I was asked to write some brief remarks in remembrance of my good friend Ilya 李士傑 whose sudden death last week shocked and saddened so many people. I was also asked to include a photograph of us together, which I don’t have. But then I realized I did, just not in the way people normally think about it.
Ilya’s generosity of spirit, his curiosity, his kindness, and his good energy made him someone many people considered a friend. But for those of us for whom real friendships are few and far between, Ilya’s friendship offered something unique. His pleasure in seeking out new experiences and new ideas was infectious, and he could engage with you on virtually any subject you threw at him. He also put his wide network of friendships to work, helping cultivate connections among his friends. There are many people I know today because of Ilya.
While we were close “in real life,” staying at each other’s homes and traveling together overseas, our online friendship was just as important. We were both “early adopters” of new technologies, having first met because of our shared passion for blogging. Our online chats spread across fourteen years and multiple platforms. Wherever I went online, there was Ilya. In these chats we often tried to make sense of the potential and limits of these new technologies. Discussions that often spilled over into real world collaborations.
When we first met it was still an era of techno-optimism, and we tried to share the potential we saw in a series of joint talks aimed at academics and cultural workers. More recently, however, our conversations had become more pessimistic, as we worried about the spread of fake news online. This is what we talked about the last time we met, at a coffee shop in Hualien just a few days before he left us. But Ilya was not someone to be discouraged, and in this picture he was still trying to understand how to use his considerable skills and intelligence to fight these new threats. “Give me a screenshot,” he wrote. “Let me see what you see.”