Life and Death in the Digital Age

“In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Benjamin Franklin wrote that.

He was wrong.

It was only taxes.

Michael Jackson: “Live in Concert” in 2014

Through an astonishing use of technology, Michael Jackson “performed” at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards. Along with 16 other people – noted in articles as “live” dancers – he took to the stage to rock the hall with a rendition of “Slave to the Rhythm.”

The audience cheered. They cried. One blogger noted it was like Jackson had been alive the whole time, just “living in hiding.”

Well, he’s not in hiding. He’s dead.

Trouble is, we’ve given up on living life according to natural cycles and human time. In a digital world, there’s no beginnings, no middles, and as the Billboard Music Awards are telling us, no reason to treat death as an ending. It’s more like a detail, separating MJ from the “live” dancers who share his stage.

But death is not a detail.

This is a Path to Madness

While this mind-boggling technology produces dazzling entertainment, it puts at risk a fundamental way we relate to life itself.

Consider the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, the writings called in Hebrew Kohelet. Memorialized by the folk rock band the Byrds in their song — “Turn! Turn! Turn!” – is that book’s biblical teaching, “to everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” In what seems like a straightforward statement, the teaching asserts, “a time to be born, and a time to die.”

That’s how life is meant to work. A time to be born. And a time to die.

When we build a society that rejects the basic tenets of human life, we start down a slippery-slope. We start to lose our grip, confusing reality from illusion until we can’t tell the difference. We buy concert tickets for artists we love, whether they’re among the living or not. We play virtual games until we can’t tell if we climbed a mountain or just simulated it. It feels so real. But was it? Did it happen? Was I there? This is a recipe for going mad.

Human beings belong to the natural world, not the digital one. We have core human needs: for safety, for belonging, for expressing who we are. We have needs to love and be loved. Needs to create, to make meaning. And indeed, we have needs to bury our dead, to mourn and to grieve, and then to move forward in life without our loved ones, while honoring their memory. That is the natural cycle of life. Start messing with that, and we’ll thrust ourselves into an existential chaos we have no tools to understand.

In the end, we need some things to be certain; some things we can count on.

For now, I’ll take death and taxes.

MJ, rest in peace.


Erica Ariel Fox is the New York Times best-selling author of Winning From Within: A Breakthrough Method for Leading, Living and Lasting Change, and an advisor to senior leaders around the world:

Originally published by Erica Ariel Fox on LinkedIn Pulse