What are you leaving behind?

Once, the essence of us as individuals was rooted in our time and place. In death, our legacy was defined by what we left behind: in possessions, in our children, and the memories and stories told by those around us. A fortunate few have succeeded in transferring part of who they are to the abstract; their impact continues to be felt in the written word, in art, in music and in ideas. Their physical legacy may degrade and fade away, but these intangible parts of their character are fundamentally built of data, and can be copied and distributed by those that follow. Anne Frank, writing in her diary in 1944, declared “I want to go on living even after my death!” [1] – and so, indeed, she has.

Across the world, billions of people are generating masses of data. More and more, we are living digital lives, experienced and documented through online interactions, digital media and cloud storage. We pour ourselves into this vast repository of human data, unknowing or uncaring that it may long outlive us. When I publish this blog post, I lose control of it. It may be archived, copied or shared without my consent [2]. It could be read by someone on the either side of the planet, or on the other end of this century. The data and information we choose to share about ourselves represents us to the world, and we need to think about how it reflects us after death as well us during our lifetime. This concept, the idea that some kind of model of who we are can exist after we die, has been labelled by some as posthumous personhood (see Meese et al [3] for a review), and its relevance is growing as technology evolves.

Although in their infancy, a number of services are seeking to formalise ways to control continued post-mortem digital presence. Deadsocial was created to help people manage what happens to their data, their digital possessions and their social media after they die, including scheduled messages to be posted after your death. Eterni.me promises to offer a service to collect and curate a digital legacy for your loved ones, even entering Black Mirror territory by suggesting that you may live on as a “digital avatar”. These early attempts are often primitive and somewhat basic in their consideration of the depth of this topic, and it remains to be seen if they will have any success, particularly when their premise relies not only on the continued popularity of services like Facebook or Twitter, but also on their own guaranteed existence. I would have little faith in entrusting my wishes to Deadsocial, when in all likelihood their service will die before I do.

However, regardless of whether there are sophisticated methods to ‘preserve’ your digital legacy, it will still exist. Imagine, for example, if our great-great-grandparents had access to the technology that we do now. We might see photographs and videos of them, and blogs relating to their life experiences or interests. We could see conversations they had, learn about their passions and the people they knew. We would have an incredibly rich source of knowledge about who they were and the lives they led. This is the reality for us – generations to come will have this level of detail and more. It falls on us to decide the granularity of that detail, and how we want our data to represent us.

 

References

[1]        A. Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition. 2007.

[2]        S. K. Arora, Y. Li, J. Youtie, and P. Shapira, “Using the Wayback Machine to Mine Websites in the Social Sciences: A Methodological Resource,” J. Assoc. Inf. Technol., vol. 67, no. 8, pp. 1904–1915, 2015.

[3]        J. Meese, B. Nansen, T. Kohn, M. Arnold, and M. Gibbs, “Posthumous personhood and the affordances of digital media,” Mortality, vol. 20, no. 4, pp. 408–420, 2015.


Author: Jack Holt

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