by Daniel Keane
“I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue.”
So said scientist and philosopher Carl Sagan writing in 1996, just a year before his death. In the decades following his passing, the internet would radically transform human life: digitising social connections and accumulating vast sets of data that record the minutiae of our online experience.
The web has changed death. Work emails, angst-ridden teenage Facebook statuses and Spotify playlists do not perish with our physical body. Funeral services can be streamed; messages of condolence and heartbreak can be tweeted.
In this peculiar way, we fulfil Sagan’s wish to live again, only in the form of the digital ghost we have inadvertently created.
Fun fact: more dead than living on Facebook by 2098
Welcome to the digital afterlife: a strange, undefined landscape where corporations, families and tech start-ups wrestle for control of the fragments of our online life. It is a rapidly growing industry, as the number of dead people on Facebook is expected to outnumber its living members by 2098.
Big tech takes this seriously. Facebook gives its members the option of having their account deleted posthumously, while also offering the opportunity to have a memorial account run by a friend or family member. Google’s Inactive Account Manager allows you to pick trusted contacts that will gain control of the data you wish to give away.
The digital afterlife has prompted the growth of a number of start-ups and business that focus on digital estate planning. DeadSocial, set up by former UCL lecturer James Norris, creates a platform through which the living can set up messages to be distributed after their death. The messages are released by an executor who is chosen by the user.
Norris has been running the service since 2012. The inspiration for its creation was highly personal. “I lost my father at an early age, and it happened at a time when I was really into music. I’d always placed a high value on my funeral playlist; it was something that I thought about a lot when I was growing up,” he says.
“I thought, why not create a tool that allows us to say goodbye, and to pass on our own wisdom?”
DeadSocial was not as successful as Norris envisaged, however. He identifies a cultural inability to confront death as the source of difficulty in expanding the business: “I think it’s due to the way in the Western world that we think about death and don’t plan for it. It’s hard to get people to think about death, to create a message for your loved ones when they’re gone.”
Norris is correct. Death remains, in the words of Philip Larkin, “a small unfocused blur” for most of us. The new DeadSocial will launch this month, and 10,000 people will be allowed to use the service for free.
There are businesses going even further than DeadSocial. The slightly dystopian company Eterni.me helps you create a digital avatar that mimics your personality by collating information about you across a number of years.
It sounds like a Black Mirror episode
When you die, your avatar will outlive you and can communicate with family or friends. And no, this is not that episode of British science fiction anthology television series Black Mirror.
Professor Luciano Floridi from the University of Oxford is the supervisor of a recent study conducted by PhD student Carl Ohman, entitled An ethical framework for the digital afterlife. He believes that the digital afterlife, though it may seem intimidating, is an unchangeable fact of modern existence.
“The whole thing is so new compared to millennia of traditions that the novelty might feel a bit spooky,” he says. “But if you take a long-term perspective, the digital world is here to stay. It’s like when someone, somewhere, invented the wheel. We then have a millennia of transformation.”
Could it destroy the process of grieving?
Humanity’s progression into an integrated digital existence may be inevitable, but the digital afterlife poses a range of unique ethical problems. Floridi fears that it may destroy the process of grieving, and the potential to achieve closure.
“Death can become a constant, present event,” he says.
“There is a never a moment when you say ‘Okay this is in the past’, where you move on. That would be terrible. The moment of closure is what enables people to move on.”
The idea of getting a morning and evening notification about a long dead relative or friend is a disturbing possibility. The psychological effect of this could be a state of mourning in perpetuity.
Transmitted across generations, Floridi fears it may also reduce our capacity to process anger and grief directed at those who have hurt our ancestors: “Something that is going to raise strong emotions, like a war, will translate into some kind of ‘cyber vandalism.’ If we are not respectful towards each other, that will also take place in a digital context.”
It is clear that the digital afterlife will continue to radically transform our concept of death, memory and the grieving process. Our confusion and resistance to the digital may be a product of transition: an uneasy realisation of a unique turning point in human history.
If the Internet functions as a mirror for human behaviour, then the digital afterlife reflects our innermost fear: that of being forgotten. Our future epitaphs may be written in under 280 characters; our funeral playlist available on Spotify.
Welcome to your digital afterlife.
Featured Image by Esan Swan