Gone But Not Logged Off

Deceased people’s data is burgeoning online. Why should we care?

Photo by Mark Duffel on Unsplash

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.

I am literally connected to the Internet all the time, and I cannot turn it off.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

We cannot allocate this matter completely to the market.

Psychologist, writer, keynote speaker. Author of All the Ghosts in the Machine (2019): https://amzn.to/2Qdrq95

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