Non-Fiction Reviews

All the Ghosts in the Machine
Illusions of immortality in the digital age

(2019) Elaine Kasket, Robinson, hrdbk, £14.99, xxiii + 280pp, ISBN 978-1-472-14189-7


In our lives, the temporary, yet constant presence of the internet has become something more than simply being an information source and a repository for content: in many ways, it has become a memorial for humanity as it outlives each of us as individuals, remaining present, and yet intangible as we pass away.

All the Ghosts in the Machine  is Elaine Kasket’s history, description, reflection and analysis of the ghosts-in-the-machine concept – the concept of the machine being filled with the ghostly imprints of the past, of humanity’s dead, who still exist as a Facebook profile a website, an MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online game) character, or an undeleted internet history.  This is an accessible book, making a profound point – we are being memorialised by an indefinably and intangible temporal construction that seems so unreal, but continues to outlast us.

Kasket discusses the fragments that we leave behind in this digital space and makes a good case for us to think about what we will leave behind and what the will be for others if we do not.  There are some horrors out there, particularly for the living when they unwittingly and surprisingly confront a remnant of someone they cared about.

Kasket’s experience with science fiction prior to engaging on this ethnographic journey was quite limited. In the chapter, ‘The Uncanny Valley’ she explores the concept of digital transference – a common science fiction trope and discusses the 2013 depiction of this in ‘Be Right Back’ the first episode in the second season of the television series, Black Mirror (2012 -).  Kasket makes the point that our culture has gradually shifted towards accepting this concept within a representative personal context (and not a super villain’s master plan) as our digital culture has become more pervasive and we spend more time online. She makes a comparison to the Robin Williams’ film The Final Cut (2004) which was not as well received as the Black Mirror episodes and the point is a perceptive one, clearly identifying an element of cultivation in our normalisation of our digital identities into being part of who we are.

That said, Kasket’s point here and in some other places in the book, would benefit from further reading and exposure to the idiosyncrasies of science fiction. Some of the concepts that seem to terrify her and might feel like revelations to a mainstream audience are less revelatory to readers who are used to Skynet, the Cylons, The Matrix (1996) and other more perceptive examples in literature.  But then, as Kasket says, she ‘didn’t exactly get what science fiction was’, so she is less secure in herself when confronting the real-world equivalents of such technologies.

Despite this, the depth of the examples and personal stories in All the Ghosts in the Machine  shines through.  Many of the circumstances we consider as being the big questions science fiction is or was trying to answer are questions being confronted by people in their everyday lives.  The idea of a memoriam, of wanting to be remembered at your best or in the same way you see yourself is a personal mission for those who are very aware of their mortality, and in providing space for their stories in her work, Kasket is doing a little bit to ensure that these lives reach others, making an impression on strangers far away.

All the Ghosts in the Machine  is occasionally a little distracted and tangential, but definitely a worthwhile read for anyone considering what they might leave behind them in the digital age.

Allen Stroud


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