Plan your digital afterlife and rest in cyber peace From Facebook memorials to avatars, people are thinking about what happens to their digital assets (1) after they die. Facebook is expected to be the world’s biggest virtual graveyard by 2098. By the end of the century, many of us […]
Many of us will accumulate vast libraries of digital books and music over the course of our lifetimes. But when we die, our collections of words and music may expire with us.
Someone who owned 10,000 hardcover books and the same number of vinyl records could bequeath them to descendants, but legal experts say passing on iTunes and Kindle libraries would be much more complicated.
And one’s heirs stand to lose huge sums of money. “I find it hard to imagine a situation where a family would be OK with losing a collection of 10,000 books and songs,” says Evan Carroll, co-author of “Your Digital Afterlife.” “Legally dividing one account among several heirs would also be extremely difficult.”
Part of the problem is that with digital content, one doesn’t have the same rights as with print books and CDs. Customers own a license to use the digital files — but they don’t actually own them.
Apple AAPL, +0.79% and Amazon.com AMZN, +0.98% grant “nontransferable” rights to use content, so if you buy the complete works of the Beatles on iTunes, you cannot give the “White Album” to your son and “Abbey Road” to your daughter.
“That account is an asset and something of value,” says Deirdre R. Wheatley-Liss, an estate-planning attorney at Fein, Such, Kahn & Shepard in Parsippany, N.J.
But can it be passed on to one’s heirs?
Most digital content exists in a legal black hole. “The law is light years away from catching up with the types of assets we have in the 21st Century,” says Wheatley-Liss. In recent years, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Indiana, Oklahoma and Idaho passed laws to allow executors and relatives access to email and social networking accounts of those who’ve died, but the regulations don’t cover digital files purchased.
Apple and Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.
There are still few legal and practical ways to inherit e-books and digital music, experts say. And at least one lawyer has a plan to capitalize on what may become be a burgeoning market. David Goldman, a lawyer in Jacksonville, says he will next month launch software, DapTrust, to help estate planners create a legal trust for their clients’ online accounts that hold music, e-books and movies. “With traditional estate planning and wills, there’s no way to give the right to someone to access this kind of information after you’re gone,” he says.
Here’s how it works: Goldman will sell his software for $150 directly to estate planners to store and manage digital accounts and passwords. And, while there are other online safe-deposit boxes like AssetLock and ExecutorSource that already do that, Goldman says his software contains instructions to create a legal trust for accounts. “Having access to digital content and having the legal right to use it are two totally different things,” he says.
The simpler alternative is to just use your loved one’s devices and accounts after they’re gone — as long as you have the right passwords.
Chester Jankowski, a New York-based technology consultant, says he’d look for a way to get around the licensing code written into his 15,000 digital files. “Anyone who was tech-savvy could probably find a way to transfer those files onto their computer — without ending up in Guantanamo,” he says. But experts say there should be an easier solution, and a way such content can be transferred to another’s account or divided between several people.“We need to reform and update intellectual-property law,” says Dazza Greenwood, lecturer and researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab.
Technology pros say the need for such reform is only going to become more pressing. “A significant portion of our assets is now digital,” Carroll says. U.S. consumers spend nearly $30 on e-books and MP3 files every month, or $360 a year, according to e-commerce company Bango. Apple alone has sold 300 million iPods and 84 million iPads since their launches. Amazon doesn’t release sales figures for the Kindle Fire, but analysts estimate it has nearly a quarter of the U.S. tablet market.
Humans have a cool 200,000 years worth of experience in dealing with death, but we’re probably worse at it than ever. Technology circa 2016 makes it seem like such a violation—an unnaturalness. It’s not that death has ever been a good thing to happen, but maybe at certain points in the history of the species it has been more of a normal thing to happen than it is right now.
Some large part of this abnormality is the existence of digital identities. As people, we’re now able to spread ourselves very far and wide. We have the illusion—and then some—of immateriality. We’re then left with the anxiety of a digital afterlife. Where once the material existence of the deceased (you or I) could be boxed up in a sad afternoon of cleaning and reminiscing, now it lingers and persists.
