Sunday, February 23, 2014

Be Careful What You Wish For

Charles Simic's latest NYRBlog post provided a slightly disquieting example of a poet who could see the future:
That gravestone reminded me of something crazy the poet Mark Strand thought up many years ago, when he was broke and thinking up ways to make money. He told me excitedly one day that he had invented a new kind of gravestone that he hoped would interest cemeteries and carvers of gravestone inscriptions. It would include, in addition to the usual name, date, and epitaph, a slot where a coin could be inserted, that would activate a tape machine built into it, and play the deceased’s favorite songs, jokes, passages from scriptures, quotes by great men and speeches addressed to their fellow citizens, and whatever else they find worthy of preserving for posterity. Visitors to the cemetery would insert as many coins as required to play the recording (credit cards not yet being widely used) and the accumulated earnings would be divided equally between the keepers of the cemetery and the family of the deceased. This being the United States of America, small billboards advertising the exciting programs awaiting visitors to various cemeteries would be allowed along the highway, saying things like: “Give Your Misery A Little Class, Listen to a Poet” or “Die Laughing Listening to Stories of a Famous Brain Surgeon.”
One of the benefits of this invention, as he saw it, is that it would transform these notoriously gloomy and desolate places by attracting big crowds—not just of the relatives and acquaintances of the diseased, but also complete strangers seeking entertainment and the pearls of wisdom and musical selections of hundreds and hundreds of unknown men and women. Not only that, but all of us who are their descendants would spend the later years of our lives devouring books and listening to records, while compiling our own little anthologies of favorites.
I wonder if either Simic or Strand realizes how close this is to a viable reality. There has been a fair amount of debate over that happens to your Facebook site after you die. It seems as if Strand inadvertently (and anachronistically) provided a perfectly reasonable solution: Your Facebook site becomes your gravestone. Furthermore, since Facebook is always on the ball keeping that site populated with the latest advertising, visitors will not have to worry about dropping coins into a slot (even bitcoins). For that matter, if Strand had a bit of a lawyer's imagination to go along with his poetic inventiveness, he might even be able to claim prior art for the whole Facebook concept!

All of these visions, however, evade the question of whether or not any of this stuff is worth leaving for posterity in the first place.

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