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Why bother with the digital afterlife?

With the recent increase in visits to this site, I’ve been explaining its purpose more often in conversation with others. Generally speaking those who are technically-minded understand the issues with digital death and are surprised that they hadn’t considered them before. That epiphany is my favorite moment in any conversation about this. But I’ve talked with more people recently who don’t get it. One person today told me this “I think of it just like I think of what happens to my body: I won’t be here to care.” I may have paraphrased that inadvertently due to my memory, but I must say that I completely disagree with that sentiment.

Digital assets are rapidly replacing tangible ones. Consider family photos. These days they are more likely to be digital from the time they’re taken. Archivists refer to this as a “born-digital” asset. These born-digital assets, in this case digital photographs, are family heirlooms, a vital part of your identity. Passing these heirlooms to the next generation is not just a luxury, it’s an integral part of identity preservation. We’ve been doing this for ages. By passing an object of our identity along, we can leave a story or memory behind. It’s important to know how your survivors will obtain your born-digital assets, because they won’t find a drawer of printed photos in your residence, they’ll have to go looking on your computer or in the cloud.

The issue of identity preservation is just one of many others.  What about access to vital information like emails or web hosting accounts?  How about the necessity to delete some content, to hide things you wouldn’t want others to know?  I could probably think of a million other reasons why this issue is important, but the bottom line is that the more digital assets you have (and it’s growing, trust me) the problem will only grow.

To that thought, I’d like to hear some of the reasons you’re considering the digital afterlife.  Comment it up, folks.

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    5 Responses to Why bother with the digital afterlife?

    1. sampablokuper November 28, 2009 at 10:56 am #

      I’ve been thinking about the digital afterlife for all the reasons you’ve given, but also because it’s clear to me that the provisions for managing one’s digital afterlife are, at the moment, so poor.

      Services like Legacy Locker go a good way towards addressing these issues, but they don’t go all the way. To use a WWW analogy, they only work on the client side (storing your login details to online services, for instance), not on the server side (e.g. implementing policies to ensure that content you’ve stored in those online services won’t be deleted in the event that your payments stop because you’ve died).

      Shortly before I discovered thedigitalbeyond.com, I set up a website with a wiki at rodfos.org in order to create space where myself and others who are concerned about this could begin to try to draft some standards for ensuring that digital legacies are dealt with sensibly and fairly across the online industry. Well, at least across the online service providers who adopt those standards and pledge to uphold them. The present rather haphazard state struck me as being like browser wars for the dead: no sooner have one’s legal executors found the correct way to secure one online service account for the deceased’s next of kin than they have to follow an entirely different procedure for the next account. The state of affairs is illustrated quite clearly by skimming the list at http://dealingwithdeathonline.wikidot.com. Some companies’ policies are less than sensitive. Some are also rather insecure, e.g. relying on obituaries rather than death certificates for confirmation of death.

      Thanks for all you’re doing to raise awareness of digital afterlife issues.

    2. R.Brian Burkhardt December 21, 2009 at 2:18 pm #

      Truly there needs to be standards set in digital afterlife issues.There needs to be an internet summit on this. Perhaps it may be best to include this topic in a conference on internet privacy issues.

    3. John Romano January 25, 2010 at 1:28 pm #

      I think that contemplating what you will leave behind is something that people tend to do alter in life. Seeing the death of parents and the birth of children tend to put one’s life in a broader context. It’s at that point that people of the first digital generation will begin to seriously consider the fate of their digital identities and all those “born-digital” assets.

    4. Ali Amr February 17, 2012 at 10:33 pm #

      Good explanation. I enjoy make out the print Marcy Lu

    5. Obdulia Scheibner February 18, 2012 at 2:31 pm #

      Good explanation. I really like to see clearly Marcy

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