Why Not Fade Away?

The commercialization of digital remains has become increasingly clear as we continue to probe various articles regarding online memorials and grieving. Who is benefiting from data remaining online? Once the bereaved stop paying, the data will, in many cases, disappear. While I understand why someone would want to keep a dead loved one’s Facebook page for a few years to grieve and return to when wanting to hear the deceased’s “voice,” does the page have to continue for longer than a generation? Before we or the government figure out how to deal with digital remains, I think we first have to decide if such data is an inheritable object or a memorial, since I think the transfer of ownership has a large impact on what happens to our data.

If the deceased is no longer benefitting from the existence of their digital life, why should money continue to be paid to tech companies? The attitude of tech companies is likely similar to their reaction to the Gonzalez case, in which Google refused to accept how indexing and providing certain data is a kind of power that goes beyond just “creation” of data. What ideological goals can companies have outside of pure capitalist gain? If our data doesn’t belong to us, that seems to make the quest for a digital afterlife much more unattainable.

The bots, of course, are the most troubling part of these articles, similar to how we were troubled by Be Right Back. What if data that the bot is working with is racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive? How do we apply ethics to such a situation, even if the deceased’s loved ones still want to interact with the bot. What if the bot reads racism, sexism, etc. onto the online identity of a person, which may not be accurate?

All of these questions lead me to think that a digital legacy, outside of those special cases like Tonnies, might be best to just fade into oblivion. I certainly have not created enough online to put in the effort into ensuring its survival for long after I die, and I wonder how much of such efforts are narcissism.

One Reply

  • You make some really interesting points here about death and digital remains! I definitely agree that we should be asking the question of who exactly benefits from having deceased people’s data remain online, especially when the person’s site is hosted or run by a large corporation such as Facebook or Google. As cynical as it may sound, these companies are ultimately primarily concerned with their publicity and profit rather than with each individual user, living or not, and their online experience.
    When looking at the readings for tomorrow’s class, the NYT article on digital immortality is what especially struck me. It made me wonder why some people in our day and age are so concerned with creating ways for our online personas or social media to live forever, especially now that users of sites such as Instagram are acutely aware that their online feeds are precisely a polished, perfected version of their lives and are not an accurate representation of their full selves. Something like an Instagram or Facebook memorial page seems very different to me than a family photo album or scrapbook would be when thinking about the legacy someone leaves behind, and not just because of the virtual vs. physical aspect.
    In addition, I tried to visit some of the sites the article talked about, such as DeathAndDigitalLegacy.com and DeathSwitch.com, and many of them have either not been updated in years or have been taken down entirely. I thought it was perplexing and slightly ironic that, for one reason or another, these people who took the time and effort to create blogs or companies surrounding the idea of digital immortality would later abandon their efforts and sites to be remembered only through the words or Wikipedia entries of others. It also made me wonder what happened to the users of sites like DeathSwitch.com who wanted to send online messages to their loved ones after their deaths but might not have the option to anymore—do they have to settle for a physical, 13 Reasons Why-esque alternative? Or has someone else already created another website for this same function?

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