We Need to Make Digital Data That Dies Like Us

We Need to Make Digital Data That Dies Like Us

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?

It’s Your Digital Afterlife, It Should Be Your Choice to Live for Eternity

It’s Your Digital Afterlife, It Should Be Your Choice to Live for Eternity

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.

M.I.S. Welcome To Your Digital Afterlife

M.I.S. Welcome To Your Digital Afterlife

digital will

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:

  1. 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?
  2. You have illegal access to a friend’s digital trove. What is it and what do you do with it?
  3. Try to explore the issue from a ‘criminal’ perspective.
  4. 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!

Are you Ready for Your Digital Afterlife?

Are you Ready for Your Digital Afterlife?

Are you prepared for your digital afterlife? It’s a more important question than you might think. End of life planning used to be all about “things”. The most important decisions that we needed to make were how to organize our funeral, what to do with our assets and how to prevent legal issues after our passing. Today, much of our life is spent online and, as a result, some of our most important assets are digital. Our photos are digital, our social connections are maintained through Facebook and our email accounts maintain a written record of our lives “in the cloud”. So, this raises an important question: what happens to our online “self” after we die?

If this still seems like a trivial question, think about the following scenarios. What would you like to have happen to your Facebook account after you die? Would it give your family comfort to be able to see a record of your life online? Or, would this cause them emotional pain? Would you like your family to be able to access your email accounts? All of us have secrets. Would you be prepared for your family to know all of yours? If so, who should have access? What about your digital pictures? Would you like your family to have access to them?

It might surprise you to know that not all companies handle this process the same way. Facebook recently added an option for family members to request the creation of a “memorial page” from your personal Facebook page. Some email providers routinely grant access to the accounts of deceased family members, while others make the process extremely difficult. It’s best to be prepared. Even taking the simple step of preparing a list of accounts and passwords that you want your family to have can reduce a great deal of stress.

Here are a few reasons that you should start thinking about your digital afterlife – and several services that can help to manage the process.

Reduce Stress for Your Loved Ones

Losing a family member or close friend is emotionally draining on so many levels. As a result, anything that we can do to simplify the process of managing our “after life” affairs before we pass away is valuable. Planning for your digital afterlife makes your family’s life easier. For example, there are plenty of legitimate reasons that your family members might need to have access to your email accounts after you pass away. Making your wishes known and providing access details can simplify this process and allow your loved ones to focus on celebrating your life.

Manage Your Legacy

Planning for your digital afterlife gives you the opportunity to say your last words on your own terms. For example, you might write instructions in your will that a certain message should be posted to Facebook and your other social media accounts if you pass away. Is there a final message that you would like to give the world? Are there photos that you would like to share with your friends? Planning for your digital afterlife can give you peace of mind that, no matter what happens, your loved ones will know how you feel.

Prevent Vandalism

Too often, after a person dies, their Facebook page becomes a “vandalized, untended grave.” Knowing that no-one is watching, hackers are more than happy to take over your account and make it their own personal message board. Planning for your digital afterlife and making sure that the right members of your family have access is the best protection against this.

If you are convinced that managing your digital afterlife is important, here are a few simple steps that you can take today.


Specify What to Do with Your Accounts

Would you like your friends and family to be able to post messages on your Facebook page after you die? Or, would you prefer that your Facebook account is completely deleted? Would you like all of your email accounts to be deleted? Are there specific emails that you would like someone to send on your behalf? The best option is to spell out explicitly in your will what you would like to have happen to your digital assets and social media accounts.

Decide Who to Send Messages to

Death is tragic on many levels. But, one of the most frustrating things about it is its unpredictability. What would you tell your friends and family if you knew that you were going to die tomorrow? Are there apologies that you would make? Who would you say thank you to? Is there anyone that you never had the opportunity to tell how much of an impact they made in your life?

Whether you want to send a single message to your entire family or you have specific messages to send to individuals, planning for your digital afterlife can help to ensure that your final thoughts do not disappear quietly into the night.

Thomas Edison once thought that his newly invented phonograph machine would be used to record the last words of dying people – perhaps email will be the ultimate repository of our final thoughts and wishes.

Consider Creating a Video or Photo Album of Legacy Pictures

Another option for sharing your thoughts with your friends and family after you pass away is to create a video or photo album. I once knew someone who was diagnosed with cancer, shortly after the birth of their first child. They decided to create a series of 18 videos, to be opened one per year by his son. Of course, the ultimate decision regarding whether to watch the video will rest with the living, but, at least he had the peace of mind that came from knowing that he would be a part of his son’s life.

Even if your situation is not quite as extreme, you could create a photo album with your favorite memories, to be shared if you pass away. Or, you could record a funny video to help your loved ones remember you full of life and smiling.

Involve the Right Professionals

Planning for your digital afterlife should be a standard part of creating your will and managing your estate. Lawyers are starting to realize the importance of this aspect of estate planning and are including it in their services. If you have not already considered this in your will, take the time to talk with your lawyer to see what they recommend. If you feel uncomfortable giving your passwords and other digital information to a family member, you can also rely on a professional to manage this process for you.

Some people might find it creepy to think about what will happen to their social media accounts after they die. Personally, I find it comforting to know that my legacy will be managed in the way that I want. After all, social media is part of who we are. Our digital connections represent real relationships. Perhaps social media will have an unexpected and lasting purpose. Maybe it will become a permanent home for our fondest memories.

What do you think? Have you considered the profound implications of your digital afterlife? What do you want to have done with your Facebook account after you’re dead? Please join the discussion and “like” and share this article to keep the conversation going.

Watch this video with Jennifer Cairns, founder of eGurus Technology Tutors, in which she covers the issues of Internet safety and privacy, including how to stay safe online.