the mass extinction event and recovered only slowly and stepwise.

However, finds such as the newly discovered Birgeria species and the fossils of other vertebrates now show that so-called apex predators (animals at the very top of the food chain) already lived early after the mass extinction.

“The vertebrates from Nevada show that previous interpretations of past biotic crises and associated global changes were too simplistic,” said Romano.

Revolutionary DNA sunscreen gives better protection the longer its worn

Researchers have developed a ground-breaking sunscreen made of DNA that offers significant improvements over conventional versions.

Unlike current sunscreens, which need to be reapplied regularly to remain effective, the DNA sunscreen improves over time, offering greater protection the longer it is exposed to the sun.

In addition, it also keeps the skin hydrated, meaning it could also be beneficial as a treatment for wounds in extreme or adverse environments.

Developed by researchers from Binghamton University, State University of New York, the innovative sunscreen could prove essential as temperatures climb and many are increasingly at risk of conditions caused by excessive UV exposure, such as skin cancer.

“Ultraviolet (UV) light can actually damage DNA, and that’s not good for the skin,” said Guy German, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Binghamton University.

“We thought, let’s flip it. What happens instead if we actually used DNA as a sacrificial layer? So instead of damaging DNA within the skin, we damage a layer on top of the skin.”

The DNA sunscreen has the potential to become a standard, significantly improving the safety of spending time in the sun

The research, which is published today in the journal Scientific Reports, involved the development of thin crystalline DNA films.

These films are transparent in appearance, but able to absorb UV light; when the researchers exposed the film to UV light, they found that its absorption rate improved, meaning the more UV is was exposed to, the more it absorbed.

“If you translate that, it means to me that if you use this as a topical cream or sunscreen, the longer that you stay out on the beach, the better it gets at being a sunscreen,” said German.

The film will no doubt attract the attention of sunscreen manufacturers, who will likely be keen to commercialise such a promising product. However, the researchers have not said if there is any interest as yet, and if there is any clear timeline to it becoming a commercial product.

 

The film’s properties are not just limited to sun protection, however. The DNA film can also store water at a far greater rate than conventional skin, limiting water evaporation and increasing the skin’s hydration.

As a result, the film is also being explored as a wound covering, as it would allow the wound to be protected from the sun, keep it moist – an important factor for improved healing – and allow the wound to be monitored without needing to remove the dressing.

“Not only do we think this might have applications for sunscreen and moisturizers directly, but if it’s optically transparent and prevents tissue damage from the sun and it’s good at keeping the skin hydrated, we think this might be potentially exploitable as a wound covering for extreme environments,” said German.