Wednesday, June 2, 2004


Tori Orr is, amongst other things, a Master's student interested in the "potential of social software for dead people." Cool. In March I posted on this student project because I was all excited about social software for the dead too.

This is a lightly-edited bit of recent email conversation we had:

Tori: I've done research all over the board trying to use social network analysis as a way of linking the living with the dead (our personal present with our communal past). I am interested in representing the type of subject matter (say, in literature, oral histories and other associated digital resources) that helps users find relevant links to the past, to tradition and the deep (buried!) interconnectedness of communities. I've used keywords like phylogeny, ontogeny, story-telling, personal histories, interpersonal awareness, memoirs, memory, (auto)biography, and interaction histories.

Anne: Sounds great. And don't forget kinship charts. I can't really recommend them as visuals, but their terminology is probably the most comprehensive ever created. Kinship terms reflect both biological and cultural relations.

Tori: I'm trying to find new ways of representing and expanding traditional family tree relationships.

Anne: Now there's a fun challenge! Alternate ways of representing family relations might connect people according to interests or characteristics, rather than biology. Even biologically-related families can be ordered differently.

Tori: Yes! Like families of dressmakers and families of writers, as well as families with similar surnames...

Anne: Or you could represent people according to the rights and responsibilities we have to each other. I quite like the idea of charting obligations. Not like they're oppressive (although they may very well be) but as a way of rendering tangible something that is increasingly difficult to locate: accountability. I imagine snazzy posters for the upcoming elections that outline the relationships between governments and citizens, and what is at stake.

Tori: Hmm. Rights and responsibilities. Sort of like a covenant? That almost makes it sound spiritual. And so back to the dead!

Anne: Right. I sort of went off on a tangent there, didn't I? Sorry.

Tori: That's okay, but I wonder if the dynamic nature of relationships ceases when a person dies? Not only does their body become stiff with rigor mortis, but their relationships settle and solidify as well...

Anne: Fascinating! My first thought is that our relationships never "settle and solidify". If you believe that 'who we are' means 'who we are with other people' then the dead continue to have relationships with the living and vice versa. The key - whether people are living or dead - is to find ways to represent the many and shifting kinds of relationships we have. To avoid being reductive or rigid (and that means no universal ontologies ;)).

What do you think?


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