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?

Column: What happens (online) when we die?

Column: What happens (online) when we die?

A little over four years ago, my friend Tommy was in a car with a drunk driver and two other kids when it skidded out of a curvy road and rammed a pole about a mile away from my house. The other guys suffered only minor injuries, but the impact occurred on the back right door of the ’99 Nissan Sentra, where Tommy was sitting. He experienced irreparable head trauma and died in the hospital a few hours later. He was 17.

The way my hometown of Simsbury reacted was pretty interesting. Usually, we get the rap of being the basis for Eagleton in “Parks and Recreation” (i.e., rich and self-interested and anti-Amy Poehler), but everybody rallied around Tommy’s family to let them know they were loved and considered. It’s sad that tragedy is the catalyst for community outreach, but the results of sympathy, empathy and friendship were kind of beautiful.

How we express condolences and remember our loved ones is a little different now. Like everything else, it’s on the Internet, de-privatized for the world to see. People don’t necessarily have to go to the tombstone anymore. They can leave messages on the deceased’s social media profiles instead or in addition to. There are, to this day, Facebook statuses recalling memories with Tommy, with Tommy’s profile “tagged,” but Tommy is not there to receive the notification.

Something tells me Mark Zuckerburg never considered a social media afterlife, his own online cemetery. Quite frankly, it makes me a little squeamish. I always envisioned death as something more privately mourned.

Nevertheless, Facebook has its own “Memorial Mode” that allows relatives to take control of the deceased’s profile. Upon proof of death by someone who is in a clear position to act as an agent, Facebook will take down sensitive contact information like phone numbers and past statuses, and solely allow Facebook friends to post to their wall. Additionally, the site will add the word “Remembering” next to the name at the head of the profile.

However, nothing the deceased didn’t want shared while living is available to whoever gains access to their Facebook. There have been a handful of court cases with Facebook regarding teens who committed suicide and parents that sought more information, but were not allowed to obtain it under Facebook’s staunch privacy laws.

Facebook isn’t the only site seeking to help relatives (somewhat) connect with their loved ones posthumously. Gmail and Hotmail will allow families to order a disk of the deceased’s messages upon showing a death certificate and proof of power of attorney. Photography website Flickr is similar to Facebook in that an account will be forfeited to the family of the dead person, but anything considered private while the person was alive will not translate into accessible content afterward. And different sites such as Legacy Locker store an array of passwords to be utilized come death; each one has similar authority as the aforementioned sites.

Where it gets weirder is browsing The Digital Beyond, a site aggregating other webpages “designed to help you plan for your digital death and afterlife.” For instance, “Afternote” gives people the opportunity to “record your final wishes for your funeral and digital legacy,” essentially a digital will.

Most people are probably typing their wills on computers nowadays as it is, but what contributes to the eeriness of these places is how specialized they are, whereas sites like Facebook and Gmail are primarily utilities for the living with posthumous capacities. Above all, we have now reached a point in the digital age where we acknowledge and show legitimate concern for our material and digital lives alike.

The Internet is changing the way we shape our legacies. Our grandchildren will not refer to yearbooks, photo albums or home videos, but rather our Facebooks, Twitters and Instagrams. This is but another installment in our ongoing engulfment by the screen, another nail in the coffin to our immaterial surrender.

Death in the digital age: Are you prepared?

How to Protect Your Digital Assets After Your Death – an overview

How to Protect Your Digital Assets After Your Death

Let’s face it: your Email account, Facebook page and digital photo albums are all going to outlive you. You must make decisions for how your online legacy will be managed after your death, just like you would for your home or financial assets.

Your digital assets are valuable

Your digital assets can have monetary value, just as your homes and cars do. Digital music libraries and Internet domain names you may own can often be sources of wealth. According to Sedo, a domain name retailer, the domain name HotelsGuide.com recently sold for $60,000.  It would be a mistake for you to assume that your digital assets are immaterial to your overall estate. Digital assets that seem trivial to you may in fact be extremely valuable to your heirs.

A digital estate plan can also preserve online content that will have sentimental value to your family once you die. Facebook’s “memorialization” feature is a prime example of this. When you die your family can request that your Facebook account be “memorialized.” This means that your online friends can still leave comments, pictures and videos, but no one is allowed to log into the account. This comforting stream of posts creates a way for your friends, family and co-workers to remember you during the holidays or on your birthday.

