But They Said that Online was Forever

Future generations may know you as a faceless citizen of the Digital Dark Ages

Each time I’ve encountered a dead body, I knew it was about to happen, and I could have opted out. Such is the luxury of choice and control in places where death is highly managed, where the care of the sick and the dead is carried out largely by professionals. I come from a country where open caskets are common, so those physical remains that I’ve seen in my time were embalmed and carefully made up for public view by professionals licensed by the state, graduates of mortuary science programmes. Proceedings are organised by the employees of the funeral home; grievers are ushered here and there, gently directed through the process, guided by people who’ve done this a thousand times before.

This is my experience of seeing physical remains — planned, managed, infrequent confrontations with silent entities that have been prepared by trained professionals with established roles. My experience of encountering digital remains, on the other hand, is a different story. Online, I’m surprised when I bump into the dead in places where I don’t expect them. Sometimes I seek them out — easily done from any connected device — but their remains aren’t as tame, quiet or tidied up as their physical correlates. A posthumously persistent Facebook profile, for example, is nowhere near as orderly or predictable as the funeral home. It’s often not clear exactly who’s in charge, but one thing is certain: there’s no training for how to manage the online dead, no digital mortuary science degree, no code of ethics. There is no rulebook for this stuff, although some are endeavouring to write it.

It’s not surprising that exposure to death, in whatever form, often discomfits us. The industrial and medical revolutions drove a wedge between the living and the dead, shunting the dying into hospitals and the deceased into climate-controlled mortuaries and large, purpose-built cemeteries in the suburbs. The late historian Philippe Ariès called the last couple of hundred years The Age of Forbidden Death, an era when death gradually became ever more distant, spatially confined, and monitored. During the 19th and 20th centuries, Ariès argued, death receded from us not only physically, but psychologically too. Any assumptions that you hold that death is ‘taboo’ likely come from this time period. But is it still true?

When Ariès died in 1984, he had no reason to believe that the Age of Forbidden Death would draw to a close anytime soon. But the worm would turn just the following year, although it wasn’t initially clear that it was wiggling in that direction. In the terminology of Marc Prensky, if you were born before 1985, you’re a ‘digital immigrant’. If you arrived into the world after that year, you’re a ‘digital native’. Ariès died before he ever had the chance to become a digital immigrant; he never had to awkwardly adjust to the new normal. Digital natives capture, store and share digital data as naturally as they breathe, never having known anything else. Given that this state of affairs is relatively new — we have ‘baby Internet’, remarks Marc Saner, the current proprietor of the World Wide Cemetery — perhaps it’s not surprising that few data processors and controllers give any thought to the end point. What happens to all of these data when the people associated with them die?

No virtual carrion beetles traverse the Internet, nibbling away all traces of us after we’ve breathed our last. No guidelines exist for whether and when to cull the data associated with folks who are no longer here, and there is no foolproof way of even identifying who is ‘dead’ and who is ‘alive’ online. No existing laws of succession, data protection laws or contract laws are truly fit to coherently guide us on what to do with digital remains. No professional body trains and registers people to manage digital remains, although this has been mooted as a career of the future. There are only vague terms and conditions, rampant confusion, and bitter disputes over the ownership and management of the data of the deceased — of which there is an increasing amount.

So it is that — courtesy of the digital revolution — we suddenly find ourselves in the middle of a reunion bash for the quick and the dead. Living and deceased folks haven’t mingled in the same places and spaces so much since the 18th century. Needless to say, this is a surprise party that the hosts didn’t realise they were organising and for which they are not well provisioned. Things really got kicking in 2006, when YouTube marked its first anniversary and Twitter and Facebook were born, and when millions of us began, in earnest, to compile digital reflections of ourselves. Those reflections often remain accessible — for at least a time — after our physical bodies shuffle off this mortal coil.

Images of death and tragedy now appear daily in our news feeds. Deceased Facebook friends usually remain on the platform, in ‘Remembering’ form or otherwise, and thanks to profile cloners, there may even be the occasional friend request from a dead person. We receive emails from lost loved ones courtesy of hackers and spammers. No wonder that Danish scholar Michael H. Jacobsen believes the Age of Forbidden Death to be over. With the grim reaper constantly staring us in the face from our phone screens and tablets, he says, it’s the Age of Spectacular Death, in which we can all watch death from a position that is closer and further away at the same time, framed and mediated by our technologies. It is also, I would argue, the Age of Fantastical Immortality.

The Victorians liked memorialising the dead ‘in perpetuity’. The extensive land mass of the United States still allows for each of its citizens to receive their own burial plot should they wish it, and hence the grave reuse practices of Europe are a relatively foreign concept there. Here in the UK, back when the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium was founded, all of the grave plots and columbarium niches were sold ‘in perpetuity’. The current superintendent of that cemetery, Gary Burks, complains that he’s still keeping up graves that the cemetery received a handful of pounds to maintain back in 1902. ‘[Perpetuity] is not particularly good, in business terms,’ Gary says. Permanent memorialisation was so bad for the balance books, in fact, that the London Cemetery Company went bust in the early 1970s, and the laws around disturbing human remains had to change. ‘Perpetuity’ was slashed to 75 years. As the century wore on and the popularity of cremation increased, people didn’t talk about ‘forever’ memorials as much anymore.

