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Digital death wishes

Breaking taboos in Bristol: Death and digital legacy

Today we generate masses of information about ourselves on a daily basis, creating a second ‘life’ online, and while many of us want to make our mark on the planet, does this include a huge online headstone? Paul Wiseall discusses digital immortality

Regardless of background or bank balance, we all have two things in common: we are all going to die one day and we all have a digital footprint. And it’s this digital footprint that means we also have the opportunity to ‘live’ forever in a state of digital immortality.

In recent years the way we face death has changed. If you died 30 years ago, chances are you wouldn’t leave much behind except for a few photographs but today we generate masses of information about ourselves every single day and this information is creating a second ‘life’ online. This second life is a virtual you that you add to whenever you upload photos, leave comments on Facebook or even use Google Maps to find a destination. It knows what you look like over time as you update profile photos and it knows the words you use when you’re happy, angry or sad. And virtual you will outlive the physical you, representing your memory for eternity like a massive online headstone passing on your unique story. In some ways this is exciting and it means you don’t need to be famous to be remembered or to leave your mark on this planet. But what happens to all your online accounts and data after you die?

We call this ‘digital death’ – and it’s all about what you want to happen to your virtual life, so it can concern the deletion of your accounts but it can also mean the general curation of your online story too.

The problem is, us humans don’t like to think about death at the best of times so digital death is certainly something we try to ignore, which is creating all kinds of problems. For example, many of us may have encountered certain situations involving notifications from Facebook suggesting that we wish a friend happy birthday even though that friend is no longer with us.

…You can’t put that Bitcoin password into a will because wills eventually become public documents…

The dark side of digital assets

It goes further though, as online accounts can get forgotten, get hacked and get deleted even when you don’t want them to be. Twitter recently caused uproar when they announced they would soon start deleting accounts that they considered dormant as a way to free up new usernames. The problem with this is it risks losing lifetimes of tweets from people who have died and which many of us revisit to keep alive the voices of those we’ve lost.

Digital death isn’t just about your online accounts, as it also concerns all of your virtual assets which can range from photos to web domains to money. Why does this present a problem? Today our digital assets are becoming highly valuable. One example is the millions of pounds some are investing in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, which is a digital-only form of cash. How do you give this ‘money’ to your next of kin? It seems simple just to give them the password to the cryptocurrency account but here’s the issue: we don’t know how to safely and legally pass digital assets to our next of kin after we die. This means that you can’t put that Bitcoin password into a will because wills eventually become public documents and so it’s not a secure place for that sensitive information to be.

Digital death wishes

The more you start to think about this problem of digital death the more questions appear, such as who owns your data after you die? And what’s protecting your data afterwards?

While we’re alive there are data protection laws like GDPR that ensure our most private data stays private but once we’re gone, these data protection laws don’t typically apply. It’s terrifying to think the dead have no data privacy rights and even more so when you consider what this means beyond your social media data. What could this mean to your financial or medical data?

Break the taboo, be part of the conversation

All these potential problems can cause worry but the good news is that there are companies out there that are working to solve these issues. There are also three easy things you can do to take control of your digital legacy and ensure you’re accurately remembered for eternity…

  1. Give yourself a Google. Find out what’s out there about yourself and see what your descendants will see by simply typing your name into a search engine.
  2. Make a plan. Whether you want your accounts nicely curated or quickly deleted, you need to map out what should happen for each account.
  3. Have a chat. When it comes to dealing with death the best thing you can do is to let someone know your wishes so grab a copy of your plan and take a friend for coffee.

It’s exciting to know that we all have the opportunity to ‘live’ forever but it’s important to know that in 200 years, when your descendants look back at who you were, they see a true representation of you.

• Paul Wiseall is the UK managing director of Death.io, a Bristol-based start-up working to solve the problem of digital death and other end-of-life issues; visit death.io for more information