Tamara Kneese on Death in the Digital Platform Age

Nov 14, 2023

In episode 157 of Imagine Otherwise, we dive into the complex relationship between Big Tech and mortality, specifically how digital media platforms mediate our experiences of death. 

Host Cathy Hannabach interviews media scholar and Ideas on Fire author Tamara Kneese, who is a senior researcher and project director of Data & Society’s AIMLab. Tamara’s new book Death Glitch: How Techno-Solutionism Fails Us in This Life and Beyond was recently published by Yale University Press. 

In their conversation, Tamara and Cathy chat about how platform economies built around planned obsolescence shape our experiences of life and death, as well as how gig workers, families, and community organizers are creatively harnessing these tools for progressive possibilities.

Tamara shares how in forms like cancer blogs, digital estate planning, online memorializations, and networked mutual aid in the context of COVID-19, communities are reimagining what collaborative online labor and worldbuilding look like.

They close out the episode with Tamara’s vision for more just afterlives as well as a more just present, where digital technologies are put to use ensuring labor rights, climate justice, and more expansive futures for us all.

Cite this episode: Hannabach, Cathy (host). “Tamara Kneese on Death in the Digital Platform Age.” Imagine Otherwise. November 14, 2023. Produced by Cathy Hannabach and Ideas on Fire. Podcast. 21:26.

In this episode

  • How digital platforms mediate death
  • Community harnessing of digital technologies
  • Resisting the planned obsolescence of technology
  • Creating more just afterlives and presents

About Tamara Kneese

Tamara Kneese is a senior researcher and project director of Data & Society’s AIMLab. Before joining Data & Society, she was lead researcher at the Green Software Foundation, director of developer engagement on the Green Software team at Intel, and an assistant professor of media studies and director of the Gender and Sexualities Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. 

She is the author of Death Glitch: How Techno-Solutionism Fails Us in This Life and Beyond (Yale University Press, 2023). 

Tamara’s research juxtaposes histories of computing and automation with ethnographies of platform labor. She’s currently writing about artificial intelligence’s (AI) relationship to both labor rights and environmental impacts. 

Her work has been published in academic journals including Social Text and Social Media + Society and in popular outlets including LARB, the Verge, the Atlantic, and Logic Magazine

In her spare time, Tamara is a volunteer with the Tech Workers Coalition. She holds a PhD from NYU’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication.

Teaching and learning resources

Transcript

[00:00:00] Just a note: we recorded this interview in July 2023, before the October 7th attacks in Israel and bombings of Gaza.

[00:00:08] Cathy Hannabach: Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about bridging art, activism, and academia to build more just futures. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

[00:00:22] Today we’re diving into the complex relationship between Big Tech and mortality, specifically how digital media platforms mediate our experiences of life and death.

[00:00:32] My guest is Ideas on Fire author Tamara Kneese, who is a senior researcher and project director of Data Society’s AIMLab.

[00:00:40] Tamara’s new book, Death Glitch: How Techno-solutionism Fails Us in This Life and Beyond, was recently published by Yale University Press.

[00:00:49] In our conversation, Tamara and I chat about how platform economies built around planned obsolescence shape our experiences of life and death, as well as how gig workers, families, and community organizers are creatively harnessing these tools for progressive possibilities.

[00:01:06] Tamara shares how in forums like cancer blogs, digital estate planning, online memorializations, and networked mutual aid in the context of COVID-19, communities are reimagining what collaborative online labor and world-building look like.

[00:01:21] We close out the episode with Tamara’s vision for more just afterlives, as well as a more just present, where digital technologies are put to use ensuring labor rights, climate justice, and more expansive futures for us all.

[00:01:35] Thank you so much for being here.

[00:01:37] Tamara Kneese: Thank you for having me, Cathy.

[00:01:38] Cathy Hannabach: Death Glitch takes on the question of how death is experienced in the context of platform economies, social media, and Big Tech.

[00:01:49] What did you find in the course of your research about how those digital technologies shape the way that we live with death in our current moment?

[00:01:57] Tamara Kneese: Fundamentally, my book is looking at the incompatibility of commercial platforms with long term relationships with the dead.

[00:02:06] In a way, Facebook memorials make death more visible in everyday life. Social media memorials became these spaces for people to grieve, but Facebook’s creators and designers didn’t really take death into account when they were originally creating the platform, because it wasn’t really one of the first use cases for a social networking site built for elite college students.

