Category Archives: Modernity

Life (online) After Death

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One of the fastest growing technology platforms today is the internet. Not only are more people getting connected through the now ubiquitous mobile device – cell phones, tablets and wearable gear – and innumerable social media outlets – Facebook, Twitter, Weibo, Instagram, etc -; devices themselves are connected more than ever. In Africa, internet access has grown nearly 500% in the last decade; largely driven by the mobile phone. This is twice the global average. Elsewhere, particularly in Western Europe and the US, the so-called ‘internet of everything’ is experiencing a near-similar growth. Fridges, TV’s, printers, cars, houses, streetlights, car parks and virtually anything we use in our daily lives are now online. With cloud computing taking root everywhere, the virtual world is getting only larger.

In this ever-complex web of connections are multiple media owned and shared between us human users. These digital assets range from bio data, photos, music and books to emails, blogs, posts, tweets, reminders, directories and addresses. Beyond the soft assets, our phones, tablets and laptops are now so personalized they are actual extensions of our living selves.

However, unlike our physical lives that certainly end at some point, our digital side presents a rather new and unusual phenomenon. A photo online, blog-post or tweet acquires a life of its own and could potentially outlive its owner. How then do we manage our online digital assets upon demise? What happens to a deceased’s Facebook profile, email account, phone or even laptop? Moreover, how should we handle digital connections and linkages like phone-book entries, Facebook friendships or emails from friends gone yonder? Is deleting these ‘dead entries’ more viable an option than letting them ‘lie in state’?

I recently lost a friend from my college days in a road accident. There had been no physical contact between us since college but we kept tabs on each other via Facebook. I, like many other friends of his, learnt of his sudden and tragic demise on Facebook. His wall froze in time; the only new postings being our messages of condolence. Days later, still shocked at his demise, I stumbled upon his contact details while scrolling through my phone’s contacts list. Suddenly, the loss was all fresh once again. Images of our college days flipped through my mind in that brief moment of trance. Then the big question popped: to delete or retain the contact?

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Many have been at this crossroads. I chose to keep my friend’s contact details on my phone for no good reason. And his joins many others whose owners I know are no more. Friends and relatives I once had close relationships with. Like mementos, these contacts act as – if fleeting – psychological links to people with whom a physical reach is no longer possible. A probably greater reason for keeping these contacts is the avoidance of the guilt-feeling of throwing away a once treasured contact.

Certainly, opinion is divided on this. Others feel a sure part of the healing process is cutting out unnecessary reminders like phone entries. Further, service providers will re-issue such numbers and the startling possibility of a shocking call from a long dead contact may be unwelcome. It may be easy to simply tap ‘delete’ and do away with the digital links with our departed fellows but the more complex part arises at our own demise. Our online footprints will linger indefinitely; on social media, game accounts, subscriptions and so on.

Just over half of today’s internet users are younger than 35, as such, death and its consequences on their online assets are the last thoughts in their minds. Our lives are increasingly moving online and the question of what happens to this digital other life continues to gain currency. Already multiple avenues are available just in case. Many are subscription services that offer to delete or memorialize one’s accounts and online resources upon demise.

Facebook, Twitter and Google offer free such services free upon request. Other third party providers (see a list at the digital beyond) have recently come in to fill the void. Even then, a different individual nominated by the subscriber must do the notification of one’s death to these providers. In other circumstances, an unreturned regular inquiry by the service provider is presumed for the subscriber’s death and initiates the after-life-management process. Legal challenges and gaps exist though as the transfer of login details or personal online digital assets to third party entities remains outside the scope of most End User Licence Agreements.

Whichever way these new services and the socio-legal environment evolve, it is worth giving a thought to our posthumous online footprint. For those grappling with digital memories of long gone friends and relatives, there’s really no right way of handling these. The common call is for each of us to only go online with what we would not mind losing or surviving us. What’s your take?

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