Preparing My Digital Legacy with the Hereafter Institute

Preparing My Digital Legacy with the Hereafter Institute

Image courtesy Gabriel Barcia-Colombo

As the social media manager at LACMA, I am deeply entrenched in digital communication both professionally and personally through the various social networks I use on a daily basis. For the most part, I am comfortable with technology, which some might feel wary of or even fear. So when I heard about the Hereafter Institute, I was intrigued and even excited. The thought of a digital afterlife hadn’t really crossed my mind, even though I had witnessed and experienced loss in the past decade, often communicated and memorialized through Facebook and other social media.

Check-in desk

To think about my own death and the subsequent decisions my kin would make regarding my online presence would be an eye-opening experience. So I arrived at LACMA on a Sunday afternoon and proceeded to the Bing Theater lobby. I was greeted by a woman in a white lab coat, who escorted me to a desk to check in. The desk was staffed by two more women in lab coats, release forms neatly stacked atop, next to pens and stickers branded with the Hereafter Institute’s infinity loop logo. After filling out the form, I was asked to wait on one of the black leather Barcelona chairs, which formed a U-shaped waiting area surrounding a glass table with a single white orchid. Familiar spaces had been transformed into a more institutionalized setting to fit with the performance.

Lucy’s consultation

Another woman in a lab coat escorted me to the Director’s Lounge in the Pavilion for Japanese Art, where she asked me questions about my online presence and told me about the three options for a person’s data when they die: 1) Continuation 2) Deletion 3) Memorialization. There isn’t space to explain each, but if you’re curious, leave a comment, and I’ll go into more detail!

She also informed me that Facebook has a “legacy contact” setting that allows you to designate one of your friends on the network to manage your profile when you pass. She gave me the option to follow along and do it in the moment. With a “no time like the present” attitude, I designated my oldest friend as my digital heir. Facebook allows you to write a personalized message for the notification it sends your heir, so I added the disclaimer that I’d explain later and not to be alarmed.

Lucy being scanned for an animated avatar

Next, I was asked to stand on a turntable so they could create a 3D scan of my body (something which I had done before at the Museum of Art and Design in New York—I even have a little figurine of myself to prove it).

Lucy’s avatar

My tour guide said they would use the scan to create an animated avatar of me. Once completed, we left the Pavilion for Japanese Art and meandered through the museum’s beautiful bamboo garden and into the Art + Technology Lab.

Lucy viewing digital memorials

Here, another woman in a lab coat explained that I would be viewing examples of digital memorials for three different people in virtual reality. I lifted the VR headset over my eyes and she outfitted me with headphones playing calming music. I saw two people memorialized in computer-animated spaces, complete with a voiceover by a loved one describing the person. One had a guitar and was sitting on a couch on a sunny beach, while the other was pacing around her own personal gallery where artworks floated in a room without walls. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder and the headsets were removed.

The final component of the performance

It was time for the final component of the performance. I must admit I was a little worried that I would be emotionally affected by this part. Two flower arrangements flanked a dark screen. A stranger stood in front of the screen and began talking about me in the past tense, eulogizing, throwing out real facts from my life, including where I grew up, where I went to high school, the places I had worked, and the names of family members.

Lucy at her memorial

The screen behind him flickered and cycled through dozens of messages I had written on Facebook in the recent past, and then my avatar walked into the frame, wearing the same black shirt, long gold necklace, jeans, and flip flops I was still in. I watched my digital self turn and walk off into the horizon. The lights went up and I was once again greeted by my guide, who walked me outside and bid me farewell.

I left feeling introspective about the part of myself I share online, and the persona I’ve created that has the potential to live on beyond my physical body. My experience with the Hereafter Institute was sometimes entertaining, sometimes thought-provoking, and even a little eerie. I’m not a morbid person, but I now I think I might like to prepare my digital legacy for when I die.

When a dev dies, their apps should live on

When a dev dies, their apps should live on

Most of my working life is spent thinking and writing about technology, gadgets, design and gaming. And while it might sound trite, my favourite part of all this is people.

There’s nothing better when I’m in front of my Mac’s glowing screen than an editor sending a juicy commission that involves me getting in touch with a bunch of talented folks, to find out their views on a particular subject, and then weave them into a feature.

Recently, I was asked by a games mag you’ve probably all heard of to write about Apple TV and gaming, largely from a development standpoint. As ever under such circumstances, I went through my list of email and Twitter contacts, seeing this as a good opportunity to offer some exposure to indie developers whose work I’ve enjoyed over the years. One response came back very quickly, albeit from a name I didn’t quite recognise. The message was in fact from a developer’s wife; the person I was trying to get in touch with had died the previous week.

The developer in question was Stewart Hogarth, who’d lost his battle with congenital heart disease; he was just 34. We’d only been in touch a few times, but I’d been captivated a couple of years ago by his truly excellent 8-bit tribute I Am Level for iOS and Android. This was a smart, charming, entertaining title that married eye-searing Spectrum-style graphics, old-school single-screen platforming challenges, and modern mobile tilt-based controls. It was still installed on all of my devices, and it was strange and very sad to think that the person who created it was no longer with us.

Another developer I was interviewing at the time expressed his shock regarding Stew’s passing, and also concern that his work’s availability was now potentially on borrowed time.

As a developer, he said it was almost like a little of his soul somehow went into each app or game he made; through what you’ve created, you can in some way live on if you’re no longer around. This of course isn’t new thinking — people often say similar things when it comes to art and literature, and even film and music. But those mediums have the kind of longevity that just isn’t afforded to modern digital apps.

Once a developer account lapses through non-payment, the apps are gone forever, which feels wrong.

The notion of dealing with death is something that social networks are slowly getting to grips with. Facebook enables you to make a request to memorialise someone’s account, and helpfully notes what will happen to that person’s page and settings.

Naturally, things remain far from perfect in the social networking space — I’ve heard of automated friend suggestions appearing in people’s timelines from colleagues, friends and love ones who have died. But at least mechanisms are starting to be put in place for protecting the original accounts and precious memories.

For apps and games, things are more complicated. Developer accounts are tied into contractual frameworks. Typically, it’s possible to add extra administrators to your account, but it’s hard to know how many independent developers make such arrangements. After all, who expects they won’t be around tomorrow?

On contacting Apple and Google while writing this article, I discovered there are at least policies in place for a relative taking over an account, which can potentially be achieved by way of full and proper legal checks and identity verifications. Titles someone created can then live on, at least as long as someone pays relevant annual dev fees and bills.

That’s business, but it seems so cold and uncaring. It doesn’t really recognise that those creative endeavours are part of the people who made them.

Perhaps the gatekeepers of mobile content should consider enacting a policy like Facebook’s. It would be rather lovely to think I Am Level could live on regardless, rather than one of the things people think of when remembering Stew just one day disappearing forever.

Stewart Hogarth’s family are raising money in his memory, for the Freeman Heart & Lung Transplant Association. The writer of this article has made a donation.