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.