Life, Death and Tech

On April 6th 2013, I lost my sister, Anne Smedinghoff, to a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, where she was stationed working as Foreign Service Press Officer for the State Department. She was on a mission to deliver books to a school. Books being so important to help increase the literacy rate in Afghanistan so young people are able to read the Quran and other books for themselves to make informed decisions. The days and months that have followed have been the hardest days on my short life so far, and the struggle to move forward is not over for me. Through it all, I have come to several realizations about the industry I love to cover I want to share with people, especially through the lens of losing a loved one.

The thing that struck me first, is that my sister carried her iPhone 4S in her 'go-to bag' that she was holding at
My sister on her phone as she travels around Afghanistan.
the time of the attack. The iPhone is one of the most dropped, damaged, broken devices I see in people's hands, screens are cracked and backs are shattered. In short, it's not the world's most durable phone. Yet, with a simple snap on hard-plastic case covering just the back of the phone, my sister's iPhone survived the attack, without so much as an extra scratch on it. That iPhone is so much more than just a tool that my sister used, it is now a representation of everything my sister was, what she stood for, what she was interested in, what she liked. In all, it was a small piece of her, left behind for us to remember her by.

For a few weeks after her death, I carried that iPhone on me every day. It was in my suit jacket pocket for both her wake and her funeral. It was probably one of the last things she interacted with before her death. She was photographed with her phone in her hand just days before. In fact, when I looked at the phone later, it even had a text message about the attack that killed her, warning embassy personnel to stay clear of the area after the bombs exploded. The phone continued to work and send and receive data after the blast and all the way back to the US. So having that phone on me, was in some small way, like having my sister there with me helping me through the tough days that followed.

As my family came together, so too did the community in which I grew up. I saw an outpouring of love and support that I've only heard about before but never witnessed myself. Before I got home, my entire block was lined in American flags and every tree had a white ribbon around it's trunk. I was inundated with texts,
The white ribbons line a street in River Forest.
emails, and Facebook messages all from people I knew, had run into or had just talked to at one time or another all looking to express their condolences. It didn't stop there though. By the end of the week, my entire home town of River Forest, IL was blanketed in white ribbons. I never in all my life felt so supported and so cared for. Total strangers I didn't know were stopping by to tell me how my sister was an inspiration to them and their loved ones.

Through it all, my phone was my lifeline to the world. And I didn't care at all what phone I had, I just needed it to work. The apps didn't matter, the platform didn't matter. Which is why:

It Doesn't Matter

We go back and forth all the time with one another, shouting and singing the praises of one device, brand or company while attacking the competition. What I realized in the days following my sister's death, was that I didn't care anymore what device people were using, what platform they were on, what OS was powering the device. The fact that my immediate family was spread from the East cost all the way to the West cost at the time of my sister's death, meant that we were in constant communication with one another the whole time as we all made our way back home. The important thing wasn't the phones or the platform they were running, but the fact that it all worked. The fact that we were able to communicate with one another and get our messages back and forth as we coordinated with one another and our messages to the press meant that things needed to work and technology needed to get out of the way.

Out of the chaos, a clear pattern emerged from my perspective. We went back to basics. And by basics, I mean the universal forms of communication that are used by all platforms. Phone calls, texts, and emails, the protocols that have been around for years, that have not yet been replaced by iMessage, Skype, or WhatsApp. My family is split up with some on iOS, some on Android and me on Windows Phone, so the only universal communication platform is SMS, phone and email.

This is something I think is a real problem. In this time of crisis for me and my family, we just wanted things to work. We couldn't be bothered to try and figure out something new, or make sure ahead of time we all had the same phone, OS or messaging service. This is why no messaging service has come close to replacing SMS, Email or the voice call yet. This is why I was encouraged to see Larry Paige at this year's Google IO talking about tearing down these walls between companies to build great products and experiences, but at the same time, I've yet to see it happen. Hopefully, compatibility and support across all platforms becomes the norm, but there's always people winning the market share battle and losing that battle, and resources are limited, so I understand support will never be universal. If Google, Apple and Microsoft could all work together and support one another, I think that would be a good start.

A Renewed Focus

When you lose someone so close to you very suddenly, especially in a senseless act of violence, I find myself reflecting on things in a way that I never used to. For example, I created a memorial slideshow of my sister to be shown at the wake. Along with the slideshow, the old shoe boxes of photographs were brought out that captured the younger years of my sister's life, I put out the call to my sister's friends for any photographs they might have of my sister. I was inundated with photos from my sister's friends, which was great to see my sister in settings I had never seen her in before, but all too often I was sent a link to a Facebook page, or a download of a Facebook album. Now Facebook is probably the worlds largest photo sharing site, but it's also one of the worst. Most images from a few years ago are low resolution representations of the actual photo that was taken. Even now, too many people don't take advantage of the high resolution upload option. This meant that as I put the slideshow together, I had this mix of scanned photos from her early childhood, low-resolution Facebook pictures followed by the high resolution uploads and DSLR shots my sister had taken.

My sister, in front of Secretary Kerry's plane for his visit to Afghanistan.
Ultimately the photos served their purpose and the slideshow was a great memorial to my sister, but I couldn't help but feel that there's going to be there 10 year gap for many people in their photo collections, where digital photography was just getting started and they will be looking back on low-resolution representations of what happened in their life. I'm encouraged to see Apple, Microsoft and Google to start offering options for automatic high-resolution backups of photos, I hope people take advantage of them, because you never know when you are going to wish you had the original to go back to and not the Facebook copy.

It's things like this, stuff I would have never thought about before, that suddenly makes its way to the forefront of my mind. Do you really know what the digital legacy you leave behind is? How do you manage the digital life of someone who has passed away? Since my sister's passing, more digital content has been created for her than there was before with news stories, videos, a websiteFacebook Page, and a Wikipedia entry. These are all places where I want to make sure the memory of my sister is honored and they remain respectful places of remembrance for my sister. It's not easy. There's a lot to keep track of, a lot to maintain and a lot to update as people all around the world who knew my sister have paid tribute to her in their own ways.

And now there's this post. My own little memorial for my sister with my take on the technology that surrounded the event. It's been hard for me to write this, and in the end I don't know if it's the best I can do. But I knew I needed to say something. So now I have, and I hope that the governments of this world, the tech companies of this world, and most importantly, the people of this world are able to realize that by working together, supporting one another, we are able to build a world so much better than if we try to lock others out. So while we go back and forth over who has the best platform, I say, don't work to tear others down, work to build everyone up, because innovation is the savior of the human race from all adversity. Even if it's just saying, "hi" to a friend halfway around the world, or working to solve one of the biggest problems we face as a species. We can only do it together.

This is for you Anne.