Have you ever stopped to count how many online accounts you have? Do you listen to music on Spotify, upload your pictures to Dropbox and run your savings and investments on a platform? Do you do your banking online or through an app?
If any of those answers is yes, you may want to think about what would happen if you were seriously ill or died. You may only have a licence to use these services, with no automatic entitlement to pass on your login and password details to your heirs. You may have already been responsible enough to draw up a will, but you need to take further steps to safeguard your digital legacy. Here’s what you need to know.
Without looking at your phone, how many numbers do you know by heart? What about your calendar commitments a week from now? Off-loading these bits of information to our devices is convenient, but has it changed our brains, or the way we understand and store memories?
That’s what cognitive scientist Dr. Jason R. Finley, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Fontbonne University, wants to find out. He’s researched whether technology is erasing our memories and wrote about it in his book, Memory and Technology: How We Use Information in the Brain and the World. We spoke to him about how 21st century habits affect our brain and why many researchers have been “asleep at the wheel” when it comes to this subject. Here are edited and condensed excerpts from our conversation.
Dr. Finley, how did you first become interested in human learning and memory?
As a college senior at UCLA I took a class on human learning and memory, and halfway through the course I was amazed to realize that the professor’s name was the same as the author of many of the classic journal articles we were reading: Dr. Robert A. Bjork. From him I learned that memory is all that we are, but memory is not necessarily reality. I also learned the joy of carefully crafting clever research to chip away at the mysteries of the mind.
Is memory and technology a growing field?
We humans have always been the species that extends itself into the environment, making and using tools to augment or event supplant our own abilities. But sadly, mainstream psychology research has long been asleep at the wheel with regard to studying how humans use technology to support everyday cognition. With a handful of early exceptions, hardly any psychologists have done any research on the interplay between technology (external memory, stored outside your brain) and human memory (internal memory, stored inside your brain). In my opinion, this incredibly obvious and important topic has just fallen through the cracks between adjacent fields of research, including psychology, human factors, philosophy of mind, anthropology, library and information science, personal information management and so on.
(Dr. Jason R. Finley)
Tell us about your own study. How does technology affect our memory?
When Dr. Farah Naaz and I were post-doctoral researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, a powerhouse of memory research, we ran a large online survey, using Google Forms and recruiting 476 participants from Mechanical Turk, asking people about how they use technology for memory purposes.
Over the course of your career you’ve received funding from Microsoft Research and NEH, but this study was crowdfunded, right?
Yes, that’s because our idea didn’t fit in the funded research plans of the professors we worked for, so we had to get creative, via crowdfunding on Experiment.com and with the help of the SciFund Challenge.
What did you find out in the course of your research?
We found a growing symbiosis between internal and external memory. Some people are concerned about relying on external memory too much, or losing internal memory abilities. Many others see it as an enhancement, allowing them to strategically distribute their memory efforts between their brains and their environments, and enabling them to do more both intellectually and socially.
Explain the difference between external and internal memory.
To put it broadly, external memory is augmenting internal memory for episodic purposes (i.e. specific episodes: first kiss, what you ate for lunch yesterday), and supplanting internal memory for semantic (i.e. passwords, trivia) and prospective (i.e. remembering to do something in the future – prompts, alarms, calendar entries) purposes.
Did your participants report any shifting patterns of behavior in these memory types?
One thing we did find in our survey was people reporting that external memory allowed them to devote less time and energy to remembering some things (e.g., appointments, phone numbers). Some said that they’ve been able to use their brains for more creative and big-picture purposes, which is something we’re still better at than machines. In that way I think we are using our brains more appropriately. There is more knowledge available to us now than ever before in human history, so it makes sense that we would be learning how to use our brains in ways that are different from how, say, Socrates did.
That’s interesting. So, when people bemoan tech is ruining our memories, that’s not exactly true.
What we can say is that technology is making memory different. We are offloading semantic and prospective information onto external memory, and we are using external memory to augment episodic internal memory.
So creating more space in our brains?
The human brain doesn’t fill up and run out of space like a hard drive; the capacity of human long-term memory is essentially unlimited. Rather, counterintuitively, the more knowledge you gain, the better your ability to learn even more, and that information is distributed as patterns across a vast network of neurons all over the cerebral cortex.
Is there evidence to suggest we now think in ‘keywords’?
That’s a very interesting question. No research has been done yet that I know of, but it does seem plausible, to the extent that we’re shaping our thoughts to be compatible with how our external memories are organized. Sometimes knowing the right keyword to use in a computer search makes all the difference. But this is also why I encourage students to use multiple synonyms when saving files for easier retrieval later.
Technology gives us the ability to store memories for future generations. Can you speak about this?
