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Computer scientists grapple with how to manage the digital legacy of the departed

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In April, Google added to its services an Inactive Account Manager, which lets you designate an heir who will control your Google data when you die. You choose a length of inactivity, and if your accounts are ever quiet for that long, Google will notify your heirs that they’ve inherited access to your Gmail correspondence, YouTube videos or Picasa photo albums — whatever you specify.

It’s about time that Internet giants get in front of the privacy issue and offer users options for dealing with a digital legacy. After all, we live in an age where an increasing number of people make and share materials that live only in the digital world — nearly 50 percent of adult Internet users, for example, post homemade photos or videos online. A number of services can help with digital estate planning by designating password recipients or deleting accounts or files when you die. But communication and privacy laws have yet to catch up with technology. While Facebook made it possible for family members to convert the page of a loved one into a memorial a few years ago, the company has faced multiple lawsuits from family members who wanted deeper access to their kids’ Facebook accounts after a sudden death.

Clearly it’s important for people to consider who will have access and control over their digital data when the time comes. But this focus on privacy and access ignores the emotional significance of a loved one’s digital legacy.

“Right now the contemporary discussion is privacy and utility,” says Will Odom of the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “It’s not about how digital materials will be represented in any meaningful way.”

Think about how we interact with material heirlooms, items that are often deeply symbolic and sentimental. Your great-grandfather’s watch, an old photo album or stack of letters might be kept in special box on a high shelf or tucked in a particular drawer. We safeguard these items not just to remember the individual, but so future generations will know and remember too. And when the living ache to connect to the dead, it’s often in a ritualized setting: Letters might be read in a favorite chair with a glass of wine and a box of tissues. Photo albums are pulled out during holidays. We keep our relationships with lost loved ones alive by keeping their things.

Digital possessions — be they e-mails, texts, photos or tweets — are fundamentally different than tangible goods, says Odom, who has been investigating bereavement in the digital age. This makes digital materials particularly challenging to deal with after death. For one thing, there’s a matter of scale. Your house or apartment can contain only so many objects. People continuously get rid of tangible things as they acquire new ones, keeping only what’s important. But digital objects are spaceless. You don’t have to purge even if your inbox is bloated with thousands of unread e-mails. So it’s easy to end up with orders of magnitude more digital things than tangible ones. Digital objects are also oddly removed from view. While you can discern with a glance that the stacks of ancient National Geographic magazines in your parent’s attic are indeed stacks of ancient National Geographic magazines, you can’t tell what’s on a laptop and whether you want to keep that content just by looking at the laptop. This makes it especially difficult to make decisions about digital heirlooms.

“People end up in a weird holding pattern of keeping a phone or a desktop computer,” Odom says. “They want to keep it, but they are too overwhelmed to go into it.”

Recent studies by Odom and colleagues suggest that there may be something fundamental and ancient about how we interact with items left behind by the dead. While there currently aren’t easy ways to curate digital heirlooms, people sure do try. Many of the people the researchers interviewed were enacting similar rituals with digital objects that people use with material ones. One woman had 25 or so cherished text messages from her dead husband. She kept the SIM card and old phone in an ornate box and would take them out and read them from time to time. A woman from England buried her husband with his cell phone and kept sending him texts after he died.

Odom and his colleagues conclude that bereavement in the digital age might be easier if we had devices that allowed us to interact with digital objects in the same ways humans have interacted with heirlooms through the ages. As one woman who didn’t like the idea of storing special digital photos on a CD remarked: “They deserve better than that.”

Based on comments like that one, the researchers have designed three devices that display a deceased person’s photos, tweets and other digital heirlooms on screens embedded in oak veneer boxes. In tests, families said that they would want to keep the devices alongside their cherished physical heirlooms. As one mother put it: “Seeing it age with them — the things we’ll always have — it feels right.”

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