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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Digital Ghosts: What happens to your digital history when you die?

If Facebook is forever, what happens after we die? This question has haunted my over-caffeinated brain since I was in elementary school. We were driving back from L.A. and my miniature self was sprawled across the back seat amidst a sea of empty Cheetos bags, Hit Clips cassettes and faded bedding. Drifting in and out of consciousness on the long drive home, I remember listening to a program on the radio about a man who’d recently died and what would become of his digital history.  Even though it was a long time ago, I remember lying down in the back seat and staring up at the stars through the rolled-up window. The program kind of scared me as well as the dark thoughts it asked me to think about: namely, death and the not knowing what comes after it.

I’m a little older now – or a lot older, depending on whether you’re a pessimist or an optimist – but I still think back to that radio program sometimes, especially when my mind wanders into the sensitive, yet endearing territory of contemplating my own and others’ mortality. It’s a beautiful thing, really, coming to terms with the fact that you can die at any moment and the possibility that it will be sudden, unexpected, slow or maybe even painful. Usually, it’s not something we like to spend time with in a social or public context, the whole reality of dying thing. But I wish talking about death could become more normalized in our society, to the extent that it will no longer be something to fear or feel anxiety toward, but rather something to inspire us like the mysteries of deep space. In fact, the crème de la crème of the hipster tech elite over at Facebook have recently released a new feature, one you may have heard of, called a “legacy contact.” In a nutshell, a legacy contact is the person who you want to take over admin control of your profile when you croak. If that’s not creepy enough for you, it gets better. What about the other aspects of the feature, like age requirement, being memorialized and how the contact can change/edit your profile photo? Like, what if it’s an ex-partner, or someone hacks into your account, designates themselves as your legacy contact without your knowing, then straight up has you killed only to completely defile and bash your reputation once you’re dead??? Phew. Good one, Facebook.

This brings me back to the purpose of mentioning the radio program and the crux of my argument: the technology we use to live our lives has redefined what it means to die. As a result, technology also transforms what it means to live because, let’s face it, dying in 2015 doesn’t look the same as dying in our parents’ generation. From the moment we activate our accounts across our varied platforms to the moment our feed literally stops refreshing, our digital selves are eternally preserved in the collective consciousness. I cringe a little at the thought of all the tens of thousands of terabytes of ghost data – images, blogs, emails, the transcripts of late-night conversations with strangers in chat rooms – where do all those files go? Would Dante deem it necessary to designate a tenth circle of suffering for those of us condemned to a life of eternal sorting, archiving and deleting? Can you even erase a person’s digital history? I’m dying to know.

After all, what is more permanent than the experience of death itself?

Whitney Davis enjoys bad puns and oscillating between positive and negative poles. Drop her a line at wmdavis@ucdavis.edu

Graphic by Jennifer Wu.

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