Deceased people’s data is burgeoning online. Why should we care?
The ancient Natufians had a practice that, on one hand, seems quite odd to us moderns. They buried their dead under their houses but retained the heads, making plaster death masks to hang on the walls.
On the other hand, are we so different? We too keep our dead around, but they stare at us from our phone and computer screens, physically dead but socially alive. Facebook and Instagram already retain and memorialise the profiles of the dead. Twitter’s launching a new process to memorialise accounts and to make it clearer which profiles belong to the living, and which to people who no longer actually walk the earth.
For most of us, we’re far likelier on any given day to visit a dead person’s ‘digital remains’ than we are to visit a physical place of burial. Social media are shaping how we grieve and carving out places for the dead in our modern, digital society. We’ve essentially handed stewardship for our lost loved ones to the forces of social media, to the market.
What consequences does that have? Why should we care?
I couldn’t think of a better person to talk to about this than Carl Ohman, an alumnus of the Oxford Internet Institute and the 2020 recipient of the Scotus Early Career Researcher award for Arts and Humanities. Carl’s predicted the tipping point when Facebook becomes a digital cemetery, with more dead profiles than live ones. He’s also raised the alarm about the dire consequences if Facebook fails.
For an episode of Still Spoken — available here — Carl and I talked about economics, equality, politics, history and technology, and how it all links to the digital dead.
Carl: This story really begins thousands of years ago, in what anthropologists call deep time — the deep time of the dead. With the nomads, if someone dies, you leave them in the sand. You leave them behind. You keep on walking.
As we started building the first permanent settlements, we had this problem of what to do with dead people. Where do you put them? Suddenly you have to deal with them, and whether you like it or not, they will continue to be present among you.
One of these groups that went from nomadic to permanent settlements is the Natufians, and this interesting burial custom emerged among them. They would bury the dead underneath their houses, but before that they removed the heads and replaced the flesh of the skulls with plaster and seashell eyes. They kept these skulls within their houses, among the living. After a couple of generations, the Natufians were surrounded by the skulls of generations of ancestors.
When we hear about this strange custom, it feels quite alien to us. But with the digital revolution, once again, we’re living within the same structure.
We all now live in and through the archive. We’re once again in the same matrix as the dead. We live in the Internet.
Elaine: A lot of us, over the course of our lives, build up a substantial amount of ‘digital flesh’. And digital flesh sticks around.
Carl: When you engage in the ritual of going to the cemetery, or the ritual of going to an archive, you’re visiting the past in a specific site. You can leave it at will. The difference now is that you never leave. I’m a diabetic, so I have this device on my arm that constantly sends information about my blood sugar to my phone, via an app that keeps all this information on a server somewhere.
I am literally connected to the Internet all the time, and I cannot turn it off.
Elaine: The Natufians chose to do this with their ancestors, to preserve and display them this way in their homes. But these days, it’s not really us that have deliberately set out to do that online. Social media are the major players taking these decision: this is how we preserve and display the dead in our society.
Carl: We tend to talk about it as if these technologies just emerged. Suddenly there was an internet, suddenly there was a Facebook. We tend to forget that these are artefacts that someone has created for a particular purpose. That goes for digital afterlife technologies as well — the kind of stuff that makes us present after our death online. We can’t forget their purpose. Ninety-nine percent of the time, their purpose is to make profits.
Elaine: Yeah. They’re not humanitarian organisations. They’re not historical archives. They didn’t even set out to be legacy platforms or digital cemeteries. That’s not what they’re there for.
Carl: And look, that’s not a moral critique. That’s not saying like, oh, you know, people working in social media need to take other values than profit into consideration. I mean, if they do, literally, they fail. That’s how markets work. Markets only appreciate one type of value: profit.
I often get the response of like, oh, but surely for-profit firms care about other values than profit. Well, if they do, they can only afford to do so insofar as these values can converge. That’s the name of the game.
Elaine: So 10 or 15 years ago, when I started looking into all things death and digital, there were news stories now and again like, ‘pokes from the dead on Facebook’, ‘I was asked to invite my dead friend to a party’, et cetera. They’d be presented as these freaky-deaky news stories.
Now we’re in a situation where almost everybody I know has at least one experience of somebody that they care about, someone they’re connected to online, who has died and whose digital remains stick around.