[00:02:30] It was only later that death revealed itself to be this really fundamental social element on the platform.

[00:02:38] Another thing that I really observed over time was the way in which attention metrics and likes and different ways of raising attention and visibility translated into experiences of death on various social media platforms and the ways that inequalities end up playing out within the context of social media memorials.

[00:03:00] So, for instance, one case study that didn’t make it totally into the book was my focus on crowdfunded funerals where the rich tend to get richer and the poor, disabled, and otherwise marginalized don’t get the help that they need.

[00:03:14] The other thing that really comes to mind when thinking about the relationship between platform economies and Big Tech versus the nature of death on social media is the death of technology itself.

[00:03:30] So another major theme within the book is the problem of planned obsolescence. Tech is really built to break down. It’s meant to ship. It’s not really meant to last. And this has repercussions for the environment, of course, but also for people who want to maintain data across devices and across generations.

[00:03:49] So what does it mean for technologies that are built for short term use and real time updates and a perpetual refresh to broker individual and collective legacies.

[00:04:00] Cathy Hannabach: Across the book, you’re very critical of techno-solutionist misunderstandings, I would say, not just of death and how death works and what that means to us in our in our daily lives, but also what digital technologies have enabled in terms of community building and connection, despite the rhetoric around social media about supposedly that’s what it’s all about.

[00:04:23] I’m curious, what are some examples from the book about how that collaborative care work around digital production plays out in this context of death?

[00:04:32] Tamara Kneese: I think I really address that kind of collaborative labor that goes into both producing digital content and maintaining it through the context of cancer blogs. I’m really drawing there on work by different feminist media theorists, including people like Kylie Jarrett about the idea of digital housekeeping and really thinking about how unseen or at least undervalued forms of labor are really behind every kind of shiny presentation that we see on social media.

[00:05:04] I’m thinking about people who are experiencing terminal illness, which requires so much physical networked care, and so you might have people within the same household who are performing different physical kinds of caregiving alongside domestic and reproductive duties, which can then come to intersect with care for the dying person’s digital belongings, and then the maintenance of networks after a person dies.

[00:05:31] So I looked at people who were kind of prominent cancer bloggers who had spouses who were enacting various kinds of labor to care for their loved one and who would do things like post a final goodbye message before the person was actually technically dead, or, you know, uploading posts or copyediting posts on their behalf when they were no longer able to write as they would have liked to write because of the effects of their illness. So really thinking about the moments when this comes to the surface.

[00:06:09] So another example that is sort of interesting to think about in the context of collaboration is the death of Herman Cain. So, you know, somebody who was very much in the public sphere talking about how he didn’t think COVID was a big deal.

[00:06:26] He died from COVID, and then after his death was seemingly tweeting from beyond the grave because it was actually his social media handlers, along with some of his surviving family members who were tweeting on his behalf.

[00:06:42] And so thinking about just the strange optics of people who especially are celebrities of some kind who obviously have an entire network of people who are actually maintaining their public presence, and that becomes more visible after they die.

[00:06:59] Cathy Hannabach: It’s an interesting corollary, right? Because it’s, I mean, I think you point out, it’s often those same people who are doing both the physical and the digital care work there, but it also sometimes splits, right?

[00:07:10] I’m thinking of, for instance, how content moderation can be a kind of care work in particularly in online spaces where people develop them themselves and put a lot of energy and labor and care into how that space gets made and how that space gets maintained.

[00:07:28] And I’m curious how that, how that would work in the context of death, where maybe a prominent member of that online community dies or one of the admin people. How death gets negotiated in that context seems really interesting, where there isn’t a physical component necessarily, unless people know each other in different contexts.

[00:07:48] Tamara Kneese: Oh, absolutely. Especially within things like a web forum or another place where people might not have in real life connections with the people that they have very close emotional relationships with, and sometimes very long-term relationships.

[00:08:03] People might not have access to somebody’s account. I know that at some point recently on Twitter, there was a kind of horror story about people who had a colleague that they had never met in real life during a remote work sort of situation. And the person was a contractor, and they really had no way of communicating with that person’s family. They knew nothing about that person because they just didn’t have access to that part of the person’s life.

[00:08:32] And thinking about the kind of invisible labor that content moderators do both within sort of volunteer spaces on old sort of forums like The WELL, which is definitely also in the book as a place where this very close, effective relationship to maintaining sites is really centered.

