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The Dead Speak

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If you're reading this, most likely I am dead. In fact, if all of my plans come together exactly as I want them to, by the time you read this in all likelihood I'll be a minute speck on the ocean of human events.

Let me assure you that this is not a sophisticated suicide note.

Perhaps I should phrase this differently.

As I write this, I do so knowing that you are dead. Sure you may feel alive, and why not? And you and I can continue our conversation here on this blog -- my posturing, your questioning. If you have questions or comments, you can post them here. I'll certainly reply to comments I think have merit. But I know, really know in my heart -- you're dead.

I've been blogging here for over three years. During that time, I've created 635 articles. You are reading number 636. Each day, according to my logs, around a thousand unique people show up, mostly looking for interesting images as the result of a google search. Of all of those people, I get about a dozen new comments a week. Since most people wander by randomly, I don't get comments on the new stuff -- it's all over the place. I've received about a thousand comments over the past three years.

Getting out our napkins and pencils, if a thousand people come by each day for three years, that means roughly a million people that have visited my blog in total. Looking at the average mortality rate for the United States for last year, I see that out of a million people, 8,259 people died last year -- mostly from heart disease and cancer.

Looking at this another way, over a three-year period of time the odds that any visitor has died is around 8259/1000000, or .8 percent. Let's say you are reading a comment. The odds of the person writing the comment having died (assuming each person writes one comment) is the same (since there is nothing unusual about comment-writing that predisposes one for death). So out of all of my visitors, around 8 thousand are now dead. Out of all of wonderful commentators I've been privileged to read, 8 are now gone.

Seems like trivial numbers. At least until you put them in perspective.

The internet is not that old -- most blogs are less than ten years old as of this writing. The vast majority of blogs are small fish like this one, and most of the conversation takes place among small social groups. We've had segmented groups talking about things in user groups and BBSes for decades. There's nothing new about people writing online journals and like-minded people chatting.

But the internet never forgets. As time rolls on, the original author of a post will be long forgotten to history, the comments could be spread out over decades, or centuries. Sure, some topics, like Britney Spears' use of underwear or O.J. Simpson's legal problems, will not mean a damn thing to people five hundred years from now. Some things will only interest historians, like how we feel about the current presidential election, or the way we view our increasing lack of personal freedoms.

But heck, there's a lot of stuff people talk about that is timeless: what is the meaning of life? What makes for a fair trade? How should I treat the people I love when they hurt me? Is it better to help one person a lot, or many people a tiny bit? What are the limits to what mankind can know? How does skill and talent play different roles in success?

These topics are timeless. People two thousand years ago were having these conversations, and people two thousand years from now will be continuing them. But there's a difference. With the interactive web, people will be consuming our thoughts on these subjects, and many times replying. Conversations started by one generation will be linked or continued into others. After a hundred years or so, most written material on the net will have been published by dead people. After a thousand years or so, most comments on the net will have been written by those long gone. As the web grows, the percentage of articles and comments by real, live people will diminish to zero.

This may sound depressing, but I don't think it has to be. Technology has given us so many other things; perhaps in the near future, using Bayesian techniques, we'll be able to post articles in such a way that we'll be able to automatically reply to comments long after we're dead. Just like spam programs keep trying harder and harder to look like regular email in order to get past the filters, auto-replying systems will get better and better at exactly imitating what we would have said to the comment had we been alive.

The Dead Speak.

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This page contains a single entry by Daniel published on September 12, 2008 5:26 PM.

This just in: Chicks Dig Hot Cars was the previous entry in this blog.

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Daniel Markham