In the beginning, social media companies didn’t consider that to be their concern. They had delete-upon-death policies — that was what was in the terms and conditions. It was only later that memorialisation came about, and now the mounting data of the dead on the servers of the world has become a dilemma.
Social media companies have taken the lead in shaping or determining, this is how we do it. This is what happens with the dead. This is how we preserve their stuff. This is how it’s displayed in our digital houses, that is, our phone or our computers. They’re steering us on this. For-profit companies that are created to other purposes and have their own concerns are taking that role on. Talk to me about your thoughts about that.
Carl: Yeah. I mean, it’s a really interesting development. We’re seeing increasingly how these global tech giants are appropriating societal functions that we would previously have seen within religions, for instance. So once [religious institutions] would be the mediator. They took care of the death business.
Elaine: And funeral directors — they’re in the death business. That’s their purpose and the basis of their profit. But online there’s a situation where people who didn’t set out to be in the death business — social media — find themselves in the death business.
Carl: I think Facebook has actually done a pretty good job in de- commercialising the interaction with the dead. They remove ads from memorialised profiles, for example, which is good. But there’s another side to this.
We do feel a connection, or at least traditionally have felt a connection, to churches and to the soil where the dead are buried and so on. But what we’re seeing now is that the dead are not buried in soil. You don’t feel that sort of attachment and sense of belonging to a particular land or a particular church or anything like that. But that sense of belonging, that contact with previous generations, happens increasingly on social media.
Not only are social media shaping our relationships to each other and to the dead as individuals, but they’re also shaping our relationship to the societal past as such. They’re shaping our relationship to the previous generation, the generation that is now filling up Facebook with their digital remains.
Elaine: Facebook has got a ‘legacy contact’ system. While you’re alive, you can appoint a legacy contact to perform some management functions on your account after you die. But as far as I know, there’s not a further hand-off mechanism. My daughter, her kids wouldn’t be able to see anything that I post on my Instagram or Facebook or whatever today. How can a grandchild or great grandchild access the profile that represents the ongoing digital body or digital flesh of the ancestor? There’s not that same kind of continuity. What are the consequences of that?
Carl: You’re raising an interesting point. There’s no legacy contact of the legacy contact. It’s telling of how the tech community deals with this kind of issue. Both academics and people in the industry tend to deal with problems on either a very short-term basis, like, what’s going to be the next big technology leap in the next five years? That’s code for what’s worth investing in. Either that, or it’s like, what’s AI going to be like 150 years from now? Is artificial general intelligence going to take over the world? And so on.
Rarely do you hear discussions about what the Internet’s going to be like in 20 years, or 30 years. It’s too far away to be commercially or economically relevant to talk about that kind of scenario. But I mean, there’s a good chance that within that time there will be more dead than alive users on Facebook. Hundreds of millions, billions of profiles of deceased users.
We were quite shocked to see that if they would continue to grow, there would be close to 5 billion profiles of deceased users by the end of the century.
Elaine: Which fundamentally changes the nature of the site and its incentives to keep going, for a company that in its current business model derives about 98.5% of its revenues from advertising.
Five billion! Talk about the dead sticking around and populating the same digital spaces and places that we all pace through and inhabit and communicate through every day.
That’s the most visible presence the dead have ever had in our societies.
Carl: Yeah. And I think we’re challenged as a generation with both the ethical and political questions that raises. What are we going to do with this presence? What are our responsibilities to the current generation? Towards the dead? Future generations? Do we owe it to future generations to preserve, curate and steward this gigantic digital heritage? Because, after all, we’ve never had such a big archive of human behaviour.
Elaine: With potential to use it for good. Use it for ill. Use it for profit. Use it for the betterment of society. Or all of the above!
Elaine: So there’s four ethical stakeholders that you outline in your research. One, future generations. Two, deceased entities themselves, which don’t have sentience, and which haven’t historically had legal personalities. Three, current users. And four, dependent communities.
About that latter category — I’m in the UK, and you’re in Sweden. We have access to a different kind of Internet than some communities do. For example, in Thailand and Laos, a hundred million people that wouldn’t have otherwise been online are online because of Facebook’s initiatives in those developing countries. The result of that, of course, is in those places, Facebook and the internet are pretty much synonymous with each other. All of the communications and functions that happen societally are facilitated through Facebook.
Carl: I think that touches on a broader point. When we talk about dangers that arise from the technological development, we tend to equate these dangers with who’s using the technologies, the people who are dependent on them directly as individuals. But I think that’s an incomplete analysis.
