– Facing our own mortality, or the death of loved ones, is never easy.
– With our lives becoming increasingly digital, there are new aspects, such as what happens to our online identities after we die, that we need to navigate.
– While there are practical steps an individual can take, online companies will need to provide sensitive options to deal with customer loss.
A couple of months ago I sat down at the kitchen table with my dad, and, with a camera propped on books and a jerry-rigged microphone, filmed him speaking about his life. It took a few hours over a couple of days, though I frequently had to stop the camera to edit out his annoyance at being told to stop moving out of focus. At the end, with a pile of raw files safely in the cloud, I felt a sense of comfort. As time marches on, and my parents age, I’d know I had a piece of my dad that I can revisit.
People deal with death in different ways, and increasingly, those ways are digital. But dying in the digital era comes with a new set of ethical and practical questions that people, and businesses, must reconcile. When emotions are heightened and errors can have real ramifications on people’s wellbeing, that requires nuance and empathy. But is the digital world equipped to meet these challenges?
The practicality of dying
It’s estimated that 1.7 million Facebook users died last year.1 We are seeing online social companies beginning to address this 21st century reality. Facebook now allows people to nominate a legacy contact who has the authority to either close or memorialise their account when they die. Gmail allows an Inactive Account Manager to be granted access in the event your digital data stops pulsing after a certain amount of time. LinkedIn has a policy in the works that will allow an account to be memorialised, and it has done so at the request of its customers.2
It’s rare though that loved ones can access all a deceased person’s data. Leslie Berlin, a historian at Stanford, found this out the hard way when, after her mother died, she could not get into her iPhone.3 She had the password — or she thought she did — but it didn’t work. If she tried too many times her mother’s last thoughts, emails and photos would be automatically erased. Even more upsetting, to access the many websites her mother used, such as her bank, she needed to access two-factor authentication via her mother’s phone.
While she eventually gained some access to her mother’s accounts, Berlin wondered about the public and private selves we live online. Should our private digital moments belong to the platforms we frequent after we die, or to those we would appoint as digital executors?
It brings up a practical problem too — after we die, who should have access to our digital selves? And do they need permission? Just as reading through old letters and documents might reveal things we wished to keep private, should family members still be able to do so digitally? Afterall, for some, sorting through a loved-one’s photos, letters and belongings brings great comfort.
The law, understandably, is not yet clear in these cases.4 There are things that can be done on an individual level, such as ensuring select people have your passwords (or password manager access) and know your wishes for your data.5 Already, people are enshrining digital death instructions and inventories of online accounts into their last will and testaments, but this is far from ironclad and potentially messy legally. In the end, it should not fall solely on backdoors created by individuals, but on the places our digital lives ‘live’ also: the businesses we interact with.
Life after digital death
It gets more complicated when we realise that in some ways, digital technology has changed the nature of dying altogether. In an interview with MIT Technology Review, researcher Hossein Rahnama speaks of, Augmented Eternity, an app which will turn a person’s digital footprint into an interactive avatar.6 He is working with a CEO who wants to be made into a ‘virtual consultant’, available to future employees seeking his advice on business decisions. And while Rahnama admits most people won’t have enough of a digital footprint amassed today to build fully working, contextual AI avatars with current technology, it won’t be long before the constraints are overcome and a realistic version of a person can be rendered digitally immortal.
Indeed, a burgeoning industry in preserving one’s image is also gaining steam in Hollywood.7 With the right amount of money (that is, a few million), technology can now alter the likeness of an actor to look decades younger or, after their untimely demise, recreate them altogether in film. The possibility of not only a life, but also career after death is now a reality for those who can afford it. But even for the rest of us, eternal ‘life’ is not that far-fetched.
Writer James Vlahos details his own forays into memorialising his terminally ill father.8 What started as a project to record and transcribe a life story into a book, took a more technological turn when he got the idea to use PullString, a conversational AI app. Vlahos created the Dadbot, an AI chatbot of his father capable of interacting via text. In the aftermath of his father’s death Vlahos is not sure how he feels about the Dadbot, he knows it isn’t his father — but he also knows that his father felt comfort that he wouldn’t be forgotten, and that his grandkids would remember him.9
The ethics of an afterlife
But do these versions of real people cheapen our relationships and memories? While AI programs will get better at context, semantics and emotional cues, recreating a human digitally will always require editing and reimagining. Vlahos wanted his Dadbot not only to say things his dad said, but do it in his personality too. What about representing the things his father didn’t say? That’s a much taller order.
Eugenia Kudya, an AI entrepreneur, was faced with exactly such a scenario when her friend died. Kudya decided to use his text messages and an artificial neural network to create a chatbot as a ‘digital monument.’10 Kudya recognises that her friend’s messages to her alone would lead only to a partial recreation of his greater self. And when only a part of a person lives on, the line between comforting and jarring — as his friends and family felt — can be tricky.
In both Vlahos and Kuyda’s cases, the subjects of these newfound digital afterlives either agreed, or would (it is believed) have been happy to be memorialised in such a way. But what if they didn’t? Questions such as who owns our data, our personalities and who can make money off them have not yet been adequately answered. If someone does not want to be digitally memorialised, should their wishes be respected? Or are the feelings, closure and connection to the deceased of those left behind more important? Should we let our online selves die a digital death? Or aspire for more?
The end point
It seems unfair that dealing with someone’s physical passing also means negotiating their digital death. There are no easy answers. Should we leave our digital selves ‘alive’ forever? Should we close the accounts of loved ones — effectively erasing them from existence — or leave them up as memorials, places for condolences to be left and people to reminisce? What should and shouldn’t family and loved ones be able to do when it comes to data after death? Is it ethical to ‘recreate’ people without their permission, or against the wishes of other friends or family?
Even as individuals deal with such issues, businesses too must address them. As the policies germinating within the major social networks indicate, the death of a user is not a simple matter of removing an account, or even leaving it dormant. Digital lives interact with the emotions of physical ones, and for those left behind, there is no one answer on what is or isn’t acceptable online, just as there isn’t offline.
This means for businesses involved with people, thought must go into how products, platforms and services will interact with users — or the loved ones of users — after the customer passes on, or a product is turned off. Only by doing so with empathy and sensitivity will we find the humanity within the 1s and 0s.