Welcome to digital death

‘Since it’s creation in the late 1960s, the internet, has been a wealth of easily accessible information on any topic, a useful tool. However in recent years, it’s status as a ‘tool’ for knowledge extraction has been far surpassed. The internet has become an engaging space where people choose to spend time; socializing, buying, selling and living. The movement of the internet from informational navigation tool to a community marks a new form of social phenomenon.’


Although describing the internet as a ‘community’ is certainly not groundbreaking, this word, this ‘community,’ was my spark and continues to be central to my research into virtuality. I observe, firstly my own immersion in the digital world, with the hope of extrapolating some of 'the complex interrelations between a person's personal computer and their digital self.’


This blog will hopefully give you an insight into my head and how I have become fascinated by the socio-virtual space, divulging into areas of the digital world, I have termed:


Digital Death, Digital Afterlife and Digital Heritage.

Monday, 23 November 2009

A diagram looking at time in relation to digital information.

MyLifeBits meets Harry Potter - Our digital memories will remain forever!

Recently I have been looking at the multitude of implications when storing ones memory in a digital format. I have chosen to include the image of Dumbledore storing his own memories in an external pool (pensive) because I think there is an interesting parallel to be made. It always amazes me how something like the idea of a pensive, so grounded in fiction and magic can now, not only be a possibility but a reality! One can now store their memories in an external pool (computer) and even invite other people to share in some of their experiences. These 'bits' of memories, stored in their 'pools,' are shielded from the danger of natural decay in the physical world (and the human condition of forgetting.)



Microsoft's 'MyLifeBits' is probably the most complete example of a life recorded online.

" Gordon Bell has captured a lifetime's worth of articles, books, cards, CDs, letters, memos, papers, photos, pictures, presentations, home movies, videotaped lectures, and voice recordings... [in his digital pool]. He is now paperless, and is beginning to capture phone calls, IM transcripts, television, and radio. "

(http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/projects/mylifebits/)

However my question, as always, is what is to be done with all this information once we have spent our lives accumulating it. How do we begin to edit down a lifetime's worth of information, making it relevant to both our loved ones and society? I begin to question, is this frantic gathering and saving of information a reflection on our culture's in-ability to deal with loss and mortality? Is 'digital memory,' simply a modern search for the fabled philosopher's stone (immortality) and if our information does get passed down as 'digital remains' then have we in some way achieved this goal? Nowadays we tend to keep information simply for the sake of keeping it (because we can) or because we are afraid of losing something we might need? I question whether this really is a good enough reason for it's existence?

Monday, 16 November 2009

The EXbox - a place of rest for that special someone!

The image below shows a snapshot of a persons life. This person is a friend of mine. This friend, like most people, has been through a break-up. The couple in question no longer see or talk to each other.


Fig1: Placing the disk into a safe, out of sight, out of mind

They are both trying to move on but the digital world persists. Hidden among the countless documents, movies, music and other digital data are memory triggers. On this particular day it was too much, so this friend called and presented me with her problem:

"Whenever I look on my computer I can't help but stumble upon pictures of my ex, I don't want to get rid of them but I just can't look at them anymore."

Which immediately led me to see a simple solution. I told her to delete all the images of her ex from her computer and put them instead on a disk and put the disk somewhere safe and out of sight.



Through this simple example I have begun to see the impact of having a chaotic but perfect digital memory. It has made me see the data within my computer as complex 'bits' of information which inevitably link me to the memories, events and documents of my life.

This is a simple example, as it is something that most people can relate to (losing a relationship). However the example becomes much more complex when one considers how to deal with the information of someone who has died. When losing a loved one you may not want to 'put them away in a box.' I have begun to think about potential, physical and digital, resting places which would allow you the space to grieve but also the opportunity to (in time) celebrate a loved ones information (memories).

Perfection is not Human - Allow me to Forget!

Lately I have been thinking a lot about digital sharing, what does it mean to 'share' a piece of yourself with a collective and for there to be a perfect record of each of these 'sharings'. How has this record changed the way people interact, argue, get even and even proclaim love.

By leaving behind our 'flawed' and very 'human' memory, I have begun to wonder if in the quest for immortality (of information) we are eroding our power to forget. Forgetting is something which has, throughout time, protected us both from an overload of information and our own past.

Before digital memory, if you had an argument with a friend; they would have their side, you would have your side. Eventually the fight would be forgotten. There was no proof as to who was right and who was wrong.



