Things to do in cyberspace when you are dead...

2011-02-19 14:51

Suppose that after reading this ­article, you drop dead.

Perhaps you are ready for such an eventuality – you’ve prepared a will and made arrangements for your worldly goods.

But what about your digital assets? Suppose you tweeted about this article or uploaded a few snapshots to Flickr before logging off from this mortal coil.

It’s now taken for granted that the things we do online are reflections of who we are or announcements of who we wish to be.

So what happens to this version of you that you’ve built with bytes? Who will have access to which parts, and for how long?

Not many people have given serious thought to these questions.

Maybe that’s partly because what we do online still feels somehow novel and ephemeral.

Or maybe it’s because pondering mortality is simply a downer.

By and large, the major companies that enable our web-articulated selves have vague policies about the fate of our digital afterlives, or no policies at all.

For most of us, the fate of tweets and status updates is trivial. But increasingly, we’re collectively producing fresh masses of life-affirming digital stuff – 5 billion images, and counting, on Flickr; hundreds of thousands of YouTube videos uploaded every day; oceans of content from 20 million bloggers; and 500 million Facebook members. We pile up digital possessions and expressions, and have become like virtual hoarders.

On October 18 2009, Mac Tonnies updated his blog, sent out some public tweets and private messages via Twitter, went to bed and died of cardiac arrhythmia. His death came as a shock even to those who knew him well.

He was 34.

Tonnies lived in Kansas City in the US. He was single, childless and paid his bills through work-a-day jobs.

He was also a writer with an adventurous intellect.

Tonnies, who started his blog, Posthuman Blues, in 2003, was an extremely active user of online media and forged many friendships with people he never met in the physical world.

Rita J King, an expert on online identity who is an “innovator in residence” for IBM, was introduced to Tonnies via email in 2004.

 “He is the one I had all my conversations with, early on, about technology and consciousness,” she says.

The last entry on Posthuman Blues was titled Tritptych (No.) 15, a set of three images with no text.

The first comment to this post came from an anonymous reader, wondering why Tonnies hadn’t updated the blog or tweeted for two days.

Some similar comments followed, and then this: “Mac Tonnies passed away earlier in the week.

Our condolences are with his family and friends in this time of grief.”

The author of that comment was anonymous. Soon that post’s comment section transformed into a mix of tributes, grieving and commiseration.

“It was a very strange feeling,” Dana Tonnies, Mac’s mother, told me. “I had no control over what was being said about him, almost immediately.”

Dana and Bob Tonnies were close to their only son, but they had little contact with his digital self.

The Tonnies did not read blogs. In fact, they didn’t own a computer.

In the months after their son’s death, Dana and Bob went about the difficult business of organising his papers and deciding which of his belongings to keep or to give to his friends.

They also inherited their son’s computer and have since learned how to navigate it and the internet. But by then, their son’s online circle had already taken action.

Mark Plattner, who lives in St Louis and met Tonnies a dozen years ago through the comments section of another blog, decided that Posthuman Blues needed to survive.

In all, Plattner has about 10 gigabytes of material, offering a sense of Tonnies’ “personality and who he was”.

This outpouring of digital grief, memorial-making and documentation is unusual because of the kind of person Tonnies was and the kinds of friends he made online.

But maybe, IBM’s King suggests, his story is also a kind of early signal of one way that digital afterlives may play out.

The most remarkable set of connections to emerge from Tonnies’ digital afterlife isn’t among his online friends; it is between those friends and his parents.

Dana is currently going through Posthuman Blues, in order, from the beginning. “I still have a year to go,” she says.

I ask her if what she is reading seems like a different, or specifically narrow, version of her son.

“Oh, no, it’s him,” she says. “I can hear him when I read it.”

For most survivors, coping with the physical possessions and conventional assets of the departed can be overwhelming enough, but at least there are parameters and precedents.

Byte-based personal effects are different. Survivors may not be aware of the deceased’s full digital hoard, or they may not have the passwords to access the caches they do know about.

When you inherit a physical scrapbook or even a diary, some choices have already been made. But accessing and then assessing the digital effects of a dead loved one entails a thicket of choices and challenges.

This has inspired a variety of entrepreneurs to place bets that, eventually, people will want control over the afterlife of their digital selves.

Several promise to manage the details of your digital death – storing your passwords and your wishes for who gets access to what.

Legacy Locker claims “about 10 000” people have signed up for its digital estate management service.

Its rivals include DataInherit, a service of DSwiss, “the Swiss bank for information assets”, and Entrustet.

The founders of Entrustet are surprisingly young. Jesse Davis, who is 23, was still a student when he wrote the original business plan in 2008.

Justin Ellsworth, a Marine killed in Iraq in 2004, did not leave behind the password to his Yahoo email account, and when the company refused to give his parents access to it, they sued.

Ellsworth’s story convinced Davis and his business partner, Nathan Lustig (25), that there was a market for “digital estate planning” services.

Entrustet offers an “account incinerator” to obliterate content its users would prefer not to have linger on after them.

If we try to control the way we are perceived in life, why not in death?

Stacey Pitsillides has been researching digital afterlife issues for a few years. “We just see it as this infinity,” but it isn’t.

“There are certain costs, financial costs, physical and social costs, to keeping this amount of data.

One of the social costs is that we kind of lose the ability to begin to choose and arrange what we want to say about ourselves, and instead get lost in this wash of information.”

Richard Banks, an interaction designer for Microsoft Research in Cambridge, England, has made some “technology heirloom” prototypes that collect, say, tweets or Flickr pictures in new physical devices that would automatically organise them for heirs. claims to convert the personal data you provide into an avatar.

“We want to give users the gift of immortality,” an Intellitar founder has said.

The last of Tonnies’ friends to whom I spoke was Paul Kimball, a filmmaker who lives in Nova Scotia.

He met Tonnies online about a decade ago.

They corresponded for six years before meeting in person.

The very title of Tonnies’ Posthuman Blues blog, Kimball points out, hints at ambivalence about these subjects.

The fact that the blog persists, in public, is what makes it distinct from, say, a journal Kimball owns that belonged to his grandfather and that has been read by perhaps 20 people.

The day before we spoke, Kimball says, he had linked to an old Posthuman Blues post on his Facebook page, seeking reactions from his own online circle.

“So I’m still having this conversation” with Tonnies, he told me, “even though he’s been dead for more than a year”.

Fittingly perhaps, Tonnies gets the last word. “I like to think of death as a glorified terminal illness,” Tonnies said.

“If we can escape the boundaries of death, maybe we’ll be okay.” – The New York Times Syndicate

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