A Different Kind of Digital Death

So far in class, we’ve spent a fair bit of time discussing what happens to a people’s digital accounts once they die, yet we’ve spent little time talking about what happens to one’s account once a service itself dies.

Kashmir Hill’s Fusion article “This Start-Up Promised 10,000 People Eternal Digital Life—Then It Died” focuses on that very concept as it examines the death of Intellitar, a Black Mirror-esque online memorial service that closed its doors in 2012. The service that Intellitar offered seemed very much like a modern-day precursor to robo-Ash in Black Mirror’s “Be Right Back”–the company charged $25 a month to turn a collection of personal data provided by users to create an “immortal” avatar of the user.

Intellitar CEO Don Davidson’s “Immortal” Avatar via Popular Science

But we see in the article that one’s avatar, and therefore, one’s digital immortality, is contingent upon the lifespan of the company. As Hill points out, the text files, photos, and other media uploaded to Intellitar might be easy to back up. However, the more complicated proprietary parts of the service–the avatars themselves and the technology behind them–could not be backed up by the basic user.

We entrust so much of ourselves–literally our own identity and memories, in this case–to these digital sites and services without considering the mortality of the site or service. But digital services die frequently too.

R.I.P. Club Penguin via Polygon

Online game services provide a similar (albeit lower stakes) scenario to that of Intellitar. Game services like World of Warcraft, EVE online, and even Club Penguin (rest in peace, it dies today on March 29) have provided digital spaces for people to sink countless hours and dollars into, but those games last only as long as their servers run. Once they’re taken offline, everything the user has given them–time, money, effort, even pieces of themselves–dies too.