When someone dies they leave behind massive collections of digital paraphernalia, which are generally not included in their will. These items are typically distributed across a range of networks with different usernames and log-ins. For example, in one case, the family of a U.S. marine, killed in Iraq, repeatedly tried to gain access to his yahoo-mail account. Eventually the case had to go through the courts due to Yahoo’s strict policy on protecting the privacy of the individual even after death. This sparked questions of whether digital possessions fall under property law. The case also raises ethical dilemmas about the responsibility of the service providers and the constantly shifting and largely uninterruptable 'Terms and Conditions'. Although the law, particularly in the USA, is beginning to catch up with the idea of 'digital assets' it looks like it will take some time before a more standardized approach to digital inheritance and best practices will be realized.
In the meantime to fill this void various self-start companies have developed. Their services allow users to bypass the traditional legal framework by leaving passwords, documents and other assets directly online. Users can state particular ‘guardians’ or ‘executors’ that would deal with what has been left after death (it should be mentioned that this kind of service is in direct violation of the terms and conditions of most social network and email providers and these companies would be within their rights to delete accounts).
These start-ups are diverse in their marketing approach. There is the “Swiss bank account for information assets” to more dramatic taglines such as “bridging mortality”. They can range from acting simply as a portal to leave your data with a strong ethic of privacy and property protection to sites designed specifically to appeal to people on a more sentimental level, often linked to leaving memories or life stories. As well as the ethical considerations of users placing their trust in, often commercial, third parties there is also the practical concern that these start-ups may no longer exist in the future due to management decisions or bankruptcy.
It is quite obvious then that there are significant implications to not allowing the legal and ethical infrastructure to deal with digital assets and memories. A particular concern is the role of Social Networking Services (SNSs). These sites may become a part of the ongoing bereavement process - a way of distributing information related to funeral preparations quickly and efficiently, or even in some cases as the primary informant of death itself. Recent research points towards an increased ongoing connection between the living and the dead online with a rise in messages - particularly on Facebook - being directed to the dead, rather than about them. It appears that as our lives become increasingly digital so will our deaths and rituals of mourning and bereavement.
Just as the online space can provide a much needed space for mourning virtual friends (those we may know only/ or predominantly online), it may also provide an opportunity for dispersed communities to come together and share multimedia memories of the person they knew. Within the diaspora it is not always possible to attend a funeral. It seems that traditional models of grieving are also expanding to include virtual presences and commemoration.
The funeral industry is a sector where it is possible to see the mark of changing practices evolving with technology. Funerals are being tailored to celebrating a person’s life with memories of who that person was and what they meant to us - in both the 'real' and digital worlds. The online space is well suited to bridging these different worlds, as can be seen with projects that incorporate creativity and crowd sourcing into communal bereavement. The Johnny Cash Project is one example which uses the song 'Ain’t No Grave' to celebrate and commemorate Cash's life and legacy. Fans were invited to reinterpret one single frame of the video by drawing a digital portrait of the man as they ‘saw’ him and submitting it to the collective whole, which when played seems to embody a kind of haunting but also touching tribute.
Relative Strangers is another project in which I have tried to unpack some of the complexities of relationships mediated predominantly through technology, particularly within families. It is designed to consider the wider implications of transnational dying and bereavement and is trying to bring to light some of the dormant issues of technological progression.
I hope this post can shed some light on digital death and inspire people in a range of disciplines to see how technology is impacting upon their field and how this may be navigated and designed for.
Stacey Pitsillides is a PhD Design student at Goldsmiths College. Her research focuses on digital death, digital afterlife and digital heritage.