Van Alphen claims in the introduction to his book Staging the Archive: Art and Photography in the Age of New Media (2014), that "the role of narrative is declining (whereas) the role of the archive... is increasing... (and) has become the dominant symbolic and cultural form". In the same year, talkdeath.com stated that "over 30 million virtual profiles have outlived their owners". The year before, what-if.xkcd.com had predicted that the time when the number of dead Facebook users outnumbered the living ones would be either in the 2060s (if the platform begins to lose popularity in the way that websites tend to do), or around 2130 (if it retains its current universality). Either way, at some point the facsimiles of lives in this digital graveyard stand to exceed the number of people physically living. And what will these online archives tell us about the people they represent, and about memory, remembrance and the idea of a life story?
If, as Lyotard (cited in Van Alphen) claims, postmodernism can be defined as "a radical incredulity" toward the religious, political, mythical and scientific meta-narratives which serve(d) to "legitimize the pursuit of knowledge", then these archives of personal material stored online may be good examples of postmodern narrative, in line with his idea that narrative has a "modest" place in contemporary culture, no longer being meta- but instead rhetorical, performative - which certainly could apply to these collections. Social media profiles have more in common with an archive or database than with the "cause-and-effect trajectory" that Manovich (cited in Van Alphen) believes narrative creates. And within this way of representing the story of our lives to the world, which he describes as reversing the traditional literary/cinematic narrative "relationship between the syntagmatic and the paradigmatic", we find a new role for the 'reader' (viewer/user/stalker) - one in which numerous possible trajectories could be defined, based on his/her clicks, and not on a single path dictated by the teller of the story. Of course, each reader's journey through the information presented can be said to result in a linear narrative, but as Van Alphen says, "it is in the encompassing framework of archival organizations that... narratives are (now) embedded", which shifts the traditional writer/reader relationship from one of teller/tellee to something more like archivist/researcher.
But an archive, in a postmodern society, can not be viewed as a collection of things to be collected and guarded by a passive archivist. Each of us has a constantly updating and expanding archive of recorded presence - with our loyalty cards and social media accounts and qualifications and passports and online bank accounts and CCTV appearances - which forms an identity that will outlive our physical bodies. Our life stories, or perhaps we should start using the term 'life archives', may well be accessible for as long as the technology which supports the record of them exists.
In 2014, several websites including roadandtrack.com reported that a young man had encountered "the ghost of his parent" while playing an XBox game. The father had been dead since his son was six, after which time the young man left the console untouched for about a decade. But when he re-engaged with it, he found his father's record lap was still stored in the game, appearing as a ghost car that he was able to compete with. This spectre will last as long as nobody breaks the record - or until XBoxes no longer function - allowing the son to experience evidence of his father's actions on infinite repeat, unchanging and ultimately unsatisfying, I suspect, as memorials can be. But it seems like a decent analogy of the way we are beginning to encounter the deceased now - as ghosts, whose achievements and experiences will appear unexpectedly in the form of Facebook birthday notifications and new tags in photos, for example.
So will this make us remember the dead differently? As the photographs and letters that previous generations have as keepsakes are superseded by this online content, will the way we remember each other be richer, if it draws on so many more archived items than have ever been available before? Or perhaps it will actually remove some of the need for remembrance, if the deceased's online presence continues to interact with us beyond their bodily lifetime.
Van Alphen, E. (2014) Staging the Archive. London: Reaktion
Son finds his father's ghost waiting for him in vintage rally game
Facebook of the Dead
Facebook - The World's Largest Digital Graveyard