Death Undone

The demand for new relations between death and technology begins with the acknowledgement of Black life

Another Black man died on my feed.

I didn’t know who Philando Castile was until July 6, 2016. Castile was in his car with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her four-year-old daughter, when he was fatally shot by a police officer from the Saint Anthony Police Department in Minnesota. Reynolds used her phone to film the moments after Castile was shot four times. Somehow, she had the presence of mind in the trauma of the moment to live-stream the events (this was not the first interaction between Castile and the police recorded by Reynolds).

On June 16, 2015, Twitter introduced a new feature called autoplay: “When a user scrolls through his/her Twitter timeline and sees a video, that content will begin to automatically play while muted. Clicking on the video will bring the user into the full-screen viewer with sound and continue playing.” Over a year later, on July 6, 2016, I was scrolling through my feed when the footage of Castile’s murder started playing automatically. On screen and at eye level, it captured my attention.

I was sitting at my desk in Toronto when Reynolds brought me into Castile’s car; into the intimate space of dying. As the video played in one window, I was simultaneously searching Twitter and Facebook to confirm its veracity. As I read a tweet breaking the news, verifying that this was actually happening, I heard Reynolds’s daughter: “It’s okay Mommy, it’s okay, I’m right here with you.” I prayed that Castile would make it, but his death was confirmed within the hour.

There was a temporal proximity to Castile’s death that was absent in other recorded deaths such as those of Alton Sterling and Eric Garner. Those deaths were uploaded after the events, the videos managed in conjunction with mainstream media coverage. Castile’s death was broadcast live and immediately available. Months later, the video haunts me in peculiar ways, especially because I would not have watched had it not started playing automatically. Autoplay made me do it, implicating me in Castile’s death. I am uncomfortable in my role as witness.

As a rule, I avoid watching the uploaded videos of the moments where Black men and women lose their lives. As a journalist, I think about this--the impulse to bear witness in order to produce testimony--but I don’t need to press play and watch death to feel what it means in my own Black body. Before I could figure out what I was seeing, I was watching a man’s dying moments. I didn’t want to watch Castile’s death, or any of the other deaths on film, including that of Alton Sterling--who was shot less than 24 hours earlier--or Tamir Rice, or Eric Garner, or Walter Scott. What differentiated Castile’s death was the fact that the choice of whether or not to watch had been removed from me.

From this discomfort, I began to question the role that communication technologies--specifically cellphone cameras, social media networks, and the ability to connect and access them from almost anywhere--have in documenting, representing, and distributing images of Black death. These concerns grow alongside the increasing documentary measures Black people take in their everyday lives: installing dashboard cams, livestreaming interactions with authority, recording whenever and wherever possible.

Mythologies about the Internet’s function as an equal opportunities space have long been debunked by everything from the digital divide, to this understanding that online space is part of the real world. Social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson, for instance, dismisses the false dualism of online and offline lives, presenting instead a theory of augmented reality where “digital and material realities dialectically co-construct each other.” A racialized and gendered body online, while spatially and temporally removed from the immediate threat of physical violence, is still subject to dehumanizing attacks. A Black body online is always a Black body. It is dialectically co-constructed through online and offline representations and understandings, revealing the workings of race as artificial. As Tufts professor Christina Sharpe writes in her 1999 paper “Racialized Fantasies on the Internet,” “[t]he virtuality of race in cyberspace begins to expose it as already a virtual construction in real life.”

Technology is incriminated in racist acts of violence toward Black bodies. This is a continuation of technology’s cultural, societal, and historical relationships with death and dying. The technologies of image-capturing, its instruments from camera obscura to smartphones and their products--prints, film, jpegs--were not designed for Black life. And they are obsessed with Black death. The book Without Sanctuary, and its accompanying website, gathers photographs of lynchings from the late 1800s to the mid-20th century. In it is the “world’s most recognized lynching picture,” taken by Lawrence Beitler at the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. For 10 days after the lynching, Beitler worked day and night to reproduce thousands of postcards with the photograph. When I look at this photograph, I am a witness to an event that happened decades before I existed, and I am involved in its ongoing trauma.

Images of dead Black men and women are reproduced and shared at unimaginable scales. Users--those of us who watch, post, re-tweet--are incriminated in the mass distribution of these deaths, ensuring the dead never really die, online at least. Virtual spaces have made the deaths of Shipp and Smith and Castile and so many others similarly acquire a new permanence. On the Internet, the trauma is refreshed with every witnessing. Black death and dying are regularly recorded and uploaded, from Black persons killed by U.S. police, to the Garissa University attacks in Kenya where almost 150 students were shot, to the drowned corpses of African migrants washing up on European shores.

Documenting Black death may result in increased awareness of the extreme violence Black bodies are subjected to, but it has failed to result in safety for Black people. Human-computer interaction (HCI), the design discipline that focuses on the interfaces between user and machine, is premised on the multiplicity computer uses. In what ways can the interactions between humans and computers be concerned with equity and justice?

University of Toronto’s Michael Massimi and Andrea Charise propose a thanatosensitive approach to HCI design (from Thanatos, the Greek god of death) that “recognizes and actively engages with the fact of mortality, dying, and death in the creation of interactive systems.” In their 2009 paper, “Dying, Death, and Mortality: Towards Thanatosensitivity in Human-Computer Interaction,” they suggest a thanatosensitive approach as one “that can be applied as a critical tool” and that can “identify opportunities for improvement,” another techno-optimistic proposition. Massimi and Charise’s work is oriented toward the death of the user, but I find that their approach to HCI can be expanded to the recognition of Black death. But for any kind of HCI design to be equitable, it has to begin with an acknowledgment of Black life online.

As examples of thanatosensitive design, Massimi and Charise suggest networking smart homes and wearable technologies to assist the elderly with their needs; or consumer services designed to manage a user’s online accounts in the event of death. But a thanatosensitive approach needs to go further than that. The requirements of a Black thanatosensitive HCI are threefold: first, to acknowledge Black life, second, to contend with the spectacle of Black death, and third, to consider the afterlives of Black users whose deaths become events and haunt our timelines, turning our archives into cemeteries. And so, what would a thanatosensitive design, a “novel, humanistic approach,” to the mediated death of Black bodies look like?

Could thanatosensitive design blank out or remove images of dead Black bodies automatically? Or prevent the digital manipulation of images of Black bodies? It could mean bots designed to limit the replication and distribution of Black bodies without the consent of the victims’ families. Maybe browser extensions that can literally sense death, that can add another layer to the autoplay feature settings (do not play if someone dies). Wearable, or implanted, technologies that can sense physiological changes on a scale from mild anxiety to the processes of dying, that can alert emergency services as needed while communicating essential information to paramedics en route. But even behind these reparative possibilities lurks the potential for surveillance and management of Black bodies, which is why this kind of technology is equally frightening.

In a 2007 talk in Exeter, the British filmmaker John Akomfrah raises the specter of digitopic (a portmanteau formed with digital + utopic), describing it as “these moments when demands for the impossible became the harbingers of new modes, new relations, new systems for manufacturing and accelerating the indexical implications of the moving image.” Akomfrah was speaking in direct reference to filmmaking and cinema, and thus to Black life and living--and yet his words are applicable to the engagement with and portrayal of Black death in virtual spaces. These moments, these demands... this moment, this demand… for new relations between Black death and technology begin with the acknowledgment of Black life. This digitopic yearning goes beyond the technological optimism mentioned above--beyond attempts to repeatedly assert the validity of Black life, and into new ways of being for Black life online.