Death, Digital Remains and the Network

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Image Courtesy of Michele Gauler's Digital Remains project

Three recent things, and something I cam across a few years back collide in what seems like an emergent interest in what happens to our digital lives, profiles and data when we die.

Michele Gauler's RCA Design Interaction course project explore the ways in which people could manage their online profile and data in preparation for their death. "Digital Remains assumes a world in which our data is stored on the network creating digital archives of generations of people", it explores

the role data plays in how our loved-ones will remember us. Digital photographs, e-mails, videos, web sites, feeds, comments are our digital traces and form an increasing part of our legacy to the world. But also our 'digital behaviours' – say, the manners in which we arrange our desktops and files or listen to the same type of music while we write e-mails – express how and who we were as individuals just as strongly as our hand-writing does or our habits of organising our offices or bedrooms.

John Naughton's Observer piece this Sunday quoted an interesting data point – which if accurate is staggering: "one estimate puts the number of US Facebook users who die annually at around 375,000".

[Amazing testament to the size of the site that it can lose that many people in one year. isn't it?]

His piece also picked up on the same sort of issues, provoking his readers to think about what would remain of them if they failed to print out copies of emails and other digital artefacts. The old trunk in the loft in 40 years time will contain some very different, and perhaps rather sparser reminders of our lives. There's two aspects to this – one technological, the other behavioural. Naughton has long noted the problems associated with software changes and disc compatibility in hampering future historians and archivists from creating a picture of our digital worlds. Anyone remember .lwp file formats? My thesis is written in this format and had I not converted into Word at the time it would be a hassle to re-assemble. Or those old Smart drives that did the rounds in the early 2000s. Or floppy discs…to name a few. 

Finally, the third piece was from Sunday's New York Times, Cyberspace When You're Dead, exploring these same sorts of issues

increasingly we’re not leaving a record of life by culling and stowing away physical journals or shoeboxes of letters and photographs for heirs or the future. Instead, we are, collectively, busy producing fresh masses of life-affirming digital stuff: five billion images and counting on Flickr; hundreds of thousands of YouTube videos uploaded every day; oceans of content from 20 million bloggers and 500 million Facebook members; two billion tweets a month. Sites and services warehouse our musical and visual creations, personal data, shared opinions and taste declarations in the form of reviews and lists and ratings, even virtual scrapbook pages. Avatars left behind in World of Warcraft or Second Life can have financial or intellectual-property holdings in those alternate realities. We pile up digital possessions and expressions, and we tend to leave them piled up, like virtual hoarders.

To my mind, much of this rising concern goes to show just how far we've come along the digital road. Having shifted so much of our lives online, and with vaguely sensible discussions about what online privacy looks like in our present taking place, it seems to me to signal a real maturation in our understanding of the pervasiveness of our digital identities that we, or right now others, are starting to think about what this means when we die too. And while some businesses such as Entrustet have emerged to exploit this it seems to me worth thinking about what the end of life(cycle) is for much of the services we currently design. 

Of course, the much small observation is to point out the role of design in provoking these conversations and re-imagining the relationship between death and data. It seems to me worth noting that Gauler's work was done 2005-06, underscoring her professor, Anthony Dunne's repeated assertion that design is medium or practice perfectly suited for forcing conversation about what might or could be….