Isn’t that a good thing? Maybe not, according to a paper published this month in the ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction by a trio of researchers hailing from the University of Lancaster, the University of California, and Carnegie Mellon University. However much we may want to keep the dead around us, and however easy it is, that’s perhaps not what we need to grieve.
“People increasingly live their lives online, accruing large collections of digital possessions,” the authors write. “Many of these digital possessions symbolically represent important relationships, events, and activities. [Human-computer interaction] research has begun to examine these digital possessions in the context of bereavement and separation. However, much of this work explores retention and celebration, specifically how such possessions can serve as positive reminders of a relationship and to honor the departed.”
Less work is concerned with how to actually get rid of stuff, and this is a problem. The authors set out to better understand it via interviews with 10 psychotherapists—all of whom were experienced in facilitating disposal rituals of physical belongings with bereaved patients—from which they developed a conceptual framework for letting go of the dead’s digital possessions.
“During life transitions, people often want to separate themselves from painful reminders, but the disorganized nature of people’s digital collections makes it difficult to identify specific symbolic possessions to retain or to discard,” the paper continues. “This lack of organization also means that people accidentally encounter painful reminders at unexpected times. People who actively try to dispose of digital materials relating to their recent romantic breakup are confronted with the inflexibility of deletion.”
Deletion is a cold, abrupt act. Organized binary information representing some image or email or video is suddenly disordered, and the digital representation is as gone as if it were wrapped around a hydrogen bomb and pitched from the bay doors of an airplane. The therapists interviewed noted that such a deletion doesn’t have nearly the same cathartic power as, say, burning or burying or giving away physical possessions. It kind of just happens and is over (such is life, but still).
“One could imagine future technologies making use of self-dissolving or biodegradable transient electronics to contain symbolic digital possessions.”
What the paper concludes is that abrupt digital deletion is not at all conducive to healthy grieving. Letting go is best realized as a physical process occurring through time. It’s not an act, but an experience. The question is then, how can we make digital deletion experiential? Can we?
The authors think so. In fact, it meshes well with what’s known as third-wave human-computer interaction, in which bodily interactions and sensory experiences are emphasized—digital interaction beyond the screen, keyboard, and mouse. One implication discussed is the idea of digital containers that are designed not to store content, but to release it.
“When opened, containers could materialize/display digital possessions such as text, images, or sounds one at a time for the last time before they perceptually drift away (symbolically representing the deletion taking place) never to be found or seen again,” the paper explains. “Disposal in this case is both visible and quick as it unfolds in front of one’s own eyes.”
“We could design for fragile and ephemeral storage rather than making it permanent and robust, like it is now,” the paper goes on. “Our study suggests the value of the natural elements such as earth and water and their intrinsic qualities of decomposing, dissolving and renewal. For example, one could imagine future technologies making use of self-dissolving or biodegradable transient electronics to contain symbolic digital possessions. Such technologies could be physically disposed of through dissolution or decomposition.”
There’s a lot more where that came from, but you get the idea. When we die, we don’t disappear like data does. So how can we make data die more like we die?
There were many great talks at the first ever Talk UX conference, all of which triggered some thought processes regarding how we design for our users and how we show information to them. But after listening to Alberta Soranzo tell stories of death and what happens to our digital self in the afterlife and how she felt about about it, it made me think. In fact it probably made everyone in the room think about our digital selves.
Where Do You Exist?
Listing online services that don’t allow you or your loved ones to remove your account after your passing made me think of how much information about me is actually out there, and how difficult it would be to seek out all that information in accounts we’ve signed up to and have since forgotten about.
One such service is Ello, similar to Google+. It made a strong appearance but didn’t hang around for long. Many people signed up but how many still use it? How many other services have you signed up to but don’t use and have since forgotten about?
So like Alberta, if you wished to be remembered for who you were in the real world and want your entire digital self to be removed without a trace, you and your family would have a hard job removing every last trace. And that’s before you take into account whether or not you or your family are even allowed to remove the account, because if you’re not the account holder and don’t have a password for the account, some companies will refuse access, sometimes even under the presence of a court order.
One company who do offer some form of digital exorcism is surprisingly, Google. They have designed a way for you to pass on your account rights over to a trusted 3rd party; your parents, sibling or loved one, or delete your account completely upon your inevitable death which is determined by a predefined period of inactivity. Once this period has passed they assume you’re dead, how nice.
