Review: Humanist Values and Digital Afterlives

At our meeting in February, we were joined by Dr Elaine Kasket to talk about Humanist Values and Digital Afterlives.
Review by Tony Brewer.

Dr Kasket is a psychologist & writer who has been researching the interaction between death & our digital lives since 2006. She has recently published her book ‘All the Ghosts in the Machine’, which deals with the digital afterlife of our personal data.

She said that most people today are involved in some kind of online activity, such as sending emails, doing online searches, watching videos, listening to music, & communicating with friends through social media. For older people this is a learned activity and some people are more involved & better at it than others. For millennials, by contrast, it is a normal part of their everyday lives, they are ‘digital natives’, & their digital portraits provide an accurate picture of their private lives.

Problems can arise, however, when we die. There is a clear legal framework that determines what happens to our material assets, particularly if we have made a valid will. But laws have not kept up with the very rapid developments in online services & we have no clearly defined & enforceable rights over our digital assets. The result is that the technology platforms such as Apple, FaceBook & Google can do much as they like with our posthumous data. Dr Kaskett gave three examples:

  1. In 2004 Justin Ellsworth, a young man serving in the US Army, was killed in Iraq. His father needed access to his emails in order to settle his estate but Yahoo, the email provider, had a ‘delete on death’ policy & the father had to go to court to prevent the deletion of his son’s emails & to gain access to them.
  2. In 2006 America Online suffered a data leak & the search histories of 650,000 users became available. AOL claimed that this was not a big problem because all the data was anonymous. However, journalists on the New York Times got hold of the data & managed to identify some of the users. Subsequently, a film was made & released in 13 episodes, describing the life & search history of ‘User 711391’, a middle-aged woman from Texas looking to rejuvenate her sex life and dreaming of life in Alaska.
  3. In 2014 Holly Gazzard, a 20-year old Gloucester hairdresser, was murdered by her ex-partner. She had been an avid user of social media & had left a rich online legacy. But she had not been careful with her privacy settings & most of her posts had been public. Her family had access to her FaceBook account &, initially, this gave them great comfort but subsequently they experienced three particular problems. First, malign individuals who had seen her account started posting vicious & unkind comments & trolling her family. Second, her family discovered that someone not known to them had set up a ‘RIP Holly Gazzard’ memorial site that the family had no control over. Third, Holly’s account held 72 photographs of her killer & their presence was very upsetting for the family. It was only with great difficulty that they managed to get them removed.

Dr Kasket pointed out that so-called ‘spiritualists’ have always used the available technology to claim they could communicate the dead. Thus, when the telegraph was introduced seances used knocking noises, the advent of the telephone led to claims about speaking to the dead person, & when movies arrived ghostly images became popular. Now the existence & accessibility of ‘memorial sites’ is used to keep the memory of the dead person alive. Many people, particularly digital natives, assume that any message they post onto the Internet will necessarily reach its intended audience, & they can easily persuade themselves that a message to a dead person will also reach its target.

She invited us to imagine that we possessed a box containing some special treasures, letters & photographs perhaps, with which we remember a deceased loved-one. What might we do if the box were stolen? If that box & those treasures were physical we might hope to retrieve them, it would certainly be clear that we were the rightful owner. But if they were digital the situation would be much more confused. Big technology companies’ control over our personal data often doesn’t lessen when we die – it increases. They can act as ‘digital funeral directors’ & they are capable of deciding how we will be remembered online and by whom.

Dr Kasket ended by saying that most online data does not satisfy the criteria for establishing copyright control. Also, so-called ‘digital wills’ have little or no legal validity, although they can be useful in indicating your wishes for your digital legacy. She did not give any specific recommendations about what we should do about our digital legacies but the final chapter of her book contains 10 recommendations that are summarised below.

Recommendations for ‘constructively confronting the realities of digital dust’.
Summarised from All the Ghosts in the Machine, by Dr Elaine Kasket

  1. Confront your ‘death anxiety’ – recognise that we are all mortal & will die eventually. If you died tomorrow would you be content with your digital remains? If not, what do you want to do differently?
  2. Always assess, never assume – For all the online accounts that matter, assess the Ts & Cs that explain what happens to your data when you die. If you can’t find them or you don’t like them contact the organisation & ask for an explanation. Don’t assume that what would be true and fair in a non-digital context would also be true & fair in a digital context.
  3. Put yourself in other people’s shoes – before you make any decisions about your digital legacy consider how other people, who may have an interest in that legacy, might feel about it. You may be completely unconcerned about it, you’ll be dead after all, but your children & grandchildren & maybe other close friends may have an interest in the photos, videos, documents and other messages that remain in digital format.
  4. Have conversations about death & the digital – speak to the people you love about how you feel about your digital legacy & what you’d like to happen to it. Find out how they feel about it too so that any decisions you take leave everyone happy. Extend these conversations to your workplace, encourage your employer to have well thought-through policies on what happens to an employee’s data when they die.
  5. Make a digital-era will – ensure that you have a will dealing with your physical possessions but extend its scope to include your digital possessions. Record it on paper (a will recorded digitally may not be valid) & have it properly signed & witnessed. It may not have legal validity but at least it makes clear your wishes. For every digital account that matters & that allows it, appoint a digital executor (a Legacy Contact on FaceBook, an Inactive Account Manager on Google, for example). But make sure that the person you appoint understands your wishes.
  6. Develop a master-password system that’s accessible by your digital executor – strong passwords are essential for your digital accounts while you’re alive but become a nightmare for your digital executors when you die. Use a Password Manager app, with a single strong password, to manage all of your passwords. Give this password to your digital executors. This will simplify both your online life while you live and your digital executor’s life after you die.
  7. Be an unapologetic curator – anyone with an active life online will store all sorts of stuff, much of it rubbish. Why not – it’s virtually free. But after you die your loved ones may have great difficulty in finding the worthwhile needles in this digital haystack. So, periodically, put time aside to clear out the duplications and the rubbish.
  8. Accessing more doesn’t always equate to feeling better – a person grieving for a deceased loved-one may be tempted to search through everything they can find. But, far from helping them overcome their grief & feel better, this process may just uncover issues that raise questions that can no longer be answered. Be careful what you look for.
  9. Go ‘old school’ – many digital formats are no longer readable unless you still possess obsolete equipment, but paper lives on if it is carefully stored. It’s worth selectively transferring digital stuff into physical stuff occasionally. Make a photobook of the images that you love the most. Print out the electronic correspondence that’s closest to your heart. Transcribe your best writing into a notebook that you can put on your library shelf.
  10. Forget immortality – while there are a few exceptional individuals who deserve a digital memorial, most of us do not. It’s much, much better to be remembered for how we led our lives than for what we left behind. Live the best, most valued life you can. Love well. Be present in & grateful for the moment as it’s lived. Be a force for good in the world. Devote yourself to all that, & a legacy of which you can be proud will take care of itself.

You can see Dr Kasket’s presentation here: