Is there anyone who still really thinks the Internet is not transforming the world — or at least those spreading patches of the planet that are connected to it? Every day, some new swath of mental territory falls prey to the Web, as if a gigantic, benevolent spider had suddenly taken control of humanity and its basic functions. And this goes far beyond shopping, the usual poster child for the Internet age.
Just this month, for instance, six of the West’s most elite academic and cultural institutions — from the London School of Economics to the New York Public Library — joined forces on the Web in a cooperative intellectual service dubbed “Fathom.” Acknowledging that the quest for online information is unstoppable, they are setting up Fathom to provide information that is “authoritative” and “trustworthy.” To earthbound scholars of old, this would have seemed like heaven flinging open its library. There can be no turning back from the literally fathomless possibilities such ventures represent.
Coincidentally, however, in faraway China, the Internet was extending a toe into heaven itself by getting involved in an activity even older than buying or learning: the universal human instinct to bury the dead. Overwhelmed by the problem of having to bury 100,000 people each year in a dwindling amount of space, the Shanghai government last week announced plans for a virtual cemetery: a Web site where bereaved relatives could post pictures of their deceased, along with personal messages, flowers, prayers and music. The great thing about this online “mourning hall,” say city officials, is that it will occupy no land. These graves will exist on wholly electronic terrain.
But what about that primordial, species-defining mandate? “Burying one’s dead” is surely, for most people, a highly physical act. Our dominant metaphors for death revolve around notions of sleep and peace: a “laying to rest.” Whether the remains are bones or ashes, housed in a coffin or an urn, committed to earth or water, a funeral is bound up with the sense of a particular place, which becomes in a way the last memory of the dead person. Anyone who has buried a close friend or family member will know the sensation of imagining him or her “out there,” in all weathers, at once safe from storms and blessed by the sun. It is fanciful, but it is the way the human mind works. And it is why people visit real graves, bearing real flowers and offerings, not as purely disembodied beings, like angels, but as creatures (in the poet’s words) of root, shoot, blossom and clay.
Shanghai’s proposal nixes the clay. Not that it hasn’t thought of this: Realizing that the first question will be about what happens to the actual bones or ashes, the Shanghai Funeral and Interment Service Center says it hopes people will choose alternative forms of burial, such as the scattering of ashes at sea. If not, the implication is that remains will be simply — and anonymously — disposed of. It is unclear whether cybercemeteries will be the only option available in Shanghai after the city runs out of physical burial space in about six years. But if not, it is hard to imagine people choosing it, unless as an adjunct to a real grave site rather than a substitute for it.
The problem is that the civic authorities are, understandably, concerned with a logistical problem, not a philosophical one. It has doubtless not occurred to them that their planned solution calls into question one of the very qualities that define us as human: the fact that we are physical as well as cerebral beings. Yet it is easy to see how they got there. In a sense, the cybercemetery is just the logical end-point of a rapidly accelerating process: the virtualization of just about everything except food and clothing. As ink and paper and paint and stone give way to online newspapers, books, paintings and libraries, this latest idea should not really come as a surprise.
It should, though, give us pause. The Internet is already busy modifying some very deeply rooted human behavior — how we read, how we shop, how we communicate. It might be time to ask whether it is also modifying our sense of who and what we are.
Nearly 350 years ago, Sir Thomas Browne published his famous “Urn Burial” — a treatise on how the British had disposed of their dead throughout recorded history and a meditation on what it all suggested about humanity’s final end, be it immortality or annihilation. It looks as if a sequel will have to be written for our new age (only available online, of course): “URL Burial, or The Cybernetic Way of Death.” Let us hope, though, that in our rush to the future we do not forget the original and its somber, inspiring celebration of the past.
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