MCC Doctoral Student Receives Mellon/ACLS Fellowship

Tamara Kneese has been awarded a 2015 Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship for her work "Digital Afterlives: Patterning Posterity Through Networked Remains." Her dissertation chair is MCC Assistant Professor Erica Robles-Anderson.

By examining the digital remains of our networked selves, Kneese's dissertation foregrounds questions ranging from the legal consequences of digital authorship to ambiguities surrounding definitions of value and labor.

Kneese writes:

Given how intimately people are tied to the production of online profiles and accounts, digital interactions have increasingly come to feel like possessions, property, or even creative works. But these communicative traces are not legally recognized as property nor passed down to kin members. Communicative traces were first valorized with Web 2.0's social networking memorials, spawning the field of digital estate planning. They form predictive patterns of who and what we are, thus linking everyday interactions via social media to cybernetic theories of mind and transhumanist visions. The affective value of digital remains, however, is complicated by the labor needed to maintain them.

These bits of digital ephemera are often tied to third-party platforms, raising concerns about authority and authorship. Will Joyce Carol Oates’ witty and poetic Tweets, for instance, count as part of her work and estate? Online accounts are not yet included in the legal definition of the estate and they do not automatically pass down to kin members. Although ordinary people’s digital assets lack intrinsic monetary value, they are of personal and historical importance...Digital Afterlives asks what the implications are when these ubiquitous objects are emotionally significant but not legally recognized. How are technologies of posterity and preservation disrupted in a networked world?

Kneese completed her MA in social sciences at the University of Chicago and earned a BA in anthropology from Kenyon College. She was recently a fellow at Data & Society, co-authoring several white papers with Alex Rosenblat and danah boyd for the Open Society Foundations' Future of Work inquiry. Her essay linking funeral selfies to Victorian postmortem photography practices ran in The New Inquiry, and, in a piece for The Atlantic, Kneese reflects on the prospect of embedding QR codes in headstones and the rise of the "smart graveyard."