Data after Death: Shaping Our Human Identity and the Construction of the Self through Our Digital Footprint
If you could talk to someone you have lost one more time, would you? If you could, would you preserve your parent’s memories, so your future children could talk to them? Whatever reasons you might have for your answer, the act of mourning is emotional and personal for most of us. The idea that we are not immortal beings, is one that constructs who we are. In an age surrounded by screens echoing our digital identity, we find ourselves having an immortal digital existence online. The pictures we post on Instagram, the comments we post on Facebook, the political opinions we leave behind on Twitter all live on beyond ourselves. New start-up companies seek to collect your memories and online social media presence in order to curate them into digital avatars that communicate posthumously. These companies are dealing with vital topics on how to deal with data overload. These avatars live on forever, allowing people in the future to access your memories. By immersing our identity in the digital, afterlife services bring a new self-representation and self-extension into the construction of our identity. Instead of asking, “what if”, we can start asking, “what now”? The ‘what now’ question has become the embodiment of our times, as we are now living in an age where our identity, inheritance and stories are digitized. If you could live on forever as a digital avatar, would you?
WHO AM I?
Our human identity is composed of varying interlinking aspects. The ways in which we shape our identity is intertwined within societal aspects of ethnicity, religion, gender, and nationality (Koles 4). Our identity “captures the implicit and explicit responses to the question, “who am I” (Nagy 278)? The ways we view ourselves has shifted throughout history. The complexity that was emerging within modern society allowed for a shift regarding our identity as static. In the postmodern age, identity was seen as a process of “becoming rather than being” (Koç 38). Our postmodern identity now took on a malleable form constantly forming and transforming “in relation to the ways we…represented or addressed…the cultural systems which surround us” (Hall 277). This malleable cultural identity we undertake, is largely due to social events such as globalization, modernity, and the digital society we now find ourselves in (Koç 38). Our technological information society exemplifies the Marxist view concerning modernity. We are a society of “constant, rapid and permanent change” (Hall 277). The introduction of technological innovations and digital media has created a “highly reflexive form of life in which social practices are constantly examined and reformed in the light of incoming information” (Hall 278). Our cultural identity is now imbedded into an entirely new arena – the virtual. The virtual world is unique in its variety of identity construction. Before, our identity development was “confined by physical realities and constraints of the here and now”, the arena we construct ourselves in now is much more multifaceted (Nagy 279).
Social media has redefined the creation of our self-representation. We have digitized our identity. Technology, our identity on social media platforms, and more specifically Web 2.0 “have the potential to blur the boundaries between… the real and the virtual” (Nagy 279). The identities we create online can be molded and personalized according to favored characteristics, lifestyles, aspirations and expectations. We have the ability to construct a unique identity. Whether this identity is true to the cultural identity we live-out in the real world is up to our determining. We have the freedom to decide. Working closely to Foucault’s panopticon – we are constantly connected, constantly surveilled, constantly online, and constantly re-defining who we are. Does this force us to represent an identity true to us, or a picture-perfect one that is ready to be accepted, admired and respected online? As we immerse ourselves within the digital world, the possibilities to reconstruct our self-representation and self-extension moves to the forefront of our identity formation. This allows us to view our avatars as living units, instead of as artificial entities (Nagy 280). When that physical identity is gone and we have passed away – what will happen to that digital identity? Through this digitization of our identity and through the immersive quality of virtual identities, will we have an immortal digital existence?
WILL YOU REMEMBER ME?
When someone dies, there are certain rituals that the surviving relatives go through. Consider the observances of funerals, gravestones and memorials where relatives and friends can say goodbye to their loved ones. The remembrances of people were connected to the physical objects that were given away during the inheritance phase. After the rise of the Web 2.0, this inheritance has been extended from purely physical objects to very personal digital data produced from social media platforms and email servers. After mourning, a person becomes not only existent in the memory of close friends or relatives but also through their online personhood.
Let us take a step back to the phenomenon that is closely connected to human life and history: mortality. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, mortality is “The condition of being mortal or subject to death” (Mortality). You are born, you live, and you die. The ultimate goal is leaving your mark on the world.
