School of Historical and Philosophical Studies - Research Publications

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    Representing alkaline hydrolysis: a material-semiotic analysis of an alternative to burial and cremation
    Arnold, M ; Kohn, T ; Nansen, B ; Allison, F (Taylor and Francis Group, 2024)
    Alkaline hydrolysis can lay claim to being a resource-efficient, effective, economical and environmentally sound method of final body disposition, relative to burial and cremation. On technical grounds it may have much to recommend it, however, like many other technical innovations, its take-up is hindered by the fact that it lacks a clear position in the public imagination. For this position to take shape, an understanding of just what it is and what it offers is required by proponents in the funeral industry who advise the bereaved, as well as by the material representations of the alkaline hydrolysis technologies themselves. In this article, we describe and analyse four extant alternative material and discursive forms of alkaline hydrolysis and how they variously occupy the fraught space where morality, death and marketing converge. Currently, each of the four forms of alkaline hydrolysis struggle to represent themselves in a public narrative that conveys their different ontologies and their competitive advantage, relative to burial and cremation, and this paper describes some key rhetorical and technical aspects of these struggles.
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    Reimagining memorial spaces through digital technologies: A typology of CemTech
    Allison, F ; Nansen, B ; Gibbs, M ; Arnold, M ; Holleran, S ; Kohn, T (ROUTLEDGE JOURNALS, TAYLOR & FRANCIS LTD, 2024-09-13)
    Digital technologies are creating new ways for visitors to engage with cemeteries. This article presents research into the development of digital cemetery technologies, or cemtech, to understand how they are reimagining memorial spaces. Through a systematic review of examples of cemtech in online records, academic literature, patents, and trade publications, we developed a typology of cemtech according to four characteristics: application type, technical components, target users, and development status. Analysis of the application types resulted in five higher-level themes of functionality or operation-Wayfinding, Narrativizing, Presencing, Emplacing, and Repurposing-which we discuss. This typology and thematic analysis help to identify and understand the development of cemetery technology design trajectories and how they reimagine possibilities for cemetery use and experience.
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    Bones of Contention: Social Acceptance of Digital Cemetery Technologies
    Allison, F ; Nansen, B ; Gibbs, M ; Arnold, M (ASSOC COMPUTING MACHINERY, 2023)
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    HOUSEHOLD DIGITAL MEDIA ECOLOGIES - METHODOLOGICAL INNOVATIONS FOR FOSTERING RESEARCHER-PARTICIPANT TRUST
    Kennedy, J ; Wilken, R ; Nansen, B ; Arnold, M ; Gibbs, M (University of Illinois Libraries, )
    In this paper, we describe a research methodology we have developed, based upon digital ethnography approaches, and which used mobile devices, digital ethnographic software and creative data collection activities. Our approach, refined over the course of a number of interconnected research projects, addressed these difficulties through a staged process – utilising traditional ethnographic techniques, but augmenting them with something more novel: the “domestic probe”. In essence, the domestic probe comprised a box of equipment given to the household to use in order to record and interpret their use of domestic technologies. In more recent work, we extended our participatory approach through the use of digital media, such as by using iPad minis pre-loaded with a data collection software tool, Ethnocorder. As we argue in this paper, these approaches carry three specific trust-related methodological benefits (and challenges): the foster trust in us as researchers; trust in our participants as co-researchers; and, as a result of this mutual researcher-participant trust, insight and a productive point of entry into discussing participant "domestication" of, and trust in, various household technologies.
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    Robot death care: A study of funerary practice
    Gould, H ; Arnold, M ; Kohn, T ; Nansen, B ; Gibbs, M (SAGE PUBLICATIONS INC, 2021-07)
    Across the globe, human experiences of death, dying, and grief are now shaped by digital technologies and, increasingly, by robotic technologies. This article explores how practices of care for the dead are transformed by the participation of non-human, mechanised agents. We ask what makes a particular robot engagement with death a breach or an affirmation of care for the dead by examining recent entanglements between humans, death, and robotics. In particular, we consider telepresence robots for remote attendance of funerals; semi-humanoid robots officiating in a religious capacity at memorial services; and the conduct of memorial services by robots, for robots. Using the activities of robots to ground our discussion, this article speaks to broader cultural anxieties emerging in an era of high-tech life and high-tech death, which involve tensions between human affect and technological effect, machinic work and artisanal work, humans and non-humans, and subjects and objects.
