When we shuffle off the mortal coil what eventually becomes of the terabytes of social data, chat records, photographs, and files that we leave behind us? I know some of the more macabre in the tech-community have already speculated how they would like to send forth their accumulated data into the great blue yonder; some more advanced users have even set up scripts that we activate on their deaths to publicize and delete certain pieces of information. But in the past few months I’ve noticed this very concern becoming more pronounced in mainstream blogs. I was even surprised to see PBS do a segment on this question earlier this year. Maybe this an indication of maturity on our part. The internet has been driven by people too young to ever grapple with death but this reflection was bound to come sooner or later.
But death on the internet raises a number of legal difficulties, especially as it applies to our digital property. For previous generations the matter was easy. There were the physical assets that for the most part could be bequeathed, taxed, and to which the state and creditors might have claim. Then there were the memories and personal information that family and friends would take and keep alive as long as personal memory would allow. But in our new digital age this distinction is disintegrating. Personal information has become an asset and a an asset of increasing value.
Once again, the great question of who owns the data rears its ugly head. And sure enough there are already fights between families and social networking sites over whether the accounts of the dead should be opened or monetized (not that I’m really sure why a corporation would be interested in having a million dead followers). However, In a rare stroke of good fortune, it looks like the families have been winning this battle, at least for now. Some celebrities, like Roger Ebert, have even had their online identities posthumously managed and updated by their families as if nothing had ever happened. A strange digital afterlife to be sure.
I have always thought that the insecurity people would have when facing death would be to make sure that their most private secrets were shielded from the prying eyes of the public. But it seems that, for most part ,people want to have their data live in the public domain. Death may awaken the sentimentalist in us all. And I suppose I would have to agree with the sentiment. As troubling as it would be have one’s personal data tossed to the four winds, the alternative consequences seem far worse. Beyond the possibility of a Digital Dark Age emerging when historians of the future have essentially no way of accessing records from the generation before (who among the millennials keeps a physical diary or physical photos?), one simply needs to look no further than grieving parents of dead teens trying to get some access to their teenage children’s photos which for the most part remain recorded on private social networks.
There are now even websites dedicated to posthumous digital preservation. This is certainly an ambitious endeavor and in many ways it seems very much like the Mormon’s use of Ancestry.com. We may have before us, not so much a tool for the living, but a mechanism for creating a bridge to past generations long departed to their eternal reward.
The situation may become still stranger as the information revolution and birth rates continue to decelerate. As the decades pass, more and more of the information stored on the internet will be from previous generations, and one day the cadre of the living souls who surf the web may be dwarfed by the legions of the dead. Our children’s generation may find themselves navigating a massive digital catacomb wherein lies the accumulated knowledge of those gone before them. An internet where the dead whisper their wisdom to future generations. It’s a haunting but not altogether un-comforting thought. The tool that was born as the province of youth in our generation might in the future become the ultimate Momento Mori.