For a long time, immortality was only reserved for the rich and famous. The ultimate test of one’s death is to outlive your own lifetime and “that one would … continue to be renowned and respected” (Barry 272-273), in a similar way that celebrities are (Dyer 3). If these afterlife services become mainstream, does immortality become commodified?
Instead of forming one’s identity offline, the internet has moved users towards an identity that is completely shaped online. Consequently, if a person dies in real life their connected online identity must reflect their death as well. This can be seen in Facebook’s introduction of ‘memorialization’:
Once we become aware that a person has passed away:
Their account is secured and memorialised by adding “Remembering” above the name on the person’s profile. The profile or account is not updated or otherwise changed in any way. Immediate family members can also request that we remove a loved one’s profile. (Facebook)
Google has implemented a similar idea called the Inactive Account Manager. The user can manage what happens with their account and their data if they have not logged in for a chosen amount of time (Google). As a user, you can decide who will receive your data or decide to delete it completely (Google). On Facebook, a memorialized page is a different way to have your public data accessed by Facebook friends, meaning your profile is “frozen in time” (Facebook).
IMMORTAL DIGITAL EXISTENCE
Going one step further than the online memorialization of the deceased, technological innovations and the digitization of our identity has pushed memorialization towards the realm of artificial intelligence. Reconstructing the deceased’s identity through artificial intelligence frames itself as a continuation of life after death. We become immortal. The ways this digitization of our identity is achieved after death is mainly through two services – predominantly posthumous messaging and re-creation services. Posthumous messaging is defined as “services that, upon death of the user, deliver online messages or other digital communicative content to appointed recipients” (Öhman 645). More significantly is re-creation services utilizing artificial intelligence. These are defined as “services that use personal data in order to generate new content replicating a dead person’s social behavior” (Öhman 646). The significance of these services lie in their power to generate new messages based on pre-existing online behavior and digitized data of the deceased. Its application in mainstream society has not been prevalent due to its incomprehensible nature and apparent ethical reasons. Regardless, recent emerging startups have flourished, such as Eter9 and Eternime. These services have attracted thousands of users begging the question, who will be joining?
Eter9 is a social media website, similar to Facebook, where users can create a profile, chat and post news. The name Eter9 derives from the word “eternity”. The number 9 is representative of “Cloud 9” which stands for a state of complete happiness. The social website, with Portuguese origin, is still in its beta stage but already has more than 40.000 users (Zuin). The difference between Eter9 and other commonly used social media websites is that users create a “counterpart” on Eter9. A counterpart is the users’ “virtual self that stays in the system and interacts with the world just like you would if you were present” (Eter9). Eter9 is based on the concept of artificial life and marketing their site as an eternal state of happiness, users are prone to readily give up their personal data.
The counterpart learns from the users actions. The more you as the user interact on Eter9 the more the counterpart will learn and adapt from you. It gets used to your spelling and grammar and remembers detailed information that has previously been shared with others through posts or messages. You can decide the level of autonomy of your counterpart by choosing the percentage of activity you want the counterpart to have (Eter9). As a human, Eter9 offers you a version of immortality in cyberspace. Your counterpart is not only interacting when you are offline or inactive but will also continue chatting, commenting and posting when you are dead. All your thoughts and posts will be kept for eternity with Eter9 (Eter9).
The website Eter9 collects two different types of information from the user, the technical information and the personal information. The technical information is associated with data related to the interaction of the user with the system, such as the IP address and the date and time of the access request. Personal information is associated with the users’ personal data. This can be voluntarily shared information, such as the name of the user, profile photos or the email address (Eter9).
More than 41.000 people have already signed up on Eternime, which is founded by MIT fellow Marius Ursache (Eternime). Eternime works with a similar idea as Eter9 but with a slightly different approach. They are also concerned with saving data, in posts and in photographs, to allow you to live forever in cyberspace. Unlike Eter9, Eternime asks the users for access to their already existing social media accounts to then build up a profile from their posts and interactions. Another difference between these services is that Eternime creates an intelligent avatar that looks like the user – a digital copy of themselves. Through algorithms the avatar studies the memories and mannerisms the user shares on the different platforms, like Facebook or LinkedIn, and will learn how “to be” the user. The idea behind this algorithmic learning is that relatives will then be able to communicate with their dead family members. With Eternime, there will still be contact with a person who is already deceased (Eternime and Starr).
