Is Your Digital Life Ready for Your Death?

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You’ve probably thought about what will happen to your finances, your possessions and maybe even your real estate when you die. But what about your Facebook account? Or your hard-drive backups?

For the past two decades, most of us in the modern world have gradually shifted our central living space online. That’s 20-ish years of documenting our real-life experiences while also creating entirely new versions of ourselves in countless places online.

These digital lives are basically immortal, so you may as well figure out while you’re still alive what will happen to them after you’re gone.

There are two main things to consider: What will happen to your accounts and what will happen to the data contained therein. For example, you can give someone authority to delete your Google account and to download all your photos stored there after you die.

Death in the celebrity age

Despite being from 2005, this article is evermore relevant today, as it starts to feel like we’re mourning all of our favourite stars:

Chances are in 15-20 years, someone famous whose work you enjoyed or whom you admired or who had a huge influence on who you are as a person will die each day…and probably even more than one a day. And that’s just you…many other famous people will have died that day who mean something to other people. Will we all just be in a constant state of mourning? Will the NY Times national obituary section swell to 30 pages a day? As members of the human species, we’re used to dealing with the death of people we “know” in amounts in the low hundreds over the course of a lifetime. With higher life expectancies and the increased number of people known to each of us (particularly in the hypernetworked part of the world), how are we going to handle it when several thousand people we know die over the course of our lifetime?

The Art of Condolence

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Offering a written expression of condolence (from the Latin word condolere, to grieve or to suffer with someone) used to be a staple of polite society. “A letter of condolence may be abrupt, badly constructed, ungrammatical — never mind,” advised the 1960 edition of Emily Post. “Grace of expression counts for nothing; sincerity alone is of value.”

But these days, as Facebooking, Snapchatting or simply ignoring friends has become fashionable, the rules of expressing sympathy have become muddied at best, and concealed in an onslaught of emoji at worst. “Sorry about Mom. Sad face, sad face, crying face, heart, heart, unicorn.”

In Praise of Social Media Mourning

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Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Michael Kelly/Flickr CC

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By now you know the social media celebrity-death protocol. As the news spreads there’s a rolling wave of “oh no”s and “RIP”s—many of them omitting the name of the deceased, to mark the advent of a topic so urgent that everyone can be assumed to be participating. Then come the tributes: personal memories, 140-character career summations, expressions of sadness.

And then come the complaints. These tributes, we are told, are “performative.” To post a response to the death of a famous stranger is to “make it about you.”

These thoughts don’t add up to an obituary, but there were plenty of obituaries. Social media filled in the space around the obituaries. These posts map the millions of points at which Prince and his music intersected with the lives of the people who heard it…

The bereaved, of course, can make their own decisions about what to say or not say. The rest of us are paying our respects and assembling the material from which artistic legacies are formed. We do that by talking about the work, and about the feelings it produced in us over all these decades, and about times when we danced, and about how finite life is and how much pleasure there still is in it, despite everything.

The Upside to Technology? It’s Personal

Illustration: Anthony Foronda

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In a sense, that’s what technology has always done. That’s true with planes, trains and automobiles. And that’s true with smartphones, social networks and search engines. They, and other technologies, connect us to people who are not with us, geographically or physically, and make us feel a little less alone in this big confusing world.

…We do so through the digital footprints left behind on Facebook and Twitter, the photos on our smartphones, and all the morsels scooped up by search engines. Technology allows us to connect.

So does the good outweigh the bad? For me, yes. And I think it will in the future too, as newer technologies force us to grapple with even bigger ethical quandaries.

Take driverless cars, which I believe will have a huge, unknowable impact on society. When that technology becomes widely adopted — some say this will happen in two years; others say 20 — many will lament the negatives. Pizza delivery guys, truckers, taxi drivers and countless others could lose their jobs. Hackers and terrorists may turn driverless cars into weapons. Teenagers everywhere will no longer experience the joy of getting a driver’s license.

And yet, there will be many positives as well. Roads may be converted into parks. Finding parking may become a thing of the past (as will parking tickets). Driving time may be reclaimed for more productive or enjoyable activities, like watching movies, exercising or sleeping.