But then the digital revolution came along, with its megabytes and then gigabytes and then terabytes of inexpensive storage, its seemingly infinite ‘cloud’, its backups and copies, its potential to retain hundreds and thousands of images, its photographs undimmed by the passage of years. With the digital age it became possible to comprehensively document and even reflect an individual’s life. Not only do we deliberately capture, store and share information across multiple platforms and on multiple devices, but we also fail to switch off the automatic data-capturing settings that lie buried deep in our devices, like the iPhone feature that tracks everywhere you’ve ever been. In the space of just a few years, we’ve moved from no digital trace at all, to digital ‘footprints’, to well-developed digital identities. As artificial intelligence advances, phenomena like the ‘Be Right Back’ episode of Black Mirror may become possible too.

Unsurprisingly, with all of these developments, the discourse of ‘forever’ is back with a vengeance. How often have you heard — or conveyed — the cautionary maxim that ‘online is forever’? Concerned about their future university admissions or their employability, we remind our children: online is forever. Witnessing the downfall of relationships, reputations or political careers due to damning online material, we remind ourselves: online is forever. Somewhere along the line, this seems to have morphed from a just-in-case admonition to an accepted truth.

Occasionally our belief in ‘forever’ is challenged by the loss of important data, but somehow we manage to forget again: the twin sirens of convenience and capacity lure us back, and once again we entrust ‘the cloud’ with our most precious personal and sentimental data. Believing in the relative security of online storage, we shed our material stuff. Folks are casting off the untidy shackles of the paper office and digitising like there’s no tomorrow. Even the most ardent sock-rolling fans of Marie Kondo’s KonMari method may feel concerned about disposing of family photographs, but they find reassurance in their scanner. Our homes may be tidy and our physical possessions more sparse, but online, we’re all extreme hoarders.

Scores of ‘digital legacy’ companies have attempted to capitalise on the idea that online is forever, promising users to safeguard their information and their memories until the end of time. Some outfits, like Eternime, offer to help us ‘live’ on forever as digital avatars. But even sites with eternity worked into their name, like Perpetu, often close up shop a few years shy of ‘forever’. Back in 2011, I watched as designer Stacey Pitsillides presented an animated slide on the life cycle of legacy websites. One by one, at the click of her remote, the full-colour logos of digital-immortality-promising services appeared onscreen along the arrow of her timeline. At another click, the logos of all the enterprises that had since died off faded to grey.

Digital legacy services are designed for the express purposes of memorialisation and preservation, but they are mere minnows next to the gigantic blue whale of a platform that never set out to be a digital cemetery in the first place. Carl Öhman and David Watson of the Oxford Internet Institute recently reported that Facebook could find itself hosting the digital remains of 4.9 billion dead people by the end of the century. This is — needless to say — a social and practical responsibility for which this particular platform was not designed.

Nevertheless, Facebook has gamely accepted responsibility for preserving the data of the deceased. It ceased its delete-after-death policy following the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007, in which over 30 people died, and has memorialised deceased users’ profiles ever since. Facebook recognises that the digital remains on its site are often particularly coherent, vivid, biographical representations of the lost person, and as such remain extremely important to many mourners. The commercial incentives behind profile preservation must exist but are unspoken and likely varied — customer relations, retention of living users who do not wish to lock themselves out of the digital cemetery, and use of deceased users’ data for such purposes as market insights and training new models.

Recently, Facebook announced in a press release that they were ‘Making it Easier to Honor a Loved One on Facebook After They Pass Away’. The new raft of memorialisation features was designed to make the site ‘even more supportive’. I had reservations about some of them. Using AI to detect profiles of deceased users and to stop birthday reminders from those accounts, for example, would only be helpful to those mourners who wanted birthday reminders to cease, unlike one grieving mother I interviewed for my book. The granting of greater editorial powers to legacy contacts would only be favourable if a legacy contact were prepared and equipped to moderate a Facebook profile for years to come.

So here we are, in a position where big tech is telling us what the easiest and best ways are for us to honor our loved ones, a moral and psychological judgement that — one could argue — they are not best placed to make, particularly given the idiosyncrasy of grief. Chris Hughes speaks about how frequently the company in general, and Mark Zuckerberg in specific, makes powerful decisions based on personal values, and this is one such example. A while back I talked to Jed Brubaker, one of the main forces behind memorialisation at Facebook, and I asked him many questions about Facebook’s role in managing deceased users’ data and the needs of the bereaved. ‘The metaphor of the funeral director is not far off, right?’ he said. ‘We don’t ask the bereaved to go and embalm their loved ones. A lot of that complexity [can be] taken away. Call it an example of good design, so that people make choices that meet them where they’re at.’