[00:08:53] But then you also have the problem of performing that kind of maintenance and care work at scale. So, the content moderators who work for a company like Facebook, who are also in these contractor roles, I thought it was particularly telling that during the pandemic, Facebook had a little caveat on, on its Facebook memorialization page to say that memorialization processes were slowed down because of the labor shortage and the mass death of COVID.

[00:09:24] So it was just a little kind of glimpse into the kind of work that content moderators do, and that they do in also managing things like memorialization for major platforms.

[00:09:37] And the other thing that I do think is interesting about this idea of collectivity versus the focus on individual authors or individual creators is that there’s so much about estate planning. The very idea of inheritance is very conservative; it’s really about transferring wealth. It’s largely about one person inheriting something usually along bloodlines.

[00:10:01] But digital death really points to a lot of the collaborative work that’s going on behind the scenes and the interdependencies of ecologies of devices and platforms and software and also networks of humans over time and how they change.

[00:10:17] So I think the thing about digital inheritance that is really interesting is how nothing is ever static. That sort of constantly shifting network of relationships over time is incredibly hard to capture.

[00:10:34] Cathy Hannabach: You talk in the book about death as a design problem, something that the developers of these platforms, of these technologies, as you point out, really did not consider when they were putting the business plan together or the idea for this thing together.

[00:10:49] You talk about that design problem as what you call a glitch in the system that often reveals the power relationships that are inherent in how those platforms get built and how those platforms get used.

[00:11:02] We can certainly think of some of the conservative uses of that, where Facebook tries to recuperate some of the glitches or fix some of the glitches that death presents to it.

[00:11:13] I’m curious about some of the radical or maybe justice-oriented possibilities of those death glitches.

[00:11:20] So what can they do in terms of how communities can use that glitching to maybe rethink how death operates and how we interact with these platforms.

[00:11:31] Tamara Kneese: Yeah, so, thinking about sort of glitches as moments of radical potentiality and thinking about theorists like Susan Leigh Starr who argues that infrastructure, while it isn’t visible to most people, it becomes highly visible in a moment of breakdown.

[00:11:50] And glitches also reveal themselves when things are taken for granted and suddenly something is missing or not quite working, and it’s a way of calling attention to something that is generally invisible and unseen.

[00:12:08] I think what’s been really interesting is looking at how various social movements do organize around death. So, an obvious example would be Black Lives Matter, which is about really calling attention to the murder of Black people by the state often and by others, and really trying to raise visibility and raise awareness for the purposes of transforming society.

[00:12:38] And using the hashtag or using different elements, different affordances, built into the platform that are really meant for a different purpose, you can sort of repurpose these tools and use them for your own end.

[00:12:55] And another example would be gig workers who are fighting for occupational death benefits. So, thinking about how, you know, often the way that these apps work is intended to reduce friction, basically humans are friction and there’s supposed to be this sense of seamless automation or ways of making the process of ordering food and having it delivered more seamless.

[00:13:22] But of course, this is done at the expense of the gig workers who are actually, you know, doing all of the delivery work and are not given any sort of benefits of being an employee, so they don’t have healthcare and they also don’t have things like life insurance.

[00:13:41] And as gig work often is a very dangerous job, for a wide variety of reasons, especially during COVID, but really just in general in terms of all of the gig workers who die in, say, accidents, particularly bike couriers, who are at risk in major cities because of the way that cars don’t adhere to laws around how to treat cyclists.

[00:14:04] So I think these moments of sort of raising visibility and asking for dignity and depth and also calling attention to the need for mutual aid. So, what does it mean to use these commercial platforms and these mechanisms that are certainly not radical in and of themselves, but what does it mean to repurpose them for something like mutual aid, for something like social justice?

[00:14:33] Cathy Hannabach: You close out the book by looking at what you call the platform necropolitics and the death entrepreneurialism of COVID. How do you see our digital experiences of death going forward into the future?

[00:14:48] Tamara Kneese: Yeah, I mean, so what was really interesting is this idea of young people who maybe haven’t really thought very hard about their own deaths and who haven’t felt the need to do things like buy a life insurance policy or really create a will, that COVID opened up the door for thinking about their own mortality.

[00:15:11] I think in terms of the experience of death in the future, I really, I don’t know if COVID will have that sort of long-term effect. I do wonder about the viability of a lot of these startups.

