Mixed-media artist Gabriel Barcia-Colombo’s installations on display at the Hereafter Institute — a fictional, high-tech funeral home — include digital video lockets, vinyl pressings from online text and virtual reality reconstructions. (Photo by Duncan Cheng) Leisha Till Mixed-media artist Gabriel Barcia-Colombo’s installations on display at the Hereafter Institute — […]
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.