A Winnipegger's Death Goes Unnoticed for Two Years

ONE NOVEMBER DAY in 2002, Jim Sulkers, a 53-year-old retired municipal worker from Winnipeg, climbed into bed, pulled the covers up, and died. Over the next 20-odd months, the U.S. invaded Iraq, Janet Jackson exposed herself at the Super Bowl, and Canadians - with some reluctance - elected Paul Martin. But, tragically, it wasn't until Aug. 25, 2004, toward the end of the Athens Summer Olympics, that somebody finally thought to look in on Jim Sulkers.

By the time police - alerted, finally, by concerned relatives - climbed through the window of his second-storey condo in the posh River Heights neighbourhood, Sulkers' body was in a mummified state. Everything else in his tidy one-bedroom apartment was intact, although the food in his fridge was spoiled and his wall calendar was two years out of date.

After a brief investigation in which Manitoba's chief medical examiner determined he'd died of natural causes, the bizarre confluence of coincidences that led to his delayed discovery began to emerge (and landed Sulkers' story on "wacky news of the world" websites from Houston to Cape Town). For one thing, he was a reclusive man. He was estranged from his family and had minimal contact with neighbours, most of whom assumed he'd taken an extended vacation. Also, he suffered from a medical condition that prevented his body from decomposing - and therefore expelling any telltale odours.

But the primary factor in the delay, it turns out, was technology - or more specifically, automated banking. Sulkers suffered from multiple sclerosis and received a monthly disability pension, which was deposited directly into his bank account. His condo fees, utilities and other expenses were then deducted automatically. As such, his bills were routinely being paid up well beyond his death. Why wouldn't his creditors assume he was alive?

Sad as it is, Sulkers' tale illuminates a chilling fact: that new technologies like electronic banking have created a system in which it's possible to become so physically disengaged from the day-to-day administration of your own affairs that your life can effectively go on without you, perhaps indefinitely. "For many practical purposes, this man was virtually alive throughout that time," says Terence Moran, professor of Media Ecology at New York University, a program he co-founded with Neil Postman, the celebrated media critic, in 1971. Marshall MCLUHAN famously said that media are extensions of ourselves, Moran points out. "This man's life was extended for two years by the TECHNOLOGY he used. Postman would've said that what you have here is a lack of community."

What you also have is Exhibit A for techno-skeptics - the artists, intellectuals and other prophets of despair (most notably McLuhan, U.S. cultural historian Lewis Mumford and French philosopher Jacques Ellul) who've long warned that too much reliance on technology will result in a whittling away of human virtues and freedoms in ways we can't begin to understand. The dark, inevitable and unforeseeable consequences of technology were an inspiration for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, as well as Blade Runner and the Matrix trilogy. This is what Postman called technology's Faustian bargain. "It is a mistake to suppose that any technological innovation has a one-sided effect," he wrote. "Every technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that."

Often, says Moran, the most significant consequences of technological innovation are the ones we could have least predicted. When the automobile was first invented, people had concerns, but primarily about safety. "Nobody predicted it would lead to air pollution, smog and the suburbanization of America," he says. Likewise with the Internet, concerns have primarily centred around access and privacy. But the actual societal implications of chat rooms, instant messaging, and online dating may not emerge for decades to come.

In academia, a war has been raging over the true emotional, social and psychological impact of the Internet and the automated services it affords us. Sure, critics say, new media help us overcome boundaries of time and space. They foster communication, productivity and access to information - but often at the cost of face-to-face interaction with family, friends, neighbours and shopkeepers. By its very nature, they argue, the new technology destroys communities.

Professors Robert Kraut of Carnegie Mellon University and Norman Nie of Stanford were two of the first to examine the societal impact of new technologies. In separate studies, they each concluded that frequent Internet use leads to a decline in social support, family communication and the size of one's social network, and an increase in depression and loneliness. "The Internet," said Nie, "could be the ultimate isolating technology that further reduces our participation in communities even more than did automobiles and television before it." In other words, electronic media have created a new definition of what it means to be connected - one which, paradoxically, means more people "home, alone and anonymous," he said.

Consider that your average young person spends 6 ½ hours a day in front of a screen of one stripe or another, whether it be playing video games, surfing the Web, downloading music onto an iPod or text messaging with a BlackBerry. In a recent study, 20 per cent of teenagers said they use instant messaging as their primary mode of communication with friends.

A techno-skeptic will tell you that virtual communication is a poor substitute for meaningful, face-to-face interaction. "It's only the illusion of interacting," says Moran. "To illustrate this point, Postman used to say, 'Try eating some virtual food or breathing some virtual air.' "

It's no secret we've come to rely on technology to help alleviate a litany of latter-day ills: boredom, loneliness, laziness, lack of time and isolation. (There are new wired devices that help adults monitor their elderly parents from afar. If they alter their daily activities in any suspicious way, this information will be transmitted electronically. Useful, but not quite the same as dropping by.)

Of course, it's a little premature to argue that new technology is transforming people into apathetic techno-misfits. For the time being, its benefits clearly outweigh its drawbacks. In fact, Keith Hampton, a Canadian professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recently created local chat lines and found that they actually made residents more likely to meet their neighbours in person. "My work suggests you can use new technologies to encourage new social ties and strengthen local relationships," he says. (Hampton makes another good point: was interaction with the bank teller really that meaningful?)

The downside is undeniable, however, as evidenced by Jim Sulkers' lonely demise. In his immediate community, his death has had direct consequences for his neighbours, many of whom are elderly or disabled and horrified by the idea that someone could be so completely forgotten. Gladys Lowry, who lives alone in the apartment two doors down from where Sulkers died, now feels compelled to make more direct human contact. "I know this could never really happen to me," she says, "but my neighbour and I have decided to phone each other every other day - just in case."

Maclean's September 20, 2004