Digital Afterlife: Will you be going to iHeaven?

Is today’s online world full of exhibitionists? Are we living with a trend of oversharing? Some document their lives – what they like, where they are, what they are doing – in unfathomable detail and prolificacy.

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Growing demand for services that help managed contents of deceased accounts

But as others rush to download the latest app, upload a photo of breakfast and update a new profile picture, there is little forethought about what will happen to one’s digital information.  There is a cognisant understanding of our carbon footprint, our material legacy; but what about our digital inheritance.

What are the consequences of our digital logorrhoea? What, more specifically, happens to all the information we volunteer? Looking closer at corporate policy on online content we see that there is little consensus on how to manage our digital baggage or legacy. Unlike physical property, digital assets cannot be bequeathed in wills. Legislation has been slow to address the issue, still lagging behind the rapid technological advances in digital media. Under US and Canadian law, consumer electronic-communications companies are forbidden from disclosing a user’s content without their consent. Only 5 States in the US have made provision for a person’s digital legacy. In Australia, there is no such law.

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Only 5 States in the US have made legal provision for a person’s digital legacy

In lieu of legislation, each online service provider has developed their own rules on accessing accounts of deceased users. Hotmail and Google for instance, will pass on the deceased’s emails on a disk – but not their passwords – if presented with “appropriate documentation”.

Google has taken an extra step and launched Inactive Account Manager – a tool which lets you decide what you want to happen to the data on your account.

Yahoo Inc. meanwhile explicitly states in its terms and conditions that, “Upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate, your account may be terminated and all contents therein permanently deleted.”

And Facebook – the modern day photo album and journal to most of us – will give your loved ones the option of making your profile a ‘memorial’.

As we live more of our lives online, there is greater attention placed on our social media habits after our deaths.  This was made particularly evident at the recent murder trial of British model Sahar Daftary. During the inquest her family asked that her Facebook account be accessed to ascertain whether she and her husband – a suspect in the case – had been having marital problems. The court was unable to release the information.

The debate on whether the court should have been given access to the model’s personal information will undoubtedly continue as we struggle to find the balance between privacy and protection.

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At the other end of the spectrum, we see that the digital revolution has not only digitalised our afterlife; it has to a large extent digitalised our memorial. In Hong Kong for instance, the Government has launched the world’s first virtual graveyard. The site, memorial.gov.hk is a free service that allows mourners to send their beloved virtual flowers and offerings like virtual chickens, roast sucking pig and fruit. Set up by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, the initiative is aimed at helping modern mourners pay tribute to their loved ones from the comfort of their computer.

But as we look at going on a computer instead of a cemetery to ‘send’ suckling pigs and see the deceased live on through memorial Facebook pages – surely, now is the time to ask:  have we reached a point of digital overload? We are not our avatars. In reality, we speak more than we tweet. Was it easier when we stored our mementos in shoeboxes? When our photo albums were of the real, dust-collecting variety? When we wrote letters not lols and 🙂 ?

Perhaps it is impractical to be overly nostalgic for the days of analogue. After all, digital media has opened up worlds to us. But consider this – today it has, in fact, opened up an entire afterlife.

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