Thesis Project
Graduate Media Design program at Art Center College of Design
Sara Moore


In Absentia

In absentia began as an exploration into finding ways that technology and empathy can intersect. As information and technology play more and more of a role in our daily lives, what happens to our ability to genuinely connect and empathize with the human at the other end of that technology?

I focused these concerns on the realm of death and grieving in our contemporary society. What has technology done to this process? How can we re-appropriate these advancements to help us better deal with this natural event that affects us all both directly and indirectly?

I’ve never fully accepted that my loved ones, these intricate beings both in mind and body, can be gone forever in the blink of an eye. But as I questioned where they might be, I found myself saying “They’re in a better place,” without having a good understanding on what that place is. Where is it? What does it look like?

Upon looking into the ways in which our distant ancestors dealt with these questions, I found some amazingly clear and imaginative stories. The Aztecs believed that after dying we scale an enormous glass mountain and are forced to battle an angry god in order to enter a peaceful afterlife. If we lose the battle, we are tortured for eternity. The ancient Egyptians spent months and sometimes years fashioning the right gifts and essential goods to send with their loved ones into the afterlife. It’s clear that these stories helped the bereaved on some level and it’s also clear we’ve gotten less imaginative about the hereafter.

In an age when science and technology have replaced our need and desire to create our own stories and explanations to life's big questions, I’ve looked to design, with the help of both science and technology to assist in the processes of personal grieving. How can these technologies be re-appropriated to help us better remember and celebrate our dead?

I believe that very few of these advancements exist to provide support for basic human values and beliefs in the face of adversity. For example, the use of tiny, networked sensors for data-collecting is a development created for military purposes. Energy-harvesting, while it is a significant step for the health of the environment, can have a greater purpose than simply charging one’s cellphone. These examples show where our priorities currently lie in terms of technological research and development. In absentia re-appropriates these two achievements for empathetic means, within the realm of death and grieving in Western culture, by using them to help fill the inevitable void of a lost loved one through the continuation of a story. Through the tracking of a departed’s dust and the preservation of one’s kinetic energy, in absentia creates a system of tools that asks of its users an open and imaginative stance towards the remains of their loved ones. This system lives somewhere between science and faith, absence and presence. In absentia allows us to question our current constructs around grieving, remembrance and the act of “moving on” after a loved one dies, an act often regarded as the correct response to a tragic loss. These new rituals provide duration, storytelling and more individual ways to remember our loved ones.