User Not Found

June 3, 2019

Last week I went to see “User Not Found”, an impressive production by a small theatre company called Dante or Die, which specialises in performances designed for unusual locations.   This one was in a café next to Battersea Power Station.  It’s about what happens to our digital/social media presence after we die.  

The play opens with the main character, Terry, sitting in the café with his mobile phone and his headphones on (playing the sound of waterfalls through his favourite app).  We - the audience - are sat in the café with him, also with headphones and mobile phones that are under the control of the production staff.  This allows us to see what  Terry is looking at on his phone (or in some cases, later on in the piece, video imagery reflecting what is going on in his head).  He suddenly starts getting messages of condolence, but has no idea why.  It turns out that Luka, his ex, has died suddenly – and everyone else on social media seems to know about it before he does.  Then he receives an email informing him that Luka has named him as executor of his digital legacy.  It’s up to Terry to decide what to do with it - whether to preserve it as some kind of memorial or just to delete the whole lot.

Apparently it was inspired by an article by Caroline Twigg about what do with her husband’s online legacy after his unexpected death – which is well worth a read.  But “User Not Found” adds an extra layer of complexity and conflict because Luka has left Terry twice over - first when their relationship came to an end several years ago and now again after his death.  Terry hasn’t fully come to terms with the first “departure” and finds himself trawling back through Luka’s social media to see how far it corresponds with his memory of their life together.  The trouble is, Terry wasn’t much of a social media enthusiast – whereas Luka was an early adopter and has managed an impressive 33,000 tweets.  As Terry points out, this is equivalent in word count to “The Brothers Karamazov”.  Unsurprisingly, however, they don’t have quite the same emotional heft as the words of Dostoevsky – and for Terry, the process of going through this material turns out to be a painful and difficult one, rather than a straightforward case of revisiting fondly remembered moments in their shared past.

This might sound like it could be pretty grim viewing but luckily, Terry has a sense of humour, which helps to vary the mood and to prevent the piece becoming overly self-reflective.  The headphones and mobile phones, which could easily have turned out to be a bit of a gimmick, were also highly effective, as was the lighting (cleverly integrated into lamps on the tables, which you initially think are just part of the café’s own décor).  Although a lot turns on the central performance, a great deal of work and careful thought had clearly gone into the creation of the digital material as well (I especially enjoyed the music video by a fictional French pop star, who Luka thought was great - but Terry can’t stand).

When I first read about the play, I had one of those “I wish I’d thought of that” moments, because it struck me that this idea had the potential to work very well as a short story.  But having seen the play, I think it would be difficult to convey Terry’s grief on the page quite as a powerfully as the production was able to do through the performance of an actor.

It also prompted me to do a bit of Googling around the whole issue of digital legacies.  It does seem that some people find it helpful to look back through digital material in order to come to terms with the death of a loved one – but others, I suspect, will be more in Terry’s camp, finding that the frothy, relatively superficial nature of social media is no match for their own more “three dimensional” memories of what a person was actually like.  

A lot may well depend on your own use of social media.  For example, if you regularly communicated with the dead person through social media or messaging apps, it’s possible that certain material which would seem quite unremarkable to most people has a special meaning for you – because you know the context.  If, like Terry, you’re not exactly out of the loop on all that stuff but not massively into it either, then it may have the opposite effect – making you feel frustrated and disappointed because social media simply can’t carry the weight of your feelings.  But we probably shouldn’t be surprised by that – because when people tweet something or post on Facebook or Instagram etc, they are not generally thinking “I wonder what people will make of this if I die tomorrow”.  So it’s unreasonable of us to expect their digital utterances to bear the weight that our own feelings about their death might give rise to.

There seemed to be more of a consensus that material which people had quite deliberately put together before their death as a digital legacy was generally helpful in the grieving process.  But of course that requires people to have applied their minds to the possibility of their death – and not everyone will have done that.  

And then there is the question of what tech firms and technology itself will allow us to do with people’s social media presence in future, after they’re gone.   Tech firms clearly have some work to do on that front, although the problems don’t strike me as insoluble.  Perhaps the more interesting issue is what technology will enable us to do.  Take a look at this article, which is about feeding an AI with tens of thousands of someone’s text messages in order to create a chatbot that would respond to texts in the same style as the deceased (in one of those weird internet coincidences, the firm that created the chatbot just happens to be called Luka….).

