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New Delhi, Aug 31 (IANS) As most of us spend a considerable amount of time on various digital platforms — Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, WhatsApp and the like — a pertinent question now arises: What happens to our digital possessions once we die? All those unforgettable personal photos, family […]
When my grandmother passed away this year, I was devastated. She may have been in her late 80s, but her sunny personality and boundless energy made it seem like she’d would probably just live forever.
My grandma was what you’d call a “silver surfer.” From the moment she inherited her daughter’s old laptop, she embraced the internet like a digital native. It wasn’t long before we were helping her set up a Facebook profile which she used to happily spend hours sharing cute animals videos and writing us sweet messages ALWAYS WRITTEN ENTIRELY IN CAPS. I gave up explaining to her that this amounted to constant shouting. She liked it that way.
A few months after she’d passed away, I was a bit shocked to see her picture pop up in my notifications, reminding me that it was her birthday. I hadn’t forgotten, but it saddened me to imagine other family members whose grief was still very raw receiving similar messages. I had thought—perhaps naively—that since Facebook knew enough about my life and habits to bombard me with targeted advertisements it would also know my grandmother was no longer with us. But the bots didn’t have a clue.
I looked up the procedure to report a death to Facebook, and requested that her account be “memorialized.” This means that nobody can log in to the account again, but her posts remain visible to the people they were originally shared with, and friends and family can continue to share memories on her timeline. I wanted to digitally preserve the memory of my grandmother.
After making my request I almost immediately received a response from someone in Facebook’s community operations team asking me to send them her death certificate. Their response struck me as strange and insensitive—like I was making it up for some reason. Since I didn’t have that document (my grandmother lived in Brazil and I didn’t handle the funeral arrangements), I argued that they should be able to verify her passing through the evidence available on their own platform. Facebook eventually agreed, but I can’t say it was a particularly pleasant process.
Technology is currently challenging our conceptualization of what it means to live—and die.“The tech industry is not really up on death,” says Stacey Pitsillides, a design lecturer at the University of Greenwich who is a PhD candidate in the field of data contextualization in digital death. Since starting her research several years ago, Pitsillides says she’s witnessed a remarkable shift: People are becoming increasingly eager to immortalize personal experiences online, just as I had felt after my grandmother’s passing.
This observation prompted her to set up Love After Death, a panel showcased at FutureFest in London to help people explore how technology is becoming integrated into new forms of creative expressions around death and dying. I met Pitsillides at FutureFest, a festival of ideas sponsored by innovation charity NESTA, to discuss the concept of digital legacies.
Technology is currently challenging our conceptualization of what it means to live—and die. Pitsillides believes that technology and design will play an increasingly important role in the process of morning, which she calls “creative bereavement.” “By creating a bespoke legacy agreement, it merges the concept of a design agency with funeral director,” she said.
To illustrate this, Pitsillides started by taking me through a questionnaire that asked me things ranging from the practical (which loved ones should be informed of my death, and would I like to setup a database of music, art, or poetry to be used at my funeral?) to the weird and outlandish (would my friends like to do an online vigil through live webcasting where I could be present via hologram, and how about having a memorial implant or tattoo?)
But wait—holograms? Memorial implants? Was this for real?
In the future, yes.
Death by Design
“You could have a surface-level or below-skin digital tattoo that could be matched to that of a loved one,” Pitsillides explained. Using simple technologies, you could add content to these digital mementos throughout your life and then have them activated after your death. This activation could either be triggered by the executor of your will—over 19 US states have already put forward laws to recognize the deceased’s digital legacy as part of their estate—or we could evolve AI systems to recognize cues when this should happen. At that point, certain content could become available to the people you’d predetermined, depending on the stipulations you left in your digital will.
