In the end, we are all dead. But for some of us, our deaths become entangled online. Our vast data legacies and the appropriation of social media by the bereaved can result in online networks being used to mediate loss, mourning and memory in the event of a death. Recognising this phenomenon between death and technologies has resulted in researchers and designers being asked to become ‘thanatosensitive’, or death-sensitive. In particular, designers have been presented with Thanatosensitive Design [TSD] as an optimistic and non-prescriptive design methodology, devised by Massimi, for researching, designing and developing thanatosensitive technologies within sensitive end-of-life contexts (Massimi, 2012).
This thesis is an invitation to reconsider TSD, to rethink what sensitive design practice could look like and the kinds of commitments and claims it is making to bereaved people. This reconsideration takes place through the development of an interdisciplinary conceptual framework that supports ‘thinking with’ and ‘caring for’ other elements in a situation of inquiry (Diprose, 2009; Puig de la Bellacasa, 2012; Puig de la Bellacasa, 2011). Empirically, this exposes a messy human landscape of loss, non-living ‘ghosts’ and non-human networks, the presences and agencies of which unsettle the human-centred ethico-political assumptions that lie within the TSD agenda.
This thesis embraces the disturbances that have arisen from empirical and theoretical commitments and uses them as a way to reconsider what thanatosensitivity looks like when it embraces a more inclusive ethico-political landscape that decentres the human. Therefore, this thesis contributes to emerging literatures at the recent intersection between death and technology studies, firstly, by exposing a complex and previously unaccounted for messy ecology of loss across networks online, and, secondly, by reflexivity, exploring how this messy ecology disturbs the centrality of the human in TSD framings.
These contributions cumulate in a reconfiguration of TSD that draws out an alternative approach and considerations for practitioners interested in designing sensitively for the end of life. This reconfiguration aims to be socially responsible, inclusive and ecologically sensitive in ways that set it apart from Massimi’s original concept of TSD. This new vision of sensitive design is summarised into a design statement and a polemic design manifesto to aid practitioners who wish to sensitively design for the end of life. The thesis leaves us with a speculative afterword, to consider future work and envision what other forms designing for death might take if we continue to push at the human-centeredness within design ecologies in light of the apocalyptic shadow of the Anthropocene.
You can read or download the PhD thesis from here
There is also a Manifesto and Design Statement aimed at practitioners who are interested in this issue of designing for death and loss.