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These modern koans

This is a roadside memorial, marking the site of a car accident in which a man was killed. I think as a highly impermanent memorial this serves as an interesting contrast to the other pictures used for this week’s assignment. I drive past this twice daily, to and from campus. When I first noticed it two or three months ago, there was much more to it — bouquets of flowers, ribbons, candles, a poster with the name and picture of the man who died. Now the weeds have started to grow up around it, and all that’s left to play memento mori is a tangle of tattered silk flowers in the shape of a cross. It feels cheap and perfunctory, like the awful fake roses you shrug past through every checkout lane every February. I’d prefer the goldenrod and teasels.

The Hess reading refers to the concept of “digital durability”. The idea here is that memorials erected online exist more in the ether than the earth, and so their relevance may be tied to the pace of technological development rather than that of human memory. Physical monuments made of stone or cement may fade in two hundred years or so, but GeoCities pages made just ten years ago are already anachronisms, let alone the old BBS graveyards of the 1980s.

As legions of copyright enforcers have discovered, permanence is possible on the Internet. But it only applies to content which enough people care about to bother preserving. And, while it may be a bit callous to say, when most of us die we’ll be lucky to have a dozen people who still think about us a year later, two years, ten. I wouldn’t have stopped by the roadside if it weren’t for this assignment, and in a few months even those tacky silk flowers would have fallen apart, and the wood crumbled, and next year I would have forgotten even those peripheral glances as I drove by at 55 mph, watching for deer.

But we don’t live in that, and we don’t live in ossuaries or urns, and when we don’t live at all if there’s any of us that’s left it’s in the people we loved. So does it matter? Does reading a name off of a grave signify anything when you don’t know the name?

Do you really lose sleep anticipating the legibility of your headstone, come 2212?

Nope, I find myself rather in alignment with Ellison on this one:

Like a wind crying endlessly through the universe, Time carries away the names and the deeds of conquerors and commoners alike. And all that we were, all that remains, is in the memories of those who cared we came this way for a brief moment.




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