Who Wants to Live Forever?

by Debra Bassett

“I mean, they say you die twice.  One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time”  Banksy.

The ubiquitous nature of hardware technology such as smart phones ensures social networking sites have become part of our everyday norms and routines.  However, whilst some use social networks to inform people of the important – and not so important – events in their lives, others are using communication technologies to deal with issues surrounding death dying and grieving.  The opportunity to “live on” and the ability to create digital memories, which can be left behind for future generations, may be compelling to some: but what about those left behind? How will people use these technologies, and crucially will they help or hinder the bereavement process?

Those who have made the difficult decision to delete the telephone number of a deceased friend or relative from their mobile telephone know only too well the conscious thought process involved in doing this.  So what about the decision making process involved with switching off a person’s digital life support machine? Or, importantly, making the decision not to “interact” with the social media platforms of the dead? My research with the University of Warwick seeks to explore these issues.

In my 2015 paper “Who Wants to Live Forever? – Living, Dying and Grieving in Our Digital Society” I introduce the term “digital zombies” to describe the resurrected dead who remain “alive” and “active” in our digital society. Four years after he died, Bob Monkhouse appeared in an advertisement to raise awareness for prostate cancer. Through the wonders of technology, he was digitally resurrected; allowing him to appear at his own graveside and discuss his own death. This type of resurrection is nothing new to the rich and famous, for example celebrities such as Fred Astaire, Steve McQueen and Tupac have all been digitally resurrected. However, the ability to “become immortal” is now on offer to non-celebrities and companies such as Eternime and LifeNaut are using artificial intelligence algorithms to create avatars which, they claim be will be a virtual interactive “you”.  This technology is available today and the exponential growth of big data ensures this human-computer interaction will increase as more services providers join the market. Dead Social the UK based organisation offers an ‘end user’ planning tool, it works alongside hospices, charities and healthcare workers in an attempt to empower those facing end of life decisions, by enabling the creation and future delivery of messages to lose left behind.  The website also offers practical advice regarding digital legacy issues.

Here, I think it is important to differentiate between the creation of ‘digital data’: passwords, account information, digital assets and digital property and the creation of ‘digital selves’: personal videos, messages, photographs and even the creation of avatars. In my paper I suggest “digital legacy” should be used for digital data and “digital memories” for the digital selves. These two categories are very distinct and therefore should be treated and understood in different ways. Because these two concepts are often blended together by service providers it can appear confusing to the users, I suggest clarity is needed.

My interest lies with the creation of digital memory boxes and how we can assist in designing these boxes in a positive and ethical way.  Here, I am talking about a physical box, rather like a music box, which could be customised to individually represent the person, this idea is a progression of the idea of a ‘Story Shell’ which is created by the living, following the death of a loved one.  However, I think the creation of digital memory boxes could be an important and empowering ‘work in progress’ for the creator and I envisage the contents of these boxes would be curated and added to throughout people’s lives. They may prove a useful tool to those with the early onset of Alzheimer’s, who may wish to fill their digital memory boxes with memories of the past and hopes for the future before their memories are locked away and lost forever.

For me the crucial point to these boxes is that these memories are kept in a special place outside of the daily digital lives of the bereaved – not on a platform on their laptops, phones or tablets – thereby ensuring they do not ‘pop up’ unexpectedly. Those who inherit the box would then be able make a conscious decision when, and how frequently, to open the box and the memories within, rather than having these digital memories on the devices they use in their daily lives. The need to be remembered is a powerful desire for some, because ultimately you only have one chance to make a good last impression!

Debra Bassett is a PhD Candidate at the University of Warwick. Her research interests lie in whether thanatechnology will affect the process of bereavement.  During the research she will expand on her ideas of digital zombies and the creation of physical memory boxes.


Categories: Rethinking The World

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