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2 March 2015

Have you planned for your digital death?

Written by: Gerry Wisniewski, Director at Edelman

Technology

What happens to your digital footprint when you die? Should it be deleted? Or be preserved/memorialised? Who should have ownership and responsibility for it? How and where should it be stored?

These are all questions asked in a recently launched exhibition: LIFELOGGING, an interactive multimedia showcase and ongoing project at Science Gallery Dublin. Pieces on show include a physical tombstone, which highlights the extent of the deceased’s digital footprint including number of Twitter followers, miles jogged and percentage of positive eBay feedback before reminding them to ‘Rest in Peace’.

The subject of the digital afterlife is one that’s being explored more regularly though contemporary culture from art to cinema, TV and books at a poignant point in time – apparently 2060 will be the turning point where there will be more deceased people on Facebook than alive.

Hard hitting drama like Charlie Brooker’s ‘Be right back‘ episode from the Black Mirror series takes us to one extreme depicting a new online service helping the recently bereaved stay in touch with their deceased loved ones. By using all of your past online communications and social media profiles, the story unfolds to show how the dead can effectively be resurrected and recreated virtually. And eventually physically, with the development of cloning.

The subject also had renewed interest recently when Facebook announced that it is allowing users to set up a ‘legacy contact’ – a family member or friend who can manage a person’s social account when they die. The legacy contact can respond to new friend requests and update cover and profile photos. If someone chooses, they may give their legacy contact permission to download an archive of their photos and posts.

Of course, users can also set up their account so it’s deleted after their death.

In an apparent satire of social media sites’ approach to the digital afterlife, a new website, EverTomb, is looking to give people the ability to be a ‘digital pharaoh’ with an online digital tomb ‘to have fun in a great afterlife environment’, providing customers with a memorial of their existence online. EverTomb says that ‘every tomb owner gets a personal tomb space located on famous EverTomb cemeteries around the world wide web.’

More seriously, a number of services have emerged which are taking a more thoughtful look at how you might wish to manage your digital afterlife including AssetLock, a digital safety deposit box allowing users to upload their files, passwords and instructions to be released to predetermined individuals on their death. Meanwhile, LifeNaut allows you to upload a DNA sample so your mind and genetic code are ‘backed-up’.

All of this of course raises significant ethical and philosophical questions. Ultimately, you won’t be around to care what happens to your data, but if data now has value – will it have worth after you’re gone? And if so who would inherit it? Could you transfer your valuable data to your descendants along with stocks and deeds?

Could you bestow your digital legacy to medical institutions, for example, if it helped contribute to medical advances? Or should data be kept for private hands, for the deceased’s loved ones – ensuring data remains comforting in the way old photos are?

The technical, ethical and philosophical questions related to a person’s digital legacy are just starting to be asked…

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