You ought to be concerned with what happens to Facebook’s data, even if you’re not on Facebook, because that data [about other people] could be sold and used to analyse your behaviour.
Elaine: We have this conceit. ‘Oh, well, I don’t do social media. I am therefore unaffected by social media.’ Essentially part of what you’re arguing is that none of us is unaffected by social media, because now it’s so much a part of the fabric of society that even if you’re not on it, it matters to you.
Carl: An example that few people consider is: Facebook goes bust. There’s a Facebook bankruptcy. No more Facebook. What happens to Facebook’s data? Well, as in any bankruptcy or insolvency case, the assets are going to be sold out to the highest bidder
Elaine: And on Facebook, what are those assets?
Carl: Those assets are the servers with all the data of 2.7 billion people.
Elaine: Who is queuing up to bid for the data that Facebook might sell off, if they have a fire sale?
Carl: Well, I mean, the scary answer to that question is anyone that has an interest in it can buy it. In the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) it’s somewhat regulated, in that only businesses within the same industry can purchase it. So in the EU, it would be another social media company that could acquire it. The Russian government can’t buy it. But for people who are not covered by the GDPR…
Elaine: …which is most of the world…
Carl: Yeah. Even if your data is not on there, this matters to you. Because your parents’ data might be there. Your grandparent’s or sibling’s data, or your friend’s data. People who live in the same house, in the same community.
The thing with data is that it works kind of like genetics, so I may not need your individual DNA in order to tell something about you. If I have your parents’ DNA, I can actually draw a lot of inferences from that about you.
The same thing with data. If I can analyse people in your proximity, I can make a lot of inferences about you as an individual.
The data of the dead is not just a niche concern. It’s very much the epicentre of the privacy debate.
It’s a mounting, central issue that we’re going to face in the next couple of decades, which is why we need to start talking about it now.
Elaine: People might think, no way, the behemoth is too big to fail. But in late 2020, the Federal Trade Commission and 48 Attorneys General in the United States mounted the first antitrust assault on Facebook from within home soil. The Financial Times argued that the Biden administration is likely to be aggressively in favour of this sort of thing, because previous administrations let things get out of control with some of these big tech companies. Facebook is being given the biggest run for its money it’s ever had. Maybe it could actually fail, or at least significantly change its business models. And what could happen to all of our data then?
Carl: Definitely. Again, we mustn’t look at only this five-year short-term perspective, but rather look to the horizon of what might happen 10 years down the line or so. Revenue models change, user behaviour changes.
Elaine: In November of 2019, Twitter announced that it was about to commence a big cull of inactive accounts. That amounted to a delayed delete- upon-death policy because dead people don’t tweet. So a lot of bereaved people really kicked off and they said, Twitter, you can’t do this. You can’t delete my father’s, my brother’s, my cousin’s, my favourite author’s Twitter.
And within 24 hours, Twitter had backtracked and said, sorry, sorry. Didn’t mean to, we hadn’t thought about this — which seems odd — but we’ll look into memorialisation policies like our friends over at Facebook and Instagram.
My reaction to that at the time was no, wait stop. I’m aware of this force towards memorialisation, not just in terms of a company’s willingness to do this, but our expectation that they ought to, that they have some sort of obligation, like a moral obligation to preserve the data of those that are gone. We’ve gotten to that place really quickly.
Carl: My prediction is that this drive towards memorialisation is not going to last. It’s not a sustainable solution. As you pointed out, dead people don’t click on apps. They’re worthless from a commercial standpoint, unless they can be used to tie new users to the network. So, I might still on Facebook because my dad’s or grandmother’s account is on there, and I don’t want to lose touch. Or I created a twitter profile, so that I can keep in touch with my dead uncle on there.
I doubt that this is going to be financially viable forever. Sure, it works now. You have maybe a hundred million dead profiles or a few tens of millions, but in a couple of decades, those are going to be hundreds of millions or billions of profiles. Those we already have take up so much server space. It’s already a big cost to administrate.
Sooner or later, social media companies are going to have to choose: who do you preserve? Who gets to be memorialised? And there are all kinds of models for that, but at the end of the day, I think the principle that they’re going to go with is, well, someone has to pay for this profile to stay up.