It’s basically the futuristic, high-tech version of wearing half of your lover’s heart-shaped locket. These tattoos and implants could even be programmed to trigger only in the context of certain events. For example, when walking past the special spot where a now-passed husband proposed to his wife, his widow’s digital tattoo could change color or bloom into the pattern of her favorite flower, and “their” song could start playing on her phone. Or a father could still “be there” to deliver the speech at his daughter’s wedding via hologram, or greet the arrival of his first grandchild with a pre-recorded message.
An increasingly popular service is using 3D printing to create personalized mementos for your friends and family using human ashes.While these memorialization usages are still conceptual, the technology itself is already fairly mature. For example, we already have technology that allows for smart epidermal electronics to collect and record information about users, reacting to this data in a wide variety of programmable ways: Think of IoT devices like Dexcom that continuously monitor glucose levels for diabetes patients, allowing them to track their blood sugar via apps linked to wearables like the Apple Watch. Instead of being focused on what our minds and bodies are doing in the present moment, these tactile technologies could help us build and enhance connections with people both during life and after death.
As more people embrace the idea that death in the digital age is not just about looking back at the past, they will begin to realize that it’s just as much about the future. We’re already seeing people grapple with this concept in terms of what happens to our bodies after we die. Nowadays your ashes can be turned into building blocks for a coral reef or a beautiful fireworks display, but there’s a whole other after-world emerging courtesy of technology. For example, an increasingly popular service is using 3D printing to create personalized mementos for your friends and family using human ashes.
The Talking Dead
Since such a large percentage of our lives and interactions are now conducted online, we are constantly forced to reassess our meaning of self and identity. Is our online identity the most accurate reflection of our true selves? And, if so, can it “live” independently from our physical bodies?
The answer is potentially yes. The connections we build and share can—now quite literally—take on a life of their own. For example, websites like LifeNaut offer services that allow you to create a “mind file” that supposedly enables future scenarios around reanimation through “downloading” your memories to a robot or clone vessel of some sort. We might not yet be at the stage where robotics and AI enable the Black Mirror scenario where life-like replicants of loved ones can be created from their social media profiles. But it’s no exaggeration to say that, for better or for worse, our digital footprint already outlives our biological self.
“We are moving toward a society where the dead are not banished but remain present in our lives as sources of guidance, role models, and as an embodiment of particular values and life lessons,” Pitsillides said.
But is that what we really want? The ability to live forever through technology raises difficult questions such as whether it is our memories that make us who we are, whether our loved ones would accept this “new” version of us, and who should control consent to make these kinds of decisions after death. This kind of permanence may be appealing for some, but for others the possibility of a digital presence continuously and independently evolving is quite disturbing.
Most of us avoid thinking about our own mortality until it stares us in the face. As someone who spends most of my time online, I’m unsettled by this idea of not being in control of my online persona once I die—even if I wouldn’t be in a position to care, at that point. But having experienced the enduring joy that my grandmother’s Facebook memories have brought to our family, it makes me think that my digital legacy is something worth preserving. And now I have the first steps to know how to do just that.
As most of us spend a considerable amount of time on various digital platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, WhatsApp and the like – a pertinent question now arises: What happens to our digital possessions once we die?
All those unforgettable personal photos, family videos and friendly posts acquired over a period of time will either be deleted or kept “frozen” unless we have a digital heir who can preserve those precious moments and gift those to future generations in an external hard disk or pen drive.
While several social media platforms, including search engine Google, allow us to safeguard digital memories in some form or the other, there is no such thing as transferring such assets to someone when it comes to cyber law, including in India.
According to legal experts, when someone dies leaving behind his email and social media accounts, these become movable property and any heir of the deceased can seek the right to access them.
The said heirs can ask the digital/social media companies to get access after giving the necessary proof. Invariably, the service provider may not be inclined to give such access without any requisite order from the court of competent jurisdiction. This could mean getting a succession certificate from a court of competent jurisdiction which could be a time-consuming process.
According to Duggal, also a Supreme Court advocate, Indian cyber law has not even touched upon – let alone dwelt on the nuances of – the issue of one’s post-death digital life.