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    Cybernetic Funeral Systems
    Arnold, M ; Gould, H ; Kohn, T ; Nansen, B ; Allison, F ; Love, H ; Adamson, G ; Gopal, TV (IEEE, 2021)
    Using Postphenomenology (one of many methods informed by Wiener's cybernetics) as an analytical approach, this paper examines three examples of robot participation in, and mediation of, funerals. The analysis of robot mediation of funerals challenges the idea that death rituals are exclusively human performances and experiences, and instead repositions them as cybernetic systems of entanglement and impact. The paper begins with an introduction to the relevance of postphenomenological theory, then moves to the case of CARL, a robot that enables remote participation in funeral ceremonies. We argue that the [Human-Robot-Funeral] relation and its variants are both engaging and alienating, through revealing-concealing, magnification-reduction and a more generalised enabling-constraining. Technological mediation is also evident in the case of Pepper, a robot that has officiated at funerals as a Buddhist monk. We describe similarities and differences in the way CARL and Pepper manifest the [Human-Robot-Funeral] relation. The final example is AIBO, a companion robot that becomes the locus of a funeral ritual. This offers a radical case that directly challenges humans' self-proclaimed exceptional ontology.
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    The disposition of the destitute
    Arnold, M ; Nansen, B ; Kohn, T ; Gibbs, M ; Harewood Gould, H (Council to Homeless Persons, 2019)
    The final disposition is a term used by people in the funeral industry to refer to the burial or cremation of a dead person. The final disposition is a profoundly important event, not simply a pragmatic or material process, and its significance is expressed through ritualised performances. The disposition and its rituals are shared and communal, involving ceremonies attended by the deceased’s family, friends, and community, whilst less indirectly the disposition is shared by wider social norms and values around the proper treatment of the deceased body. Although the disposition is common to us all, then, it is also a personalised event in which the particularity of the life lived is recognised. Similarly, the place of interment, whether body or ashes, is named and marked to recognise the individual life of the deceased. Places of interment are thus not only identified, but are also accessible to family, friends and community, for the purpose of ongoing visitation and remembrance.
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    ‘Death by Twitter’: Understanding false death announcements on social media and the performance of platform cultural capital
    Nansen, B ; O'Donnell, D ; Arnold, M ; Kohn, T ; Gibbs, M (University of Illinois Libraries, 2019)
    In this paper, we analyse false death announcements of public figures on social media and public responses to them. The analysis draws from a range of public sources to collect and categorise the volume of false death announcements on Twitter and undertakes a case study analysis of representative examples. We classify false death announcements according to five overarching types: accidental; misreported; misunderstood; hacked; and hoaxed. We identify patterns of user responses, which cycle through the sharing of the news, to personal grief, to a sense of uncertainty or disbelief. But we also identify more critical and cultural responses to such death announcements in relation to misinformation and the quality of digital news, or cultures of hoax and disinformation on social media. Here we see the performance of online identity through a form that we describe, following Bourdieu as ‘platform cultural capital’.
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    Media, mortality and necro-technologies: Eulogies for dead media
    Nansen, B ; Gould, H ; Arnold, M ; Gibbs, M (SAGE PUBLICATIONS LTD, 2023-08)
    Working at the intersection of death studies and media studies, this article examines what we can learn from the death of media technologies designed for the deceased, what we refer to as necro-technologies. Media deaths illuminate a tension between the promise of persistence and realities of precariousness embodied in all media. This tension is, however, more visibly strained by the mortality of technologies designed to mediate and memorialise the human dead by making explicit the limitations of digital eternity implied by products in the funeral industry. In this article, we historicise and define necro-technologies within broader discussions of media obsolescence and death. Drawing from our funeral industry fieldwork, we then provide four examples of recently deceased necro-technologies that are presented in the form of eulogies. These eulogies offer a stylised but culturally significant format of remembrance to create an historical record of the deceased and their life. These necro-technologies are the funeral attendance robot CARL, the in-coffin sound system CataCombo, the posthumous messaging service DeadSocial and the digital avatar service Virtual Eternity. We consider what is at stake when technologies designed to enliven the human deceased – often in perpetuity – are themselves subject to mortality. We suggest a number of entangled economic, cultural and technical reasons for the failure of necro-technologies within the specific contexts of the death care industry, which may also help to highlight broader forces of mortality affecting all media technologies. These are described as misplaced commercial imaginaries, cultural reticence and material impermanence. In thinking about the deaths of necro-technologies, and their causes, we propose a new form of death, a ‘material death’ that extends beyond biological, social and memorial forms of human death already established to account for the finitude of media materiality and memory.
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    Automating Digital Afterlives
    Fordyce, R ; Nansen, B ; Arnold, M ; Kohn, T ; Gibbs, M ; Jansson, A ; Adams, PC (Oxford University Press, 2021-08-26)
    The question of how the dead “live on” by maintaining a presence and connecting to the living within social networks has garnered the attention of users, entrepreneurs, platforms, and researchers alike. In this chapter we investigate the increasingly ambiguous terrain of posthumous connection and disconnection by focusing on a diverse set of practices implemented by users and offered by commercial services to plan for and manage social media communication, connection, and presence after life. Drawing on theories of self-presentation (Goffman) and technological forms of life (Lash), we argue that moderated and automated performances of posthumous digital presence cannot be understood as a continuation of personal identity or self-presentation. Rather, as forms of mediated human (after)life, posthumous social media presence materializes ambiguities of connection/disconnection and self/identity.