Do You Want to Live on in the Digital Afterlife?
If your answer is no, then we need to convince our information holders; social networks, blogs, all those random services you signed up to, to start designing ways to give us the choice to vanish from the digital world.
Welcome back SF writers, to the fourth episode of the Mad Inventions Series, or M.I.S. for short, a place to generate ideas for your SF stories based on our technological developments. Today we briefly look at the digital afterlife.
Although the internet has become an intrinsic part of our modern lives overall, very few people (and definitely not the youngest users) are really aware of the effects it will have on our lives … after death. Of course, I am reflecting on the immense amount of information we disseminate globally without even blinking: what will happen to it after we die?
The forty-somethings of today are a generation that grew up without internet and social media, though now they are also amongst the biggest users of it. That makes them, one hopes, much more aware of life ‘before and after the net’ and the repercussions that can have on our digital afterlife.
One of the biggest worries about young adults and the net is the ease with which they share their lives with the ‘social world’, sometimes without bothering about safety, privacy settings or reading the small print on the ‘I Agree’ forms – having said that, how many adults actually read 86 pages of terms and conditions, font size 6? As a girl I was inspired by Anne Frank keeping a diary, so I bought one, or several, with my main worry being to find a safe hiding place for the key which kept it locked! That is until I realised that those locks could be opened with a couple of dry spaghetti sticks. No wonder my mum looked at me funny. One thing is for sure, Anne couldn’t have kept a blog – how long would it have taken the soldiers to find that IP address?
Millions of pictures are uploaded every day, alongside data of all sorts. It’s such a vast and precious cargo that it’s created a new area for crime, generally defined as cyber crime. Often people are ‘downloaded’ onto the net without their permission or knowledge. Take a child for instance. Parents willfully share pictures of their newborns so their relatives and friends can see them, but what they’re effectively doing is creating a digital print for a being. I’m not pointing fingers here, just reflecting on the fact that some human beings are trusting, while others are good at taking advantage of that trust.
Anyway, say, you die; now what? If you’re a practical person you’ve probably written a will: socks to uncle Tim, beer-mat collection to that pesky drunkard Aunt Vera, etc. Your executor will see to that. But what about your digital will? Do you have a digital executor?
Many social sites allow you to authorise another user to take over, let people know funeral arrangements, or you can leave instructions to close the account after your death. Facebook is well prepared for this, and it gives you the chance to download your entire profile and save it onto your desktop. It’s easy enough to check the ‘legacy’ features of your social sites, so next time you’re chill-browsing, you can find out what provisions are in place for your favourite social sites.
Websites exist which allow you to leave messages which are only published/delivered after your death, you could call it a a death-a-gramme, I guess. One of the most comprehensive sites I have seen so far is the recent DeadSocial – I totally love the name by the way! – with easy to follow step by step guides.
Eventually, you may think, “Why bother? Once I’m dead, I’m dead. Who cares what they do with my ‘Hedgehog Shaving Contest’ pictures?” Now, that is a good question. For some people, however, it could be a matter of reputation and what kind of legacy they’re wanting to leave behind.
Writers, I call upon you. In this NaNoWriMo, what are you going to do with the concept of digital afterlife?
In August 2013, when I started writing Tijaran Tales: Tijara’s Heart, I made one of my characters create a new model of space-coffins. These items are highly customisable, a true repository of memories for their occupants. They also carry the ‘death mail‘ feature, which is essentially a video recording by the deceased and covering whatever they wish to share. Obviously, since these coffins are released into space, a death mail comes in handy if said abode is intercepted, boarded (picture that!) or highjacked, as they allow you to introduce yourself, as well as being a bit of a (dead) diplomat for your planet.
To you now:
- Unexpectedly, you have been made the kjdigital executor for a friend you thought you knew well. What kind of surprises has she/he left for you?
- You have illegal access to a friend’s digital trove. What is it and what do you do with it?
- Try to explore the issue from a ‘criminal’ perspective.
- If you lived way in the future, where do you see the development of this technology going?
Right, that should get you thinking. Happy writing!