“Complicating the entire matter is that the Indian cyber law is not applicable to wills or testaments. This has created huge confusion. The ground reality is that people have stopped waiting for the law to change. Instead, they have come up with their own digital wills which provide various methodologies for devolving their digital assets and information to their heirs after their death,” Duggal told IANS.
Digital data comes within the ambit of movable property and hence the appropriate succession certificate needs to be applied for in the Indian context.
“It is pertinent to note that India does not have a dedicated law on digital inheritance which is, indeed, unfortunate, given the rapid adoption of and reliance on digital data by young Indians,” lamented Duggal.
The social media giants, however, have formulated their own solutions to the problem.
Facebook will “memorialise” your account and allow you to choose a “legacy contact”. No one can log into a “memorialised” account.
The “legacy contact” can “manage” your account by adding a pinned post (like a funeral announcement), respond to new friend requests and change the profile picture and cover photo – but nothing beyond that.
Google, which owns Gmail, YouTube and Picasa web albums, has an “Inactive Account Manager” feature which allows a user to nominate who has access to his or her information. If people don’t log in after a while, their accounts can be deleted or shared with a designated person.
According to Twitter:
In the event of the death of a Twitter user, we can work with a person authorised to act on behalf of the estate or with a verified immediate family member of the deceased to have an account deactivated.
The micro-blogging site, however, added: “We are unable to provide account access to anyone regardless of his or her relationship to the deceased.”
From the security point of view, one has to safeguard digital impressions in case of death so that they are not used for anti-social purposes.
Digital signatures/impressions generally have a validity/expiry date which require a yearly renewal and they are also equipped with a unique combination of passkey so even if someone has the digital signatures they must know the access key to use that.
According to statistician Hachem Sadikki from the University of Massachusetts, Facebook will become the world’s biggest virtual graveyard by the end of this century as there will be more profiles of dead people than of living users.
Facebook, which currently has 1.71 billion users worldwide, will turn into the world’s biggest virtual graveyard by 2098.
In such a scenario, preparing a digital will where you appoint a legal heir to take over your digital life is the need of the hour.
The law, however, is silent on this not just in India, but abroad too. Several US states have been debating the question of whether families can access someone else’s digital assets after they die.
The law has to instrinsically recognise that digital data and information, as also aspects pertaining to digital life, are integral components of our life and the law must provide for seamless inheritance of digital data.
This becomes all the more significant as we have become huge data generators, data publishers and data broadcasters in our lifetimes.
“All eyes are on the governments, including in India; they must come up with requisite legal frameworks to provide for seamless and efficient digital inheritance for the people,” Duggal asserted.
You need to think about dying. You need to think about not your corpse, not your dependents, not your legacy, but your social media accounts. Where do they go when we die?
These are the deep ontological thoughts I had recently, as my husband and I set out to draft our wills. Here’s what’s on the last page of the informational booklet we were given:
Part 5 – Social Media
- Do you want to address any of your social media accounts in your will
- What about digital property?
I have 163 Twitter followers. My husband has just over 100,000. So, when I tweet something that needs attention, I text my husband: “Honey, please retweet my tweet.” I’m lucky through marriage to have an impressive soap-box amalgam. If James died, where would all those Twitter followers go? That’s why widowhood frightens me. If the unthinkable happens, that James goes before me, can I inherit his Twitter account?
I think of myself as an independently minded woman, and by all accounts (pun intended) I am. But, when it comes to social media and Twitter in particular, I’m more Betty Draper than Betty Friedan. Both my husband and I work in media: he runs a boutique company that produces commercial and entertainment content, and I produce editorial content for TVO. Consequently, as I lean on my husband, I ask myself: am I a Twitter co-dependent?
As an estate lawyer and managing partner at Toronto law firm Hull & Hull, Suzana Popovic-Montag handles plenty of digital property inheritance questions. I recently went to her for some advice on the issue of social media inheritance. “While the number of followers of a certain account may be something that someone would like to pass on,” she says, “this is not typically an option when it comes to personal accounts, due to the user policies that we all agree to when registering for a service.”