Who would have predicted that Facebook would come to function, and to see itself, as the funeral director of our online digital remains? But for better or for worse, our encounters with the dead are now framed through the power and the design choices of the big technology companies: Google, Apple, Facebook. If death is the spectacle, big tech is the lens. But for any particular individual’s digital remains, how quickly might that spectacle fade?

I went to the offices of The Observer to be interviewed for a feature in the Sunday newspaper. The photographer, Antonio Olmos, asked about the subject of my book. When I explained, he told me a story about the Digital Railroad. Antonio and many of his colleagues once stored their images on this site, which billed itself as a secure place for professional photographers to back up their precious bodies of work. At 5 p.m. in October 2008, however, an email arrived with an abrupt message. The company had been forced to cease operations, it explained, and Digital Railroad subscribers had 24 hours to download their material. Just 10 hours later, however, the website had closed, leaving many of Antonio’s friends with no apparent recourse to retrieve their images. And in a November 2018 blog post, Flickr announced that it had changed its T&Cs and would shortly begin culling photographs from free accounts, a process that started in February 2019. ‘Storing tens of billions of Flicker members’ photographs is staggeringly expensive,’ Flicker’s blog said.

One of the people I interviewed for my book was Greg King, a filmmaker based in Los Angeles. As someone who works in digital media and who cares about the preservation of his own work, he’s haunted by the possibility of its loss. ‘We’ve gone tapeless now, right, and so everything is filed on cards or drives,’ he said. ‘If you have money and your private studio then there’s mainframe backups and stuff like that. But if you’re the average person, just trucking along and making your stuff and shooting photos, you’re relying on spinning discs and now more solid state stuff. You’re relying on things to preserve that media in a way that’s not built to be long lasting….I’ve had people lose tons of work that they’d worked on because their laptop died and didn’t have it backed up.’

I’m one of those average people, trucking along and making my stuff and shooting photos. You probably are too. My photographs are all on iCloud, behind layers of password protection. Other than what is published in paperback form, and scribbled in a handful of notebooks, most of my writing is digitally stored. Largely because I’m an expatriate, far from my home, I have used Facebook to chart the first eight years of my daughter’s life, and I’m reliant on email and messenger apps to communicate with family. But I’d do well to remember that hardware, software, and coding will inevitably change. Companies will fail. Terms and conditions will alter. And companies will jettison data when they become too expensive to store, making their decisions based on the bottom line. Sometimes I’ll find out in advance and will be able to act. Sometimes I won’t.

Sobered by the extent to which big tech now controls our information, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Internet, has argued for a decentralised Web. Perhaps there is no better illustration of big tech’s control over us than the fact that they often continue governing our information even when we die. There are doubtless well-intentioned people at Facebook, ethical people who want to build better systems for managing the data of the dead. Ultimately, however, anything they develop will still constitute big tech writing the rules, maintaining ultimate control over how — and how long — we and our loved ones will be remembered in the world. Companies like this are not governed by sentiment, philanthropy, or a commitment to preserving the historical records of ordinary people’s lives. At the point where our posthumously persistent data drain the coffers too much, social media will abandon the burgeoning digital cemeteries to ruin and vanishment.

My mother has boxes of family documents, going back many generations: photographs, letters, legal documents and family trees. I store my own information almost exclusively in digital form. Unless I go ‘old school’ and start printing things out into more stable, controllable formats, there’s a good chance that my descendants will know more about my great grandmother than they know about me. There’s a good chance that I’ll lose access to images of and correspondences with deceased friends, unless I download them from the places where they’re currently stored. There’s a good chance that the historians of the future will find it easier to access an ancient Egyptian papyrus scroll than a MySpace account from 2004. There’s a good chance that the amateur genealogists of the future — far from being overwhelmed by surplus data — might be unable to locate any information at all about their 21st century ancestors, finding that it’s in an unreadable format or has been culled from overheating servers.

No, children, online is not forever. Immortality is not possible, and to be fair, leaving something of your life behind is not necessary or required. Nevertheless, it may be something you’d like to do, for the benefit of your loved ones, your descendants, or even history. If that’s the case, be wary of putting all your memory eggs into one digital basket, especially if that basket’s being carried by a big technology company. Even the biggest redwood can fall, chopped down by an axe or gradually rotted from the inside. Imagine that one fine morning, a few years hence, you awake to a notification on your phone. You don’t even have Facebook notifications enabled on your phone, and yet somehow there it is.

Dear Facebook User, the notification reads. For 20 years, we’ve been there as you shared good times and memories with your Facebook friends. But all good things must eventually come to an end. Click here for instructions and a full press release…

But They Said that Online was Forever

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