Aaron Eckhart and Maggie Gyllenhaal dropped by the Today Show this morning to shill a movie, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Eckhart earnestly related to host Matt Lauer a story about their deceased costar Heath Ledger which he'd told Ledger's mother — namely, that friends were passing around Ledger's iPod as a form of remembrance:
I told a little story about Heath's iPod. Whenever we went into the trailer we'd say "Whose iPod is this?" Because it would always be some wacked-out music nobody had ever heard of before. And it was Heath's. And that iPod has since become a symbol of Heath and his friends pass it around to each other, download the music and then pass it on.
Eckhart has obviously strayed from the Hollywood line on copyright— downloading music from someone else's iPod is clearly infringement. But a blithe diffidence to piracy isn't the only way Eckhart's form of mourning shows how the mass culture has been infected by Silicon Valley.
A number of cases where bereavement meets technology have arisen over the last few years, such as the father of a American soldier who died in Iraq but couldn't get into his son's email account because Yahoo refused to allow access, or the numerous tributes left for the dead on their social network profile pages.
Ledger was only 28 when he died, on the cusp of the generation often called "Millennials." If he was anything like his peers, he must have defined himself in part by his taste in music. It's only natural that friends would go through his music collection as a way of getting a sense of the man they lost, with a song they enjoyed together providing a poignant point of shared experience.
But for those who already carefully craft their playlists the way my generation once obsessed over mixtapes, it puts a whole other layer of meaning onto your selections. I can see asking myself before synching with iTunes, "Will my friends appreciate the irony of including Journey's Greatest Hits if I get run over by a bus and all that's left of me is this iPod?"
Eckhart's recollection of Ledger suggests we can be known by our silicon — that we don't go to heaven as much as upload our digitized lives to the clouds. It is a view of our mortality that the programmers of Silicon Valley would be entirely comfortable with: Ashes to ashes, bits to bits.