Multimedia graves and Interactive memory

What happens to your profiles and your data when you kick the bucket. The transformation of memory.

Διάβασε το στα ελληνικά εδώ.

Every morning you wake up, you log on to your favorite social medium: Facebook, Instagram or any other and scroll through the lives of other people.

Huh, this one went to the beach with her dog (heart it), this guy posted a photo of himself with two models in the club (wow, he deserves it), and this third one is revolting through his keyboard (a relish, on it’s own right, share an angry face to assist to the revolution yourself).

Almost every aspect of human behavior parades before your eyes as your scroll between profiles.

Imagine all this “scenery”, like an actual scenery. Much like the famous “Garden of earthly delights” painting by Hieronymus Bosch: Some people do this over here, a little over there someone else is doing something different, like a panorama of (Hieronymus’) Paradise Lost. Of course, some art historians of the 20th century, do not consider the painting to be a panorama, but rather a moral warning, but for the purposes of this article we will leave this aside. Not that it wouldn’t serve any purpose, but for the time being let’s stick to the characterization given by author Peter Beagle that talks of “a place full of the intoxicating air of total freedom”. A garden of free expression and experience, let’s say.

Imagine now something else. That you are strolling around the garden and between the living, now and then you catch a glimpse of the dead as well. Creepy?

Now take a look at the “social” version of the painting (I have kept only the central panel). Maybe you can see some cross signs (+). Please forgive my sacrilegious interference.

The only Given

The only given is that one day (or night, if you are lucky, and leave this world in your sleep) you will die.

What happens then to your data and your social media profiles?

Like Time Herrera that wondered in New York Times (1)Is your digital life ready for your death?”

Here, we are not going to discuss how ensure all your data has been properly erased; there are plenty of tutorials on that. Nor are we going go into detail on the policies of every platform. On the contrary, we are going to mention some details that will allow the examination of the subject from a more, anthropological perspective. Or rather, a humane one, to be more precise. Basically, we will set some…basic questions.

From data thou art, and unto data (storage) shalt thou return

After all, you may very well leave this world, but your data won’t! Companies will still have access to your data long after your death, and only through your own agreement. When did this happen? When you gave your explicit permission, through Facebook’s Data Policy, for example, that you agreed on storing your data “until they are no longer useful to the service and products of Facebook or until the deletion of your profile, whatever comes first”.

As you might have already watched on the Netflix documentary “The Great Hack” how companies “measure” you, using approximately 7500 data points, drawing your unique profile. Tech giants gather everything. From your searches, to your purchases, your surf habits, your check-in’s. Even if you do not have a social media profile, they have made you one (see the shadow Facebook profiles [2]).

All the while your are wondering if you want your earthly body to be burned or buried, to be scattered in the Aegean, or kept in a jar rested at the living room of your family house in the village, your data remain locked in data centers, guarded by iris scanners, ultraviolet cameras and armed guards.

Your data will remain safe, don’t worry. As it goes in eulogies of “real” people “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return”, the same goes to your data: From data thou art, and unto data (storage) shalt thou return.

For you they may signify treasured life moments, but for these corporations they are just data. And they use it to expand, to train algorithms, to optimize the performance of their tools.

For the greater good of the coming generations, of course. (Protection of personal data is a fight we will be called to give; however, it is not the point of this article. It needs to be addressed separately.)

New multimedia graves

They say that a person truly dies, when nobody remembers them any longer.

Will it continue to be this way? For the past 20 years we have been digitizing our lives, making them immortal. How much is this going to affect the people we leave behind? As digital formats become more and more vivid, the memory of the dead becomes… a presence. With so much data available, how is the human memory going to be affected, though the profiles of the dead?

According to a research by the Internet Institute of Oxford University, published on April on Big Data and Society (3) that combined data on the rate of increase of Facebook users, population increase and death rates, in less than 50 years, Facebook will host more profiles of deceased people than alive.

We build graves to remember, and these profiles will take the place of graves. Multimedia graves! Facebook (4) already has Memorialized accounts, accounts in Memoriam. They feature “Remembering” next to your name, and your friends will be able to post anything in your memory. (Don’t worry, the contact you will authorize to handle your account, will not be able to read the messages you exchanged while living). Same goes with Instagram.

Your Google accounts can be deactivated by (maximum 10) people you will give permission to do so (in this case they may even be able to read your messages, if you have previously agreed to). Twitter is much less prepared for such unfortunate events. A member of your family can have your profile deleted if they provide with official proof of death. LinkedIn, Snapchat, and Tumblr have not set specific after death procedures, however, there are steps someone could take after your death.

In general, everything would be made much easier if you timely appoint a person to manage your accounts after your death. Think of it like a kind of death preparation, like leaving a written will.

However, if you chose to delete all your profiles once you die, won’t you deprive your loved ones of a tomb-timeline? Will you not rob them of your memories? Not to mention humanity.

I give “likes” to dead people

Kenny Worden in his excellent article on Medium (5) wonders whether we should delete our profiles when we kick the bucket and notes that we have stepped out of the caves and into the corporations. Cavemen left us their legacy drawn of cave walls. That’s how we can form a picture of what their lives consisted of: dangerous animals, hunting, screams, fire, cold. These circumstances compelled people to come together for their common protection. That is how society was formed.

Like our ancestors, we, today, can leave our legacy behind, our life stories, our timelines. “In death, we should not seek privacy, for privacy shelters the psyche, which in death we no longer possess. Death is nothing to be ashamed of — we have nothing to hide. Instead, following our inevitable doom, we should surrender ourselves completely to afford society a potentially new way forward”.

He also mentions, what we already touched upon, the use of our data by corporations, in order to offer more opportunities, mainly through AI, to the advancement of humanity. But he also talks about the History of Human Beings, of men and women, as an example. And if you stop for a minute and compare the walls of our ancestors to our (social media) walls, maybe you will come to the conclusion that not much has changed.

Only the medium and the reach of our stories.

Is interactive memory coming next?

Cavemen existed long before my time, but I had the chance to watch how the experience of stories, of storytelling, and, thus, memory, has changed over time. In short: from mere remembrance, from oral tradition, to the creation of objects, to writing, to painting (and imaging), then to photography, to the movies, video… and then?

Juan Gabriel Vasquez tells in his novel “Reputations” (2013) about “a native tribe in Paraguay (or Bolivia), the past is something that is in front of us, because we can see it, something we know about. Whereas, the future is located behind us: something unseen, and unknown.”

After everything said, will memory remain a one-sided projection of the past? I don’t know about you, but I cannot even bring myself to see old pictures of me. Even worse if they are of people I loved and now they’re gone. They scratch open a wound that oozes loss. For my kid, though, grown up with the Internet, so much accustomed to photographs, videos, recordings, uploads, and their digital interactions, that maybe, something like that, will not be as painful.

As for my grandchild, if I do not erase my online presence after death, maybe s/he will be able to interact with my dead profile.

Like the Queen said to Alice (6):

“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards”

  • (1) Tim Herrera, Is Your Digital Life Ready for Your Death?,
  • (2) Hard Questions: What Data Does Facebook Collect When I’m Not Using Facebook, and Why?,
  • (3) Rachel E. Greenspan, On Facebook, the Dead Will Eventually Outnumber the Living. What Does That Mean for Our Histories?,
  • (4) What will happen to my Facebook account if I pass away? –
  • (5) Kenny Worden, What happens to your data when you die,
  • (6) Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll

One thought on “Multimedia graves and Interactive memory”

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