Products of Design MFA student Matthew Barber's thesis, entitled “The End.” looks at the shifting landscape of death and dying in today’s society, and the consequences of living an increasingly digital life. Matthew chose to tackle this subject after observing the effects of his grandmother’s passing from dementia. "I think this thesis really began back in 2011,” he reflects, “I saw my family struggling with my grandmother’s passing and thought that there must be a better way. I wanted to understand why this was so hard on us."

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Instead of looking at traditional patient-driven solutions, Matt began by looking into design solutions based on the patient’s extended family and friends. He saw an opportunity to investigate the terminally ill, but more specifically, the things and the people that they leave behind.

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Matthew began to interview various stakeholders within the world end-of-life care and end-of-life planning, informing his primary research into the psychology around death and dying, and familiarized himself with the seminal research around grieving and loss by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and her contemporaries. Kübler-Ross' reframing of “death as the final stage of growth” in On Death and Dying was a pivotal moment in the research process, deeply influencing Barber's design work thereafter. Inspired by this notion, Barber shifted his focus towards designing solutions that would pull and nudge levers within the complexities of death, rather than solving for specific problem spaces.

Expanding beyond the patient—and beyond the family left behind—Barber began to look at the systemic elements around death and dying. And seeking out bright spots and defining an audience, it became evident that the separation of self, due to our increasingly digital world, invariably affects end-of-life issues—both large and small.

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The resultant work introduced a conceptual platform called Last Words. Last Words imagines a world where the delivering of a life-long secret, a last wish, an apology, or a confession can be as easy as writing a Facebook update—but, of course, with feedback that the sender will never know. By investigating the permanence of such digital artifacts, as well as the blurriness of the consequences of these artifacts, Last Words poses the questions, “How can personal expression live on after death?” and “Does this expression ultimately add to or detract from the value of our lives?” And importantly—especially at this historical moment in technology-fueled social media—Last Words stands as a speculative provocation pointing to the challenges around online accountability. Ultimately, it asks us to consider the ethics of “dying in a digital age,” and what designed artifacts we are willing to live (and die) with.

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In another instantiation, Barber introduces the idea of Big Yourself, a publishing platform that profiles your digital doppelgänger—as a character that parallels your life in the form of a passively written novel. The novelty is that this version of your self lives on after your passing, acknowledging to the permanence of digital records and the universal access to them. Big Yourself uses our personal data, and the digital breadcrumbs each of us leaves through our everyday activities, to draw an accurate and parallel life of our own. Part simulacra and part recording, this concept speculates how our lives are defined through our personal curation, and then how one’s legacy is affected if personality is removed from the equation.

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And finally, returning to the physical artifact, Barber reframed his thesis in the form of Finished. Finished is an event that ritualizes and celebrates the small fragments of life that accumulate to form a legacy. “What if we celebrated those moments that create a life, abstracted and ennobled ,and each on its own terms?” Barber asks. Here, a series of sealed token vessels carrying physical messages are passed on in a prescribed ritual—read alongside the destruction of the vessel at a point in the future.

Throughout this process, Barber prototyped and tested the validity of these concepts against the idea born from Kübler-Ross' writing—reframing death as growth. By investigating how the physical and digital artifacts we leave behind act as a final record of this growth, Matthew created a suite of objects that celebrate both the life of the deceased as well as the relationships affected by that life.

Matthew plans to continue his investigation into the landscape of death through the development of the Last Words mobile platform, as well as through the creation of physical artifacts that pursue celebration and reflection. In doing so, he hopes to shift the perception of death in contemporary Western society, provide tools to ease the conversation around death and dying, and focus on the relationships that live on after someone’s passing.

Read more about the project, including subject matter experts and research protocols in the PDF above. See more of Matthew Barber's work at his website MatthewElleryBarber.com, and email him at matthew.barber[at]gmail[dot]com.