The Presence of Digital Death

For centuries, people have been dealing with physical artifacts including information, but we haven’t had enough time yet to develop approaches that would be appropriate for our digital artifacts. On the cover of Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody we read “Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies, it happens when society adopts new behaviors.” Learning how to use a new device is not the same as taking advantage of its full potential. We are slowly starting to understand the consequences of our presence in the digital world. Digital technology surely brings many improvements to our lives. We can get our things done faster, we can reach our friends and family at any time and virtually any place, but it also causes many problems. We spend time learning how to use new tools, we get frustrated when we accidentally lose some of our information or when our information is misused and the need to be constantly connected produces a series of psychiatric disorders. However, in the article MIT Prof: Data Privacy Is Your Problem (or Asset) by Michael Hickins, Erik Brynjolfsson, an MIT Sloan professor of digital business, is positive about the technology development, while he argues that people didn’t stop driving cars even though they created thousands of highway deaths in the beginning. Rather, they introduced practices like stop lights.

The Internet is currently perhaps the most influencing new technology. Our daily activities are increasingly and regularly performed on the Web. We send emails, do shopping, read newspapers, communicate with our friends on social networking websites and so on. While the digital technology has been originally the domain of younger generations, Jenna Wortham notes in her article As Facebook Users Die, Ghosts Reach Out that “people over 65 years are adopting Facebook at a faster pace that any other age group”, however, this generation also has the highest death rate. And so the digital death arrives.

Probably the first time when a wider audience realized that the phenomenon of digital death exists was in 2009, when Facebook launched their feature to reconnect with inactive friends.

In general, our technology doesn’t acknowledge the possibility of user’s death yet. It seems that the most popular kind of digital death is related to social networking. Some social websites already provide instructions for ceasing user accounts or for their conversion to memorial state. However, they still don’t have clear policies on bequeathing the ownership and its content. Similar problems apply to email accounts. We experience the same problems with email accounts and a variety of other services.

We create our digital content within an ecosystem as we are interconnected with other users. Even though the digital information carries an imprint of its creator or owner, such as a name or nickname, an IP or email address, without a physical confirmation it is often difficult to determine its real ownership. The information we put online can be hard to take away. In some cases it disappears after a while, in others it may stay there forever. We may provide wrong input, it may become out-dated or we may even get confused with some other person. Personas, a web application created by the MIT Media Lab, can serve as a simple illustration of these problems. We provide our name and we get back an infographics, based on data-mining results, with a description of who we are.

The phenomenon of digital death is not related only to the web-based services. It also applies to computers, hard disks, cell phones and so on. While the media that carries our data count as our possessions, its content may be valuable and should be regarded as our belongings as well. The lack of mechanisms to treat the digital artifacts properly causes difficulties to those who have to manage them after one’s death. Passwords are obstacles in accessing a protected personal computer and we can receive a phone call from the deceased’s phone number. The time when we have to care for the digital legacy of the deceased has come, but we don’t have yet sufficient law or social customs to help us through. Until these become real, we have to take action ourselves and help those who survive us to deal with our stuff.