The digital afterlife: thinking about what happens to our online life when we die. Image credit: Richard Parker/Stuff.co.nz
A soon-to-be-released science fiction movie, Transcendence, features Johnny Depp as a scientist who becomes immortalised as a digital entity – an event that is referred to by many as the Singularity. This is still rather far from reality, of course, but it did get me thinking about death and what happens to ‘our’ data – all those Facebook chats, Instagram photos and so on. I’m talking about the digital hereafter.
Your digital persona
It was around the turn of the millennium when I first started using the internet seriously (by which I mean how much time and energy I spent on the internet, not what I used it for). Back then, I spent my time online divided between MySpace, and plenty of forums. I certainly wasn’t thinking about a data backlog, or what would happen when I die. But as more and more of my life moved online, this has come to my attention as something not too many people think about. I don’t actually know, but I would guess that I have a profile at well over 200 websites, including social media sites, forums, retail and financial services, and any number of arbitrary web-apps that required me to sign up to use them just once.
My point is, as the internet has grown we have strewn our personal data far and wide across numerous websites, with little further thought for that data, sequestered in servers across the world. And in so doing, we have created a kind of avatar – a nebulous collection of data points in the cloud, that together makes up an online persona.
Your data after you die
Google, Facebook, and Twitter all have strategies to deal with accounts of the deceased – Facebook will ‘memorialise’ a profile if a family member can confirm the death of that person. This turns the profile of the deceased into a public memorial page, which won’t show status updates but still allows loved ones to post messages. Twitter just locks your information down, while Google has what they call the Inactive Account Manager – after a defined period of inactivity, Google will transfer your data to a trusted contact and/or shut down your account. In general, it seems that the data will be made available to loved ones (or the courts) if absolutely necessary. Several companies have positioned themselves as managers of you digital legacy – covered in this blogpost. For a more in-depth discussion of digital estate planning, see this NY Times article published last year.
Now for some more outlandish options for the digital afterlife. Several companies have caught on to this opportunity, and are offering to immortalise your digital persona for posterity. Eterni.me promises to create a digital version of the deceased, which will continue to post status updates and send messages. The company will parse your data to create an virtual ‘you’ based on your likes, browsing history and previous social media messages. LivesOn is another such project, which promises to keep tweeting for you after you die. With taglines like ‘When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting. Welcome to your social afterlife.’ (LivesOn) or the frankly misleading ‘Simply Become Immortal’ (Eterni.me), these services are not for everybody. Personally, I find the idea of a dead loved one tweeting something inane rather distasteful, and I would be downright upset if a digital ghost started messaging me about the good times we had back when they were alive.
Corporates aren’t the only ones thinking quite seriously about this stuff – there is a website, The Digital Beyond, which has been started to discuss and document these issues. The owners of the site have also written a bookdiscussing one’s options for curating the digital remains of a loved one. Academia is getting in on the act, too:researchers in the UK are studying how Western public mourning practices are changing. They document massive growth in online mourning rituals, such as the aforementioned memorial pages on Facebook, blogs dedicated to the memory of loved ones, and so on.
Another way of dealing with digital remains
I would like to consider another aspect of this discussion, one which I have not seen discussed much: the value of that data as a public resource. Data has become the unofficial second currency of business in the 21st century – just look at mobile developers. They run at a loss for years, until someone will buy their captive audience from them as data for the great online advertising machine. As it stands, the digital remnants of a life belong to the company that owned that data to begin with. But I have a alternative suggestion, which would be massively useful if implemented correctly. What if, after a reasonable mourning period (call it five years to be safe), all of that data was parsed, anonymised, and made publicly available, for free? Think of the wealth of data that would represent, over the next few decades, or even centuries. Big Data is an overhyped topic right now, but we are already seeing it’s mark across the world. Think of the complex modelling and forecasting that would be possible. Think of the boost to academia, industry, commerce, financial services and even sport. And applied to humanitarian work in health or the environment, it would quite literally change the world.