Friday, February 6, 2009


Reposting my post on Cybertime from earlier in the year that Dr. Sinclair called a "must read," in his Palliative Grand Rounds so that anyone looking for it doesn't have to search through the archives ...

My mom just opened up a Gmail account that she rarely uses. Actually, rarely is an understatement. She set it up, but really hasn't opened it up since then. So, it has sat idle for a couple of years. But fed up with hotmail spam, she finally decided to switch to the account.

When she logged in, she found 177 emails from my grandfather, her father, who died 14 months ago.

Email provides us with some odd timing situations ... and they can be especially odd when the sender has passed on. Susan Barnes writes about the nature of time as it relates to email: "Email messages are sent and received in asynchronous time." Barnes continues, "Cybertime blurs the distinctions between past, present, and future because when reading email we have the sense of simultaneously conversing with the author in cyberspace."

The author sends the email in the present, and it sits in our inbox for a given amount of time ... could be seconds, could be years. However, whenever it is that we get around to reading it, we perceive that moment to be the present for the email.

In cases where the author has since passed on in real-time, the reader is left in a strange, emotional limbo in which the author still exists in cybertime.

Most of my grandfather's emails were silly forwards about safety at the gas pump, not forgetting 9-11, etc., so it probably wasn't as jarring as receiving 177 new, personally crafted emails ... but still, it had to be a disquieting experience for my mother.

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