OK, but if we jointly agree that I could continue to tweet as @JamesStewart3D, could I? What’s the policy there?
Popovic-Montag explains that Twitter will work with a designated family member to deactivate an account, but doesn’t provide access to a deceased user’s account to anyone, regardless of their relationship. This is why a last will and testament is so important, she says. Otherwise, no tweets from beyond the grave unless I want to pull a Weekend at Bernie’s.
There is another option: it’s a form of Twitter taxidermy called LivesOn. This program uses an algorithm that analyzes a user’s post history and, after being notified of the user’s death, composes periodic posts using a similar vocabulary and sentence structure. The LivesOn site declares; “When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting.” That is weird. This form of a digital legacy may work for some, but LivesOn is as appealing to me as necrophilia.
Yet there is plenty of life after death on Twitter. Ask best-selling romance author Jackie Collins, the very dead but still very vocal Twitter user, about moving books. Or Michael Jackson, dead since 2009, who still tweets to his almost two million followers. Joan Rivers died in 2014, but is tweeting through her daughter, Melissa. And then there’s Chaz Ebert, who on her husband Roger’s last request still tweets from the late film critic’s popular account.
If James went tomorrow, I’d like to continue the Twitter clout he cultivated over the years. His following took a quantum leap when he spoke about digital innovation at the TED conference in Long Beach, wowing audiences at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in France, and appearing at AdWeek’s FFWD Conference in Toronto. Other followers were drawn in as he toured his short animated film Foxed! worldwide, or took notice of his company’s commercial work for global brands. As James frenetically captured the commercial value of Twitter, I relaxed as a stay-at-home Facebooker, connecting with childhood friends long-forgotten.
James and I married before Twitter was invented, and I supported my husband as he built up his following, to the point where Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey now follows him. Dorsey also happens to be the founder and CEO of Square, the mobile payment company. When a close colleague and small business owner was having a financial meltdown over a substantial non-payment from Square, James swooped in like a super-hero, tweeting at Dorsey directly: “@Jack I have a @Square fail. Need phone#. Who do I call? Nobody pics up the 888#!”
Dorsey’s response was immediate. Bankruptcy averted. Gallant Twitter prowess proven. That moment was an epiphany for me. An individual with robust Twitter numbers and serious followers has a power once reserved for large media corporations, world leaders, or the super rich — and James is none of the above.
“Whether part of a couple or not, it is important that information is provided to our survivors to ensure that any access to digital accounts and information that we want to be preserved is facilitated. User accounts are typically restrictive and the law has not yet reached a point (in most jurisdictions, anyway) where someone authorized under a last will and testament to administer digital assets will necessarily be permitted to do so without the need for the intervention of the courts,” Popovic-Montag says.
Delaware is the first state in the United States to pass a law giving the family of the deceased access to social media and other accounts as though they were any other form of property, making digital the physical. Minor detail: Delaware has one of the smallest populations of states in the U.S. at around one million, so the effects of this law are not far-reaching. Canada doesn’t have such a law, so it could be a long while before I could wrestle tweets from the cold, dead hands of my beloved.
So in the meantime, here are some issues to keep in mind.
“In its simplest form, a digital estate plan will list all login information and passwords for all devices and accounts to allow survivors to access our information that is stored online. Unless a person wants to risk all information being lost after death, creating at least a basic digital estate plan is generally advisable,” Popovic-Montag says.
It’s time to stop the catastrophizing and live in the now since @JamesStewart3D is still very much alive.
Social media has changed our perceptions of ourselves in myriad ways. I’m in the process of bridging the Twitter follower gender inequity gap, and am limiting how it defines our coupledom. Healthy competition between spouses is admirable, but where do I put my social media envy?
For now, I leverage it: shamelessly, for the public good at an organization that understands the power of educational outreach. Whether that outreach comes from an early adopter or his Twitter-dependant spouse, does it really matter?