[00:15:26] But what I do think is definitely true is that there are many different technologies that are increasingly integrated with the experience of death and mourning and so thinking about how during the pandemic, people were unable to visit their dying loved ones and had to rely on things like FaceTime in order to say goodbye, the idea of having funerals and other memorial services and even performing religious rituals over Zoom. This is something that has become much more normalized.

[00:15:59] What’s especially maybe interesting, too, is where I see death entrepreneurialism going now, which I find particularly alarming, honestly, is with generative AI. So, we’ve seen this for a long time now, where various startup companies or major corporations claim to be able to reproduce the likenesses of the dead. Often they will do this with famous historical figures. Sometimes they will do it with, you know, your dead relatives, in theory.

[00:16:32] I am a bit concerned about the fact that there’s such an ongoing fascination with reviving the dead through AI. And I do wonder if that is just not going to go away, despite the fact that repeatedly people talk about the need for privacy rights of the dead.

[00:16:52] People talk about the need for there being some legal guardrails against this, the fact that it’s just plainly unethical to revive dead people without their consent or without their family’s consent. And so it raises a lot of really complicated questions about intellectual property and privacy and ethics, and that’s something that I’m actually quite worried about, just looking around at the current state of things.

[00:17:21] Cathy Hannabach: So this brings me to my favorite question that I like to close out every episode with, which gets at maybe alternatives to some of this dystopic, future, which is that world that you’re working toward when you do this kind of research, when you make these kinds of critiques of how these technologies shape our understandings and our experiences of death, as well as life and community and solidarity.

[00:17:46] So I will ask you this giant question that I think is a really important question. What kind of world do you want?

[00:17:54] Tamara Kneese: It’s a great question. And I mean, going back to the occupational death benefits question, so work by groups like Gig Workers Collective who are really pushing for occupational death benefits—that is the kind of work that I would like to be involved with and help bolster in whatever way I can.

[00:18:13] And it’s why I shifted into roles that are a little bit more practical and outside of my normal academic writing. I just started a new job at Data & Society leading their new Algorithmic Impact Methods Lab.

[00:18:32] And the whole idea is to really think about algorithmic harms and what they mean, particularly in the context of labor rights and climate justice. And that’s really where a lot of my work has been going these days. How can we build technologies that are better for people and the planet?

[00:18:52] And are there some kinds of tech that we just don’t need? Like, you know, things like facial recognition or predictive policing algorithms or chatbot versions of Harriet Tubman. I’m really interested in concepts emerging from things like the Lucas Plan in the 1970s, which was aerospace engineering workers in the UK who were threatened with layoffs and decided to say, “Hey, instead of building things for the military, we would like to build things that are socially useful.”

[00:19:23] And so what does it mean to really change the way that we think about building technology in the first place and anticipating and mitigating actual harms in the real world rather than the existential risk around AI, which has become a really hot button topic in the media lately.

[00:19:41] But how do we talk about the kind of more boring but more actually pressing real harms that are already existing. And so that’s the kind of work I really want to continue doing.

[00:19:54] At heart, I’m definitely a labor organizer, and that’s where my real passion is. So, I really want to make sure that I’m continuing to do that kind of work in whatever position I happen to be in.

[00:20:08] Cathy Hannabach: Well, thank you so much for being with us and sharing all of these ways that you imagine otherwise.

[00:20:13] Tamara Kneese: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

[00:20:19] Cathy Hannabach: Thanks for joining me for this episode of Imagine Otherwise. A big thanks to Tamara as well for sharing her work.

[00:20:26] Tamara’s new book, Death Glitch, which we were honored to index, is out now from Yale University Press, and you can learn more about it and Tamara’s other projects in the episode show notes on our website at ideasonfire.net.

[00:20:39] The show notes include a transcript and teaching guide for this episode with related books, interviews, and resources.

[00:20:45] Imagine Otherwise episodes make for great syllabus editions, and our teaching guides are designed to help students and researchers explore the vibrant worlds of progressive, interdisciplinary scholarship.

[00:20:57] This episode of Imagine Otherwise was produced and edited by me, Cathy Hannabach.

[00:21:02] You can find Ideas on Fire and Imagine Otherwise on Instagram at ideasonfirephd, as well as on Mastodon, Bluesky, Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok.

[00:21:12] You can also subscribe to the show on our website, ideasonfire.net, as well as on all of your favorite podcast apps.

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