It might sound like something out of science fiction, but the digital afterlife is very real. And the digital afterlife affects nearly all of us, whether we like it or not.
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If you access the internet, post to social media, talk to friends and family online, or even store files on your computer or phone, your data will live on long after you’re gone. That data is known as your “digital afterlife,” and tech companies still don’t know exactly what to do with it.
It’s important to understand what your digital afterlife will look like, and what you can do to protect your digital remains.
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What’s the Digital Afterlife?
Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook have algorithmic systems for nearly all of our major life events.
We get a notification when a friend’s birthday is coming up, prompting us to post a “happy birthday” message. Memories pop up on our home pages, showing us photos we took years ago. We can easily tag friends and family members in photos and posts we want to share and memorialize.
But social media doesn’t account very well for the most universal life event of all: death.
You might still get urged to post “happy birthday” on the Facebook page of a friend who passed away last year. You might tag a photo with that friend, prompting the social media site to post the photo on that friend’s timeline, as though they’re still active online.
Slowly, companies like Facebook are developing new ways to address death. For example, you can now “memorialize” a Facebook page if you’re listed as a “legacy” contact. You can even host a virtual funeral or memorial service on a platform like GatheringUs. But the exact rules surrounding digital assets and the digital afterlife still aren’t clear.
History of digital afterlife
Ideas about managing and utilizing our digital afterlife began circulating almost as soon as people started getting online.
Tech companies and consumers alike started asking questions like, “What should happen to someone’s digital assets and social media accounts when they die?”
And maybe even more importantly, “What rights do we have to someone’s digital life after they die? What privacy rights does a person maintain when they’re gone?”
Several companies have popped up to help us modernize the mourning process and take online presence into account. But as those companies came into existence, so did many valid concerns about how they would access, store, and utilize our data when we’re gone.
What’s included in your digital afterlife now
Almost everyone has a digital life. Even if you don’t have social media accounts, chances are you’ve still written a good number of emails, uploaded files to the cloud, or kept numerous files on your computer. Everything you own that isn’t physical, but is instead on a computer system or online database, is your digital life. When you die, all of those assets will be your digital afterlife.
Here’s a list of what you might leave behind as your digital afterlife:
- Social media accounts. This is what people typically think of when they picture a “digital afterlife.” But social media isn’t the only place your personality and data live digitally.
- Emails. Whether they’re personal or business-related, emails you compose reflect the way you speak. They also contain information about you, your relationships, and your life.
- Computer files. Imagine what information a person could glean about you from the files on your computer. The files and their data—including the names of files and when they were created—are a key part of your digital assets.
- USB files. The same is true of files you keep stored on USB, external hard drives, or other storage devices.
- Phones. Most people now have smartphones that can access the internet and store a good amount of data. Internal data from your phone, including contacts and photos, as well as your browsing data and app data, are part of your digital afterlife.
- Password accounts. Any online account that requires you to create a username and password is part of your digital afterlife, too. That means bank accounts, shopping accounts, and even forums.
- Cloud services. If you use a cloud storage service like iCloud, Google Drive, or OneDrive, you have personal files housed on a server. Those files and their data are part of your digital afterlife.
Why Does the Digital Afterlife Matter?
We tend to care more about what happens to our physical belongings when we die. Maybe we know that we want our jewelry to go to one person, and our furniture to go to another. We might even have plans for what happens to our personal journals. But we rarely think about who should take ownership of our digital belongings.
Digital assets, including files, photos, password accounts, and everything else listed above, are personal belongings, too. But even more importantly, they’re personal belongings that could contain important information about you.
It’s important to think about what might happen to your digital assets when you’re gone so that your information is protected. While you might not care about that when you’re no longer here, your family members and friends will care.
Unfortunately, if you don’t take certain steps to protect your digital afterlife, there might be little your family members and friends can do to regain control of your digital remains after your death.
Future of the digital afterlife
As mentioned above, several companies quickly noticed the value of the digital afterlife and have been striving to put our data to use. The digital afterlife industry includes services as seemingly innocuous as online memorial services.
But even those types of data banks come with their own risks. It’s important to remember that we still don’t have adequate laws protecting our digital personas after death.
One innovation that’s within the grasp of modern innovation is something straight out of Black Mirror.
Re-creation algorithms offer the opportunity to upload your personality to a database. That includes your memories, mannerisms, and basically everything else that makes you “you.” These algorithms beg the question, “Can we live forever online?”
Scientists are still working on that. But in the meantime, it might be more crucial to consider what those companies could do with your information after your gone.
For example, there aren’t clear answers about what they can and can’t make the digital “you” do. Could they use your persona to promote a company or service? According to ethics scholars and algorithm experts, it’s all still very much up in the air.
What you can do about it
Ethicists are analyzing the issue of the digital afterlife. Some researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute have suggested that digital remains should be treated, legally speaking, the same as physical remains.
But before such laws start finding traction and go into effect, what can you do to protect your digital afterlife?
Here are some tips:
1. Know where you are on the internet and digitally. First, you’ll need to identify where you’re keeping all of your digital assets.
2. Outline your entire digital life. Go through the list above, and write down every location that you personally have a digital presence. Part of it might look something like this:
- iPhone (usually on my person)
- USBs (three of them, in my desk)
- B of A
3. Record your passwords. Go back to your outline and write down your username and password, as well as any other applicable information, for each device or account. You could also use a password manager.
4. Assign legacy contacts. Some social media sites, like Facebook, allow you to assign a legacy contact. This is the person who will have control of your account if you die. They’ll be able to memorialize your Facebook account and take other actions, too.
5. Include your digital afterlife in your end-of-life plan. An end-of-life plan includes things that help your family tie up your affairs when you’re gone.
That can be a legal will, a letter of instruction, and/or a Power of Attorney. In your letter of instruction, you should consider adding a section about your digital afterlife and what your beneficiary or executor should do with it.
Give instructions on how to locate your outline that you created, above, which should include your passcodes and other information for managing your digital afterlife. Give specific instructions, like, “Please post this message on my timeline, and then delete the account after one month.”
If you create a Cake account to make your end-of-life plan, you’ll be prompted to fill in the information regarding your digital accounts, and what you want to happen to those accounts when you’re gone.
Managing Your Digital Life: Now and After Death
Going through the steps outlined above, and better understanding your digital presence in general, can help you while you’re still alive, too.
Many of us don’t have a full picture of our online and digital presence. We might have dozens of online accounts that we’ve completely forgotten about.
Combing through and downsizing your digital assets is a smart way to declutter your life, as well as keep your digital afterlife safe.
Ohman, Carl & Floridi, Luciano. “An ethical framework for the digital afterlife industry.” 09 April 2018. www.nature.com/articles/s41562-018-0335-2