You might also be interested in:
  • Fedorov's dust - if you thought the idea of a digital afterlife as an AI chatbot was a bit weird, try reading this
  • Corpus Callosum - review of a novel about technology that allows you to upload a loved one's consciousness into a "BrightBox", enabling a sort of digital afterlife (but without a human body)
  • Google Ate My Story! - free ebooks on Smashwords (including one of mine) are being fed to an AI as "brainfood" (the horror!)
  • The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect - review of a sci-fi novel about a different kind of digital afterlife


R.I.P. Feedbooks

May 7, 2019

A rather terse email from Feedbooks confirming that - as I had suspected for a while - it is dead as a self-publishing platform.  Not very impressed that I had to contact them to ask what was going on - they didn't see fit to email any of the many hundreds of authors who have contributed to their platform, nor have they even bothered to put up a notice on their website about their decision.  And they could at least have provided an explanation.

The site had been going downhill for a few years,...
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Micro-reviews (April 2019)

April 29, 2019
Semiosis, Court Out and A Gentleman in Moscow

Semiosis by Sue Burke

The initial premise of this novel is a bit of a hoary old sci-fi cliché:  idealistic refugees from an Earth beset by environmental disaster travel to an alien planet (which they name Pax) and attempt to create a better society there, aiming to live more in harmony with their environment.  But it was very well reviewed, so I thought I’d give it a try.  Things get off to a rocky start for the colonists when Pax turns out to be...

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I'm British and I'm on a march - something must've gone badly wrong

March 24, 2019

Went on the anti-Brexit march yesterday - this is now my third since 2017, but prior to that, I'd never been on a demonstration before and didn't see myself as the kind of person who generally did that sort of thing (which is where the headline of this piece comes from - it's from a placard at one of the earlier marches).

For anyone inclined to dispute the figure of over a million demonstrators, all I can say is that there were a lot more people than previously.  On the first march I attended,...
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Micro-reviews (March 2019)

March 11, 2019
Show Them What They Won, The Book of Strange New Things, The Sparrow

Show Them What They Won by Sean Boling

Ever wondered how many people have to die before gun-enthusiasts in the States start to question whether the easy availability and widespread ownership of fire-arms in their country might be part of the problem?  Somehow though, the latest mass shooter incident always seems to get turned on its head, with the gun lobby managing to deflect blame by deploying absurd arguments about how the ...

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Micro-reviews (December 2018)

December 24, 2018
The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks against the United States, Standard Deviation and Perfidious Albion

The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks against the United States by Jeffrey Lewis

Christmas 2018 is almost upon us – and what better way to get into the festive mood than by pondering the chances of North Korea actually using its nuclear weapons?  Jeffrey Lewis is an expert on North Korea’s nuclear programme and this novel starts off in ...

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Tragedy or farce?

November 24, 2018

I recently read “Adults in the Room” by Yanis Varoufakis – the former Greek Finance Minister’s account of his experiences trying to negotiate with the EU over the Greek bailout after the financial crisis.  Based on his media profile, I had tended to view Varoufakis as a bit, well, full of himself.  And it’s certainly true that, as the computer-programmed match commentary on my son’s FIFA Xbox football game was almost guaranteed to say if you dribbled the ball around an awful lot w...

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The Prancing Jacana

November 9, 2018

The Prancing Jacana by Steven John Halasz is (for me at any rate) what Graham Greene liked to call “an entertainment”:  it doesn’t take itself too seriously, it has an intriguing thriller-style plot that ticks along at a nice pace, but it’s also written with a literary sensibility and manages to deal with some serious issues along the way.

Caroline Parker, a best-selling American author of crime fiction, has set her latest novel in Senegal – where it has just been banned, having offe...

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Self-publishing: a review of Amazon KDP

October 3, 2018

So, I have finally got around to putting my novel up on Amazon using Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) - having previously only made it available on sites that would let me offer it for free (such as Smashwords).   I am hoping I can persuade Amazon to make it free for at least some of the time by pointing out that they are being undersold by numerous other sites, where it is free.  

But if I can't, I guess there is still some benefit of having it up there for people who prefer the convenience of ...
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Micro-reviews (August 2018)

August 29, 2018
The Speed of Sound, The Bees and The Three Body Problem

The Speed of Sound by Thomas Dolby

Thomas Dolby has had an unusual career – he had some success in the eighties as a solo artist, a film music composer and a producer of other artists (e.g. Prefab Sprout and – rather less successfully, as he freely admits - Joni Mitchell).  But he became increasingly disillusioned with the music industry and switched to being a tech entrepreneur, eventually coming up with the software that enabled mobi...

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About Me

Paul Samael Welcome to my blog, "Publishing Waste" which will either (a) chronicle my heroic efforts to self-publish my own fiction; or (b) demonstrate beyond a scintilla of doubt the utter futility of (a). And along the way, I will also be doing some reviews of other people's books and occasionally blogging about other stuff.
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