Do you want to live forever? Well now you can… in the digital afterlife

13th Nov 2012

The effect of the digital space, on our perception of death and our own mortality has been profound. The line between life and death has been become blurred, more than ever before.

From time immemorial, men and women have sought incessantly but unsuccessfully, to extend their lives beyond their brief allotted time on our mortal coil. Many of us are compelled to act in certain ways or create memorable things, in order that we will be remembered. Many of us will have children – a major driving force of this being the compulsion to create something that will last, after we have gone. But in the digital world it has become easier for more people, to have an after life presence – sometimes this is created deliberately but it also sometimes happens by accident.
Many years ago , in the months after my father died suddenly, I was able to call his mobile number and hear his recorded voice on the voicemail message. This was very comforting in some ways but quite strange in others. Here was the recently recorded voice of a loved one, requesting for a message to be left, but which could not possibly be answered.
More recently a colleague was tragically killed in a road accident, but his digital presence has lived on  – on LinkedIn and Facebook. Other examples of accidental digital presence after death, have occurred when deceased people’s email accounts have been hacked and then spam sent out to those who knew them, with predictably distressing results.
But, increasingly we are looking to deliberately extend our lives, beyond their natural course, in the digital world. The question is becoming – what happens to our digital selves, and how can we affect this? Some of us will have (fairly?) accurate representations on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter. Many will have created fictitious characters. In any case, where do they all go, when we cease to exist in the material world?
A range of companies have been set-up to deal with this conundrum.  Broadly there are two approaches – there are those who manage the winding down of a person’s digital footprint – to achieve a type of digital probate. Sites such as  provide free advice on how to manage,close or transfer the on line accounts of deceased relatives. Planned Departure allows for the central saving and delivery of digital assets to selected loves ones, or even people you didn’t like, in the event of your death.
But closing everything down in this fashion seems so very ‘final’. So of course is death ; but here we have a chance to affect things in the digital world – do we not?
Increasingly other channels are being used in a more radical way – actually extending and developing a person’s online personality, despite the absence of their living form. A good example of this are companies who help create an avatar that can ‘live’ online or in social gaming platforms, after we are gone – this is also called ‘mind uploading’. For those who believe it, there is a quasi-spiritual aspect here that suggests a person’s ‘life essence’ can be extended by combining or merging with technology – literally the Ghost in the Machine.
Facebook pages for deceased people, managed as a kind of living digital shrine are in abundance and make perfect sense. Here is a place where people can post thoughts and share memories with friends and family.  A digital version, of the old practice of writing a letter to someone who has passed on, in order to record and resolve any outstanding emotional issues . This is especially valuable when someone dies suddenly and important areas are left unresolved.
Writing a post on this topic has been in my mind for a while, but hearing the last episode of the very excellent Digital Human series – ‘The Last Word’ (on the 12th November) prompted me to coalesce my thoughts and write this post.
The Last Word questions the essence of existence. What is life? Is it physical , mental , spiritual or a combination of all three ?
In the episode, Cory Doctorow (@corydoctorow) talks about the wealth and breadth of information that we leave behind online. This is much more complicated than a diary, notebook, or photo album. This digital record could include detailed web usage, a geographical record of where one has been (recorded via a mobile device) along with a range of complex and connected social media interactions.
I love the end line from the The Last Word, that celebrates the concept of digital memorials, such as those on Facebook – ‘although they are no longer creating anything, we can still continue their stories online’