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Identity in HCI, Cybernetic Death, & Virtual Immortality

Phillip Retuta

Is there a definitive transparency to what we put online versus who we are in real life? Can our identities be fully encapsulated by what we portray on the web? Through the way we dress, speak, and act, do we cautiously edit how we expose ourselves in real life like we do online?

Within the last decade there has been an apparent and ever-increasing emergence of social media technologies. Facebook and YouTube, for instance, are multi-billion dollar companies that rank number three and number five, respectively, as the most used internet brands of 2010. With the materialization of such social media technologies, the distinctive boundaries between the physical world and the digital have begun to dissipate: we share our thoughts through Facebook status updates, have spurts of consciousness through Tweets, impart our most intimate memories through Photostreams, and reveal even the most asinine aspects of our lives through video blogs. Yes, one can equate what we see on the screen as a mere digital depiction of who we are in real life. Of course, once we pass away, what happens to our identities when everything we put out there is preserved as bits of data in external servers?

CharnelHouse is a psychological and social exploration of both the finite and infinite aspects of our digital identities – identities based upon our interactions and intrapersonal relationships within the sphere of social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, YouTube, Vimeo, and Tumblr. It is an installation that serves as a tangible memorialization of the individual’s virtual life: the deceased’s online identity is preserved and displayed within the structure and is only accessed through an “in memoriam card”, an RFID-embedded card that includes one’s causation of death, a QR code linking to his or her personal website, and statistics regarding his or her social media usage in comparison to national averages. Once activated, the user enters the enclosed space (a metaphor for the transition between the living, corporeal world to a virtual afterlife) and is visually and audibly immersed in the deceased’s social media existence.

-Thesis Symposium Talk