Yes. I just taught a new class I made called “Memory and the Human Experience” and this is an issue we covered. Digital legacy is a new and growing issue for humanity. When your body dies, all of the memories in your brain die too. But what happens to all of your external memories (diaries, essays, photos, emails, texts, social media posts, browser history, game saves, etc.)? This is worth thinking through ahead of time. To many of us, our memories may be more valuable than our material possessions. And there’s also the perspective of collective memory. So much information about our everyday existences is being recorded now, and that could be passed into the future for posterity. Think of the value to future anthropologists to have insights into the thoughts and feelings of people that lived in the 21st century.
How do you think memory retention and learning will change as we transition from handheld devices to wearables and then to intangibles, like AR and insideables?
Wearables make external memory capture more passive, so there’s less of a trade-off between capturing versus experiencing the moment. That is a good thing. There has been research showing that people, unsurprisingly, put less effort into memorizing material for a test when they expect to have an external record of the material when needed. But a broader open question is whether our very ability to internally memorize new information will atrophy with disuse in the long term. As the technology of external memory becomes more closely integrated with our bodies and especially our nervous system, it will be easier to rely on it instead of our biological memory. As you pointed out in another article, we’re all cyborgs already.
Most kind, thanks for the plug. In your book, you quote Proust: ‘The greater part of our memory exists outside us.’
Proust explored the subjective experience of memory, and how it connects us to who we used to be, in beautifully expressive ways that complement what science can tell us. In that quote, Proust was referring to the power of environmental cues to unlock troves of memory in our own brains. Such reminding is indeed one way that external memory interacts with internal memory. But I co-opted Proust’s words to imply a greater meaning: not just that cues to memory exist outside us, but that memories themselves can exist outside us too.
As corporations shrink, institutional memory becomes lost. I interviewed the team at 8i, who are building holograms for international training programs to ‘store’ what’s known even when the people recorded are gone.
Wow, that sounds like an exciting idea. If we can clearly delineate all of an outgoing team member’s institutionally relevant knowledge, and offload that onto some kind of external memory, that would be great. A challenge is that so much institutional knowledge is implicit, and it’s hard to know what we know that other people don’t.
With the rise in AI assistants, are we not just offloading cognition onto the environment, but also training amanuensis who can help us remember (what we will not) as we age?
As we develop AI that has some agency and can to some extent understand what the human user does and doesn’t know, or is likely to forget, then yes, that would be an instance of external memory that could act as a transactive partner. I think there could very well be potential for an AI to help a person with declining memory ability, especially if the AI has been with that person for a long time. However, the history of AI has shown that it’s really hard to make them for anything but the most specific purposes. I’m not saying it’s impossible, just that it always seems to take much longer than we think.
Good point. Finally, what’s next for you?
I’ll be speaking at the conference of the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition in Cape Cod, scheduled for June 6-9 about my work to date.
‘Cake’ Will Sweeten the Process of Dying in the Digital Age
A few years ago, ahead of a scheduled operation, I had to hire an attorney to draw up my last will and testament. Per the hospital’s instructions, I was also told to bring a copy of my Advance Directive, or instructions on when to pull the plug. It was scary, grown-up stuff.
As a digital native, it all felt a bit too real. I would have much preferred to sit on my couch, laptop at the ready, with an on-screen AI to talk me through the whole decision-making process and pop it up on the cloud. And that’s exactly what former healthcare executive Suelin Chen built in her Boston-based startup, Cake.
Aware that no one is thrilled about planning for the final exit—or having to talk loved ones through their own wishes—Cake is a no-nonsense online tool. You can lay out: how you’d like to go (hospice versus at home or maybe a remote cabin in the woods); who gets your stuff; the music you’d like at your memorial; and more.
You can also specify how you want to be remembered digitally. Perhaps you want to allocate funds for annual site management fees, domain registration, or deputizing someone to ensure a Wiki-profile is factually accurate.
I spoke to Chen to find out more. Here are edited and condensed excerpts from our conversation.
Suelin, how did you come up for the idea behind Cake?
With my background in healthcare and business, I saw not only the high costs involved in end-of-life care, but that in our country people often default to enduring more and more medical procedures without fully understanding the value, or the trade-offs. Three out of four people don’t plan for end-of-life, and I get why—the barriers to planning can be really high. Simply put, I saw an opportunity to help people plan better, to make their desires known, before it’s too late.
Because they’re too incapacitated to make their views known?
Right, it’s often brought up too late. Because, when surveyed, 80 percent of people would prefer to die at home—and yet, today, 80 percent of people die in medical facilities.
Planning for the final exit is a space ripe for disruption, then.
I knew there could be good digital tools for doing this but I couldn’t find any, so I found a great team and built Cake.
Is there also a generational shift? Due to social media, we get to ‘see’ people die, many of whom we might have lost touch with over the years. Death is going to happen to us all. But it feels more ‘visible’ now.