The problem, of course, is that’s going to feed economic inequalities. I assume that there’s going to be a standard price, and now I’m speculating, but eventually this is going to become a necessity. Let’s say $5 for so-and-so many years. Well, $5 is maybe not a whole lot to most Americans, but it’s a whole lot if you go to Mali.
Elaine: We’ve already got that model. One of the things that I wrote about in my book was individual funeral homes that say, here are the fees to preserve this guest book for so many years. That’s an individual funeral home, but this is the hugest database of humanity ever.
And think about all the existing ways in which the way data is handled contributes to inequalities. The algorithms of oppression. What happens to whose data, what is foregrounded and what is backgrounded? What is deleted? What is preserved? There are values in those decisions. Certain people, certain communities, certain views.
So many of our societal ills might be connected to the fact that we remember, listen to, and rehearse the history of the victors and the dominant civilisations, the rich, the people who were able to — in some way — pay for their memories to be preserved. As for the voices and experiences of the downtrodden, these invisible masses of people who are no less important, their experiences we’ve been free to forget.
The democratising potential of the internet is undercut if you eventually come around to the same place where you’re like, Oh, only these people are preserved. And these are the values that go into that.
Carl: It is the same thing, but I would just want, I would just want to emphasise one crucial difference, which is the reason that history, up until now, or the historical records have been so skewed. I mean, when we talk about history, we just talk about the history of rich white men, basically.
Elaine: Like the people in charge in Silicon Valley?
Carl: Kind of! But I mean, historically those have been the people who were affluent and powerful enough to record their thoughts and their lives, and maybe have their portraits painted and whatnot, but at the time recording was expensive. So, if you’re going to have your portrait painted, you’d better have some surplus money.
Now, we’re almost in the opposite position. Recording is the standard, the default. We record everything. Everyone is recorded as soon as they pick up their phone.
Before, in history, we asked a question: Is this event, this person important enough to record? Whereas today we ask the question: Is this person or this event unimportant enough to delete? So we’ve flipped it around.
We have this amazing opportunity to create a more diverse and just history. But if profit is the only principle of how we select what data survives — well, we’re just going to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Elaine: So much of the responsibility for shaping and preserving information — or not — is sitting in the hands of these handful of major players. GAFA. Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon. Those are companies for whom profit is at the heart of the matter. And so it feels scary. There are already such fundamental questions about how information is accurately repesented or corrupted, trustworthy or not, on these platforms. To think about them being the record that goes forward, the archive of history, feels really tricky.
Carl: Yes. I really want to stress this. It’s not a critique against these companies or these firms that they’re doing something wrong. The critique is rather political. It’s a critique against us as a society.
We have allocated this super important question of how and what we preserve completely to the market. We should discuss what principles ought to guide our preservation of the past. But instead of opening up that discussion, we’re saying, well, there should only be one principle. And that’s the principle of profits.
We’re not accustomed to thinking about digital data as historical material, because the internet is still viewed as this new, contemporary thing. But as we go along, we need to start recognising that digital artefacts actually have a huge cultural heritage value.
Elaine: And they’re more fragile or more vulnerable than we imagine.
Carl: Yeah. It’s like that quote about digital data. Digital information lasts forever or five years, whichever comes first.
Elaine: Its existence doesn’t mean that people who care about it necessarily have access to it. The idea of handing over responsibility to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google, they realisation that they’re shaping our relationship with previous generations and with history, these entities that are such complex actors in our modern day age, I don’t feel good about relinquishing that responsibility. Even that. Even death, even grief, even memory, even history.
Carl: I get the question a lot of like, okay, so what should we do? What’s your policy proposal? To be honest, I don’t really view it as my role as a researcher to tell people what to do to find like solutions to problems in society. But rather I view it as my role to formulate problems that we’re facing as a society, and then hand them over to our democratic communities being like, look: here’s something that we need to discuss.
So I think the first step is basically just to communicate, to policy people, to politicians, but also just to ordinary citizens: look, you need to consider this perspective. We need to ask those questions that you just mentioned.
When is it worth breaching the privacy of dead people? What is a legitimate claim? Who should get access? Who decides what data we destroy and what we preserve?
But in saying that, I am also obviously making some form of recommendation. It’s complicated. We need to take into account multiple different forms of value. Historical value, scientific value, sentimental value. These values must guide the discussions we have in our democratic institutions.
We cannot allocate this matter completely to the market.