The importance of creating a digital estate plan

You are likely the only person who knows the contents of your online accounts. When you die, these unmonitored accounts will continue to hold sensitive information, such as your credit card number. This can put your estate at risk for digital identity theft when you die because con artists will use these unwatched accounts to glean your personal information. The information can then be used to fraudulently open credit cards in your name and make purchases.

A digital estate plan gives your heirs or executor the legal ability to access valuable photos, videos and banking information. This plan is necessary because giving someone your username and password does not legally authorize them to access or manage your online accounts when you die. For example, if your deceased husband has an Amazon account, which contains his credit card information, it is technically illegal for you to use his username and password to log into his account and remove that sensitive data. In an attempt to curb identity theft, a mix of online user agreements and state and federal laws have made it illegal for anyone but the account holder to access information they have stored in the digital realm. These changes have severely restricted a family’s ability to access, manage and protect a deceased individual’s digital information. Your digital estate plan works as a way to navigate around this complex web of user agreements and laws.

What to include in your digital estate plan

An inventory of your online accounts.

You should create a master list of every website you use, and your user name, password and security question for each website. Include everything: email accounts, social media websites, your blog, photo sharing websites, online shopping websites (such as Amazon), credit card accounts, and online bill paying websites.

Several companies have created software that makes this task easier. Lastpass.com and 1Password are password-management programs that encrypt all of your username and password information, and then store it on your computer. You can give the Executor of your estate a master password for the program so that they can easily retrieve the data.

Appoint someone to manage your online accounts.

In your will (or trust) you can grant the executor of your estate the legal ability to manage and close your online accounts, and to remove valuable information from the accounts when you die. This expressed grant of power lends credibility to the executor when they reach out to companies in an attempt to manage your digital assets. For example, Amazon.com has a very complex user agreement that does not clearly state what your executor is entitled to do to your account once you die. Amazon ends the user agreement by stating “for communications concerning this Agreement, please contact Amazon by email.” If your executor did need to reach out to Amazon to request that credit card information be removed, the company is more inclined to work with them if Amazon is positive that you granted your executor that power.

Proactively reach out to companies

Finally, you and an estate-planning attorney can draft a letter authorizing companies that hold your online information to release it to the executor of your estate. As previously discussed, online user agreements and state and federal law have made it illegal for your executor to access your accounts directly. This letter expressly allows the company to release the contents of your account to your executor. This can help to alleviate the company’s fears about being sued for releasing such information, thus making them more likely to work with your estate representatives.

Digital Files After Death, What Happens to Your Digital Legacy?

Immaterial, not insignificant: Digital assets and estate planning

More and extra, individuals are integrating their lives into the digital realm. Traditional print information is changing into a factor of the previous, individuals can conduct banking with out ever chatting with a teller and social relationships are constructed with out face-to-reality communication — simply to the touch on a couple of examples. Not to say the truth that blogs, akin to this one, are a typical means for offering data to broad viewers.

However, although individuals are generally buying, sustaining or managing assets and property on this method, the psychological connection could not be made with bodily assets and property. As such, the estate planning course of might unintentionally fail to deal with an individual’s digital life.

Of course, some monetary observers have famous the rising significance of digital assets and how they match into estate planning. After all, households could also be compelled to cope with an individual’s presence within the digital world with none steerage if preparations aren’t made.

A latest article from CNBC factors out that figuring out crucial digital assets and accounts is a useful step to include intangible property in an estate plan. After all, estate directors might merely have to know the extent of an individual’s life within the digital realm with a view to take motion. Here are some frequent sources or websites of digital assets:

  • Electronic banking accounts
  • Electronic monetary administration companies
  • Digital transaction providers (corresponding to PayPal)
  • Digital picture albums
  • Music collections
  • Social media companies
  • Email accounts

Of course, that is not an exhaustive checklist of things to think about when organizing a digital estate, but it surely’s a spot to begin.

One factor price noting is that estate planning legislation in Michigan might not instantly deal with this situation, on condition that it is a comparatively new side of day by day life. Keeping this in thoughts, it might be most useful to work with an attorney who’s acquainted with related state legal guidelines and the altering wants of households.

Source: CNBC, “Protect online assets with a digital estate plan,” Thomas Henske, May 19, 2014