Digital Life After Death

Do you have a digital plan for when you die? An idea of what you want to do with your online presence after death? “Nine out of 10 Australians have a social media account of some description, yet the vast majority have not even had a conversation – let alone written anything down – about what should happen to these accounts when they die,” (Brad Hazzard, 2014)

What if you could live on after death?  What if, when you died, your social networks took the information you had provided it with, and then integrated it with software which analysed the way you interacted with the medium, and was able to continue your interaction for you?

Although the above video is intended as a parody of sorts, this sort of thinking isn’t too far off, with research underway, and programs already existing that play this sort of role.

Currently, Facebook opts to memorialise accounts when people pass away, unless family members request for it to be deleted, but what if we didn’t have to stop at the idea of posting tributes, and tagging our loved ones in the statuses.  What if we could just message them, tell them how much we loved and/or missed them and get a response?

Two years ago, I had a friend my age pass away from cancer, and I had sent her messages in the days leading up to this.  I had dyed my hair purple as it was her favourite colour, and wanted to show my love and support for her through this difficult time.  While I’m sure she did not see the post, it makes me wonder what would have happened if this technology was available.  What would she have said? Would it have reflected the girl I knew, and if it did, would she really be dead?  And if the AI which responded evolved over time based on conversations, would she still be the same person as when she physically died?

12 thoughts on “Digital Life After Death

  1. Loooove this area of study (in part because I always find myself thinking about these things — as of now I just plan to leave everything logged in and have a designated friend appointed to the role of posting as Ghost Dael).

    It’s interesting, social media really kind of sprung up and took the world by storm before any of us could really think about things like what would happen to our accounts after death, which has lead to some interesting make-shift protocols added after the fact, like Facebook’s memorialising option – interesting in itself given that the page of a lost loved one was regularly turned into a memorial by the way users interacted with it without the need for Facebook to make it official in any sense.

    I wonder how this will enter into the new social platforms which are arising all the time, especially with how many of them focus on ephemerality. What do you do with a SnapChat account once someone has passed away? Because of the nature of the medium there can’t be much of a record left of the individual, but there’s still this thread of their presence left behind.

    On the matter of programs that fill in for you after your gone, where does this fall for sites like YouTube? There’d be more than enough footage on my channel to make some approximation of myself which could speak in my voice and make use of my face, but how would we feel about this level of identity reflection and likeness of being? Does it become me or just a really good mimic?

    Cool thoughts, love it.

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  2. Hey, this is a really interesting topic and you’ve raised a lot of thoughtful questions. Considering online presence can be performative, I wonder how that would impact the effectiveness of the program? Personally, I always feel like I’m playing a fine line between wanting to openly be myself online and being conscious that data never forgets/different contexts, such as email v facebook, call for different aspects of my performative self. Have you seen The Digital Beyond? (http://www.thedigitalbeyond.com/online-services-list/) It’s a service designed to “help you plan for your digital death and afterlife or memorialize loved ones”, interesting stuff. All the best with your project!

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  3. Really awesome topic! This post reminds me of a Black Mirror episode called ‘Be Right Back’. The main character, Martha signs up for a service that allows her to reconnect with her recently deceased husband. The company uses his social media profiles, emails and home videos to create his personality. Martha is then able to talk to him online and over the phone. You should check it out if you haven’t already seen it! It’s super interesting to think about how much of ourselves is portrayed online and if a version of ourselves could genuinely be created just from our online identity.

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  4. Interesting topic you got here, definitely one that opens a few moral questions about AI and what makes you, you. There’s an episode of Black Mirror that I recommend watching called Be Right Back where the husband dies and she uses this program that allows him – or at least a facsimile of him – to talk to her. However, she still had to teach him how her husband would react in situations therefore breaking the sense of realism which guaranteed that she would always see this copy as just that – a copy. I would hope that my family would leave me be if I died, a copy would only bring pain because it would be a constant reminder that I was gone and even with all the data I put on the internet, my experiences and real-life interactions couldn’t be included through a copy and therefore it would never be a true representation of me. I’m always happy to post about myself online to a point of course, but unless my entire life was recorded as well as my thoughts during that time, you could never replicate an experience like that.

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  5. Hmmm those questions got me! A little confronting, actually. I feel like I would definitely would not like AI to head in that direction both as a user speaking to a passed loved one and if I were to pass myself. Death is too complicated of an obstacle to try and just overpass it with something that still is just artificial. I’ve thought of this myself though about what happens to your online presence and think it probably is something that we should think about so people are aware of how to handle it – similar to organ donation. I found this cool list of sites that offer a range of services that prolong a memory of a person rather than a simulator attempting to imitate something that is so precious. http://www.thedigitalbeyond.com/online-services-list/
    Super interesting thoughts though! A debate I’m sure could be swung either way.

    Like

  6. There’s a common phrase uttered after the death of an individual when someone hesitates over a decision: “what would *deceased* have done?” Perhaps, the reconstruction of a ghost AI would allow the deceased to retain a voice of agency, or retain the possibility of a relationship that provides direction and wisdom for the living. Perhaps, the deceased could remain as a chatbot. The reality of the Black Mirror episode (mentioned by Caitlin and Jess) ‘Be Right Back’, is it will be possible. Whether it requires the opt-in of personal APIs from birth or an incredibly powerful Big Data aggregate, the ability to reconstruct a personality as an AI in the form of a chatbot is a possibility. 2016 is predicted as the year of the Chatbot (http://www.theverge.com/2016/1/6/10718282/internet-bots-messaging-slack-facebook-m). With the assistance of Google’s Syntaxnet (http://www.wired.com/2016/05/google-open-sourced-syntaxnet-ai-natural-language/) and Facebook’s M and Messenger integration, tech leaders are fostering a text-based AI interface that’s powered by Big Data – no different to the big data that forms online personas.

    Like Dael, I love your interest in Death and Technology. The intersection of these two topics brings to mind two things: our escapism within the internet, and the immediacy of grieving faced online. It’s an uncomfortable topic, but I believe addressing what we do with our ‘digital lives’ after death, could inform what we do with our own death. NPR’s Planet Money (http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2014/03/05/286126451/living-wills-are-the-talk-of-the-town-in-la-crosse-wis) did a fantastic piece on the small town ‘La Crosse’. “Some 96 percent of people who die in La Crosse have an advance directive or similar documentation. Nationally, only about 30 percent of adults have a document like that. In this community, talking about death is a comfortable conversation — neighbors gossip about who on the block hasn’t filled out their advance directive.” Here, the public discussion of death within the town had fantastic benefits: economically, morally, and emotionally. The relevance of the piece within the discussion is that chatbots, AIs, and the public nature of digital-deaths, makes death a public topic to be comfortable with.

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