Digital Address Books and Death

Jul 20, 2015 | 1 comment

Contact Delete by Javier Jaen

By Javier Jaen for the NY Times

The New York Times’ Sunday Review section featured on the front page “My Digital Cemetery” by Rob Walker. He started by stating he has 2,743 contacts in his digital address book, which stretches back two decades to the dawn of digital devices – in his case, a 1996 Palm Pilot.

That seems like a lot. He admits they’ve been passed along with each new device he’s acquired. He’s interviewed a lot of people over those 20 years, and their contact information is in there.

As the years have gone by, some of Walker’s contacts have died. But he doesn’t remove the people that meant something to him, even though they are beyond contacting on a cell phone at this point. He writes:

I seldom talk about this habit, because I assume it sounds weird. But recently I was intrigued to read about an incident described in “Becoming Steve Jobs,” the new book by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. A couple of years after Mr. Jobs died, the anecdote goes, John Lasseter, a founder of Pixar and a close friend of Mr. Jobs’s, showed Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, the “favorites” list on his iPhone contacts app. It still included Mr. Jobs. “I’ll never be able to take that out,” he said. Mr. Cook responded by pulling out his phone, which also included Mr. Jobs’s contact entry.

I’m not sure if this says something unusual about Mr. Jobs, or Mr. Cook and Mr. Lasseter. But to me it suggests something more universal. However our tools are designed, human behavior determines how we really use them. So while there may not be anything logical about hanging on to the contact details of the departed, Mr. Lasseter’s comment makes perfect sense. And maybe that makes me feel (a little) less weird for thinking that my contacts list has accidentally acquired an involuntary-memories feature, a memento mori functionality.

Digital technology has already had notable effects on the ways we mourn, remember the dead, and even think about the afterlife. This has mostly come to our attention as a side effect of the broader tech-driven redefinition of social and public life: a personal blog becomes a kind of monument to be preserved, a social-media profile becomes a site of communal grieving. To some extent, digital services have adjusted to this development: Facebook accounts, for example, can be “memorialized,” a setting that allows friends to share remembrances, but stops posting upsetting birthday reminders.

The digital reminders of people who have died also remind you of the life you have lived and how your life intertwined with the life of the deceased.

The reason I’m highlighting this essay is this question: If your loved ones can even access your smart phone and digital contacts after you die, how will they know who to contact with news of your demise? Sure, they’ll recognize the names of family and close friends. But what if all those other names have no identifying labels – and if there are hundreds of contacts, how do you choose whom to call?

Yes, yes, paper is old school. But contacts preserved on paper tell you who the important people are, and how to get in touch with them. And if those people are deceased, you can just write that next to their name, rather than delete them from the list.

When you kick the bucket and check out, how will the people who are arranging your funeral or memorial service going to get in touch with the people who will want to be there? Put that information on paper.

A Good Goodbye