Absolutely. We have a lot of millennials on our platform, and we see that this generation is very pragmatic and perceives less stigma about death than older generations. Previous generations have been remembered through a gravestone or something similar. In time, those degrade. But our digital footprint, the traces of our lives, will persist online. I ask people, when your great-grandchildren search online for you in the future, what do you want them to find?
That’s a deeply unsettling and yet curiously interesting thought. You must have worked with many different partners to bring Cake to life.
Yes, we’ve spent hundreds of hours consulting with experts to develop all our online tools including: estate attorneys, funeral planners, physicians, social workers, and wealth managers.
How does Cake work? This is more than a basic will, right?
Yes, many of our users have done estate planning and have a will but realize that they still have gaps. We provide a personalized, comprehensive, and detailed checklist that helps people understand what planning they still need to do. It’s hard to know what legal fees are reasonable, because there’s a lack of transparency. Many of our users have seen an attorney but want more visibility into the process. It’s not just avoiding taxes on your assets after death (though of course this is very important). It’s also managing how you want to be remembered, your funeral or memorial service, your digital footprint, your digital assets (Bitcoin, etc.)—certainly doing more than putting all your passwords in an Excel doc and locking it (which has been recommended to several of our users).
How many data points is your AI gathering as it takes a Cake user through personal planning?
It’s fluid [and] really depends on the individual. Our Cake AI prompts you with questions, to capture data around many decisions that need to be made. But there’s also a freeform section for more personal wishes. Some of our users write (almost) novel-length answers to those.
What are some of the more ‘out there’ requests?
Well, every employee at Cake has gone through the process and one of my team members loves the idea of having a tree planted for him. A lot of our users, including me, feel they’d rather have a celebration of life than a somber funeral. One of our users wants to be buried with a 6-pack of Bud Lite. Someone else I know has left instructions to rent out a movie theater for his. Your last wishes should be a true expression of who you are.
How many people have signed up so far?
We don’t reveal exact user numbers.
Fair enough. It’s free to users, so what’s your revenue model?
We make money from affiliate links and from enterprise partners who distribute to their population. For example, we’ve built a Cake back-end for a large healthcare provider, an insurer, a bank, and other institutions. A premium product is also in the works.
You don’t share data with ‘interested parties’ who might want to sell fancy urns then?
No, trust is the most important thing to us. We will never sell or share personally identifiable information with any third party without our users consent.
Why the name Cake?
It’s a warm, inviting symbol of celebrating and honoring life. Planning is a positive act, a true gift to your loved ones.
You’ve build a web-based service, rather than a mobile app. Why?
It’s much faster to iterate and improve the platform, and doesn’t require any download. We also know that many of our user base is more comfortable with web apps than downloading native applications.
Do you have a tech team in-house or are you partnering with a digital agency on this build?
All in house! We actually have more female than male techies, who span several generations, which I’m very proud of.
Are you wedded to any particular tech tools?
Choosing Microsoft Azure as our hosting platform made it easy for us to implement excellent security and scalability for our product early on, and our code base heavily utilizes the Microsoft .NET stack as well. We recently also switched our internal IT to Office 365 and were early adopters of Microsoft Teams; so I guess we’re fans of Microsoft technologies.
Why are you based in Boston rather than any of the other Silicon cities?
I love Boston. There’s a lot of activity in FinTech, MedTech, and healthcare here. It’s a great place to be, with plenty of talent and financial support from big institutions.
Finally, what’s next for you?
We have an exciting growth plan for 2019, and a number of new partners in the financial sector that will provide new avenues for growth and new opportunities to add features that enable our users to plan and have peace of mind. Cake is in the FinTech cohort of Mass Challenge 2019, which kicks off orientation on Jan. 18. The initiative is aimed at startups which have an enterprise-ready solution, and helps them partner with large organizations. Cake will be working with MassMutual, Fidelity, and AARP Innovation Labs.
We spend hours on the internet, living our lives through social media accounts, paying bills, writing emails and handling our banking. But what happens to those assets when you die? Who’s in charge of your digital afterlife?
“I think that generation that’s my age and certainly senior citizens who are starting to acquire more of these assets, never thought to ask these questions because we were always in a paper society,” Assemblyman Lou Greenwald said.
But that’s more of an endangered species these days. A new law, created by Greenwald, helps people control access to their so-called digital assets upon death, much as they would in the traditional sense for physical items like real estate or stock.
“Right now you have to contact the companies that you work with and affirmatively ask them to share the information. This would change that to allow you to work with an estate planner to identify in your will that information is your property,” said Greenwald.
So your Facebook or checking account will get the same protection as tangible property. And the law extends power to a fiduciary or executor of an estate to manage those digital assets.
The law makes New Jersey the twenty-fourth state to enact what’s called the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act. It’s a mouthful, but it means those walls created by privacy rights can be navigated. Think of it as the next evolution of the living will for your digital property.