Eternime collects several types of data. Personal data or data that is freely provided, like name and gender, is automatically collected when using the application. Importantly is that “all data requested by this application is mandatory and failure to provide this data may make it impossible for this application to provide its services” (Eternime).
As we consider who will actually have the ability to become ‘immortal’ by using artificial intelligent afterlife services, ethical interplays of power and privilege become transparent. Privilege and accessibility are two issues that cannot be ignored, but in our society of inaccessibility and privileges, they likely will be. We live in world filled with various religions and cultures that all have their own practices and beliefs regarding life and death. We cannot assume that all of these religions and cultures accept human immortality, especially a form of human immortality that is placed in the hands of technology companies through artificial intelligence. The ways cultural and religious divides privilege who will and will not be immortal will play out in long-term, societal contexts that govern the control of facts and laws, ideologies and norms, and who will inevitably have control over the beliefs surrounding life and death. As techno-determinists commercialize grief by aiming to cure humanity of mortality and mourning, the digital divide created by Eter9 and Eternime will undoubtedly be overlooked. It is likely that these afterlife services will be only privileged for those who have access to them culturally and financially.
Digital afterlife services re-administer to the dead a limited form of digital agency which potentially allows them to intervene in a more adept manner than when they were elderly, terminally ill, and close to their biological death (Meese et al.). “The one who controls the past, controls the future” (Orwell 32). Through digital afterlife services, individuals will be able to frame their personalized presentation of history. Stories and events will be susceptible to curation through the lens of the individual, not through the evolutionary lens of facts and time. Individual’s lives will be up to filtration, in a similar manner to how photographs are carefully selected, edited and uploaded onto social media platforms. Services, like Eter9 and Eternime, allow their users to shape their future through their own idealistic visions. The future becomes framed by what has happened in the past through edited versions. The elements that are viewed as bad, uncharacteristic, or just plain boring in life will be purposely left out of carefully curated AI, posthumous messaging avatars. When this editing or curation becomes applied to politics, to people holding positions of power, and to individuals with influence, this curation has the potential to slant the future’s remembrance of history and therefore sway or pivot the future’s handling with political manifestations in a particular manner.
Idle social media accounts provoke questions surrounding what happens to deceased users’ digital possessions. We know that the digital mining performed by digital afterlife services will acquire “almost everything that you create during your lifetime and process (Meese et al.)” by incorporating data from “Facebook, Twitter, email, photos, video, location information, and even Google Glass and Fitbit devices” (Parker). Families presumably have the option of ‘opting’ out of posthumous messages, but neither Eter 9 or Eternime discloses how they will specifically manage users’ data or how they plan to keep users’ data secure. The very data that Eter 9 and Eternime is collecting and storing might also be limiting their own technological innovation since consistency is only privileged to machine analytics and “unpredictability is an essential marker of being human” (Meese et al.). How friends and families retain control of online legacies of the dead leaves unanswered questions surrounding human mourning and digital data access and control.
The way we deal with death and the meaning of death has changed over time. Old fashioned traditions such as funerals and inheritances still exist next to developments on death in the digital world. This shift leaves an impending change on how we will deal with mortality and immortality. Treatment and delivery of precious memories are at the whims of companies who have made digital immortality open for business. With no regulations, “ethicists argue that digital afterlives should be treated with the same postmortem dignity as our corpses” (Robitzski). A solution to the current uncontrolled, open market, and laissez faire aura surrounding digital afterlives is to “treat digital remains as though they are actual human remains” (Robitzski). As digital afterlife services popularize, it will be comforting to know that ethical guidelines and regulations will be implemented for a growing industry that capitalizes off grief and humanity’s desire for immortality. The immortality offered to ‘regular’ people will be shaped by the online identity constructed through social media and through different power structures. On Facebook and Instagram, where only the best images of your life is shown, how honest of a depiction is this? How will you be remembered through edited images? Our human identity is centered around the fact that we are mortal beings. Moving into the realm of immortality and considering the neurological and traumatic consequences, are humans capable and ready to detach themselves from mourning? With these AI afterlife services offering to extend your ‘life’, there will be no ‘end’. How far will humanity go?
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