“I think it was well intended, but it’s execution was sub-optimal,” said Internet law expert Jonathan Bick.
Bick sees the legislation through a different lens. He says assets of the internet come in three varieties associated with their location: those in the possession of the person, those created elsewhere and those with no location.
“If you have an email, it may be located in your computer, so if a fiduciary or trustee takes over the computer they’ll have complete control over that asset. But some assets such as emails are located on third-party machines. So, for example, if you had Gmail, your e-mail is not located in your computer, rather a server owned by Gmail,” he elaborated.
Bick anticipates some legal difficulties. He says the new law puts constraints on traditional systems. But as digital life remains new territory, he welcomes any step to help protect digital death.
“Digital wealth” constitutes a far greater proportion of our estates than many realise, with our personal and business lives becoming increasingly digitalised and online.
Yet a survey for the NSW Trustee and Guardian found 83 per cent of Australians have not discussed what will happen to their social media accounts when they die and only 3 per cent of Australians with a will have given directions regarding their social media accounts.
Digital wealth needs to be included in estate and succession planning, so that on death or incapacity assets are protected and this wealth is dealt with tax effectively.
Even if you do not own an online or virtual business, this digital wealth may have the ability to produce income or be sold, but will be of no value if nobody knows it exists. Not to mention potential sentimental value where the account includes photos, memories or messages.
Its expanding net covers: online or virtual businesses, which may own goodwill or intellectual property including copyrighted materials, trademarks and code; social networks including Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn; email accounts; blogs and domain names; music, photos and files stored online or in clouds; online accounts such as PayPal; access to financial accounts and cryptocurrencies; and hardware including computers and tablets.
Complications may arise on death due to differing account terms and differing international laws.
For example: you want to gift videos or photographs in your Will, but it depends where they are stored: if saved on a digital device such as your iPad, you can simply gift the device; if saved in the cloud, the provider’s account terms determine what happens to them.
Digital rights differ greatly from one provider to the other:
- Facebook accounts can be memorialised or permanently deleted. Content cannot be changed unless the deceased added a legacy contact. If an option is not chosen, Facebook’s standard policy is to memorialise the account.
- Instagram accounts can be memorialised, but accounts can only be removed by family members who prove they are an immediate family member. LinkedIn only offers profile removal, deleting connections, recommendations and endorsements.
- iCloud accounts are non-transferable and rights to your Apple ID or content terminate upon death. You may leave login details for loved ones to retrieve photos and other sensitive information. If not, a court order may be required, which will prove difficult and expensive.
Australia has no specific legislation yet for digital estate and succession planning or managing digital wealth. Families have no clear rights to access a deceased or incapacitated family member’s digital assets and accounts.
Without password and login details these assets can remain locked away or online indefinitely. Even with a password you may be in breach of the service provider’s terms when using that information.
There is no easy answer, but the following is currently considered best practice:
- Traditional estate and succession planning, which also covers digital wealth. This involves reviewing asset ownership and structures, proposing solutions to problems, and seeking buy-in from beneficiaries to lessen disputes later due to beneficiaries not understanding what was done and why.
- Share a list or secure location of digital accounts and wealth with trusted family members, kept securely and separate from passwords to avoid security breaches. It should not be included in the will, as the will becomes a public document if and when probate is granted.
- A letter of wishes may provide direction. This letter could cover: accounts to be closed, deleted and/or content erased; material to be downloaded and gifted to named individuals; accounts to be archived and saved; credits, points or cash values to be redeemed and transferred to particular people; and online businesses to be shut down.
- Incapacity needs to be considered, as dealing with digital wealth and social media accounts may be more urgent than on death. Account policies are often less clear on incapacity. Enduring powers of attorney should define digital assets and digital accounts, and include powers allowing the attorney to deal with them. While the power of attorney’s jurisdiction only covers Australia, it may make an account provider in a different jurisdiction more likely to accept the attorney’s authority.
- Wills should define digital assets, digital accounts and include powers for executors and trustees to deal with them.If there is significant digital wealth in other jurisdictions consider local wills and the equivalent of enduring powers of attorney in each jurisdiction, with a global Australian will covering the worldwide estate other than that situated in these jurisdictions. This may not be strictly legally required, but can facilitate the process and possibly lead to a better tax outcome.
With significant digital wealth an option could be to hold it through a trust structure separate to your estate for improved tax and asset protection outcomes. Your will must deal with who the shares in a trustee company (if there is one) should pass to and you also need to deal with succession to the office of the appointor of the trust (if there is one).
Regular reviews at least every three years, and when there is a significant change in circumstances, are important given how quickly the digital arena is changing.
James Whiley is a special counsel in the Hall & Wilcox private clients practice www.hallandwilcox.com.au