However if you have an argument with a friend on Skype, your words have a real chance of 'coming back' to haunt you. Your friend can now come back to you three weeks, three months or even three years later with your exact words. They can even have shown these words to various third parties and have received comments and opinions.

The appearance of this document, this non-temporal bit of evidence, means that we can no longer be spontaneous or flippant with our wording. Each word uttered in the digital realm has consequences, not just for today but forever.

"Forgetting plays a central role in human decision-making. It lets us act in time, cognizant of but not shackled by, past events. Through perfect memory we may lose a fundamental human capacity - to live and act firmly in the present"

Delete - The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age
Vicktor Mayer-Schonberger (2009)

As we inevitably live more of lives digitally and have access (digitally) to a perfect memory of both our own and other people histories. As time (and our lives) move on, there will undoubtedly be an accumulation of digital paraphernalia that we may wish to forget.

Perhaps as a designer I should begin to think about how I could program temporarily, or even decay, into digital information.

Below is an initial thought model which would allow information, which was not being regularly, used to be stored in a repository (hard disk). Information within this repository would begin to decay if not used for long periods of time. This would force the user to engage with the information they wanted to keep and not store things simply for fear of losing them. It would also mean that all information on the desktop was information that was regularly used or looked at.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

I have been asked kill your computer.

When a person dies, what happens to their personal computer?

A conversation with a Funeral Director led me to think about this in more detail, the funeral director told me the story of a man who knew he was going to die and had begun to make arrangements for his funeral. One of the things he was most adamant about was the destruction of his computer (hard disk.) He said there was information on there that could potentially hurt his family and friend and therefore he wanted it gone.


This led me to question of there parts of a hard disk that one would ant to 'die' with them and if in opposition the example they were unaware of their death who would take on the burden of this 'killing'?

If a person were to ask us to end the life of their information at the same time as they themselves ended, how would we go about it..? What would be the most appropriate ritual for the destruction of information? Is there something spiritual and personal about using a sword? Would using a syringe be considered more legal, as it is considered to be sterile and medicinal? What roles do you begin to take up when you use these objects and how would it leave you feeling, to be responsible for 'killing' someone's information?


I also wanted to think about the life span and mortality of a person's personal computer, I wanted to engage with the fact that within the digital world we find it so hard to get rid of (or lose) information. We are all digital hoarders, to an extent, and we can be as there appears to be an endless amount of space to store stuff. In the physical world it is both expensive and uncomfortable to never throw out a possession, so one has to select items carefully and only keep what is really important. However in the digital world, we are always finding new ways of 'saving' and 'retrieving' information. We do not spend enough time considering why we actually need this amount of information. As human beings having a 'perfect memory' is unnatural, therefore perhaps we could consider the loss of digital information to be a natural 'culling'.

How could a designer begin to create structures which would force people to lose digital information that was no longer important to them?

Digital Assets - Perperation for my Digital Self.

A very small number of companies are starting to emerge offering services which consider the safety of a person’s ‘digital assets.’ Mostly, these companies have been designed with the tag-line ‘safety deposit.’ They focus on the storage of one’s digital self and transfer of one’s digital estate to next of kin once you have passed on.



‘Legacy Locker’ is one such fledgling company who states “most of the websites we all use on a regular basis have little-to-no provisions in place for a loved one to transfer account information in a time of need. In some cases you might even need to get a lawyer involved just to access an email inbox. Your digital legacy needs protection, and we've built Legacy Locker to help solve these problems.”

Vitallock is another such company, still in its alpha phase; it is expected to be launched in spring 2009. They promise their service to be the “Swiss Bank Escrow of Digital Assets”. It is stated within a video on the website that “this is just a logical extension of the economic times, the relevant issues that have come out of…us moving towards a knowledge economy.”

DeathSwitch.com claims to be “bridging mortality”. This company works through a ‘death switch’ system. “A death switch is an automated system that prompts you for your password on a regular schedule to make sure you are alive.” If you do not respond after a number of repeated attempts then a predetermined set of actions is undertaken on your behalf, e.g. to inform a member of the family of your death, and about your the transfer of your digital assets.

Afterlife.org, contrasting with highly commercial companies such as ‘Vitallock’ and ‘Legacy Locker’, is concerned with digital heritage. It is a “not-for-profit organization whose mission is to archive Web sites after their authors die and can no longer support them.” The site is run on purely voluntary basis and is “currently being developed so there is very little information at this site. As volunteers help to build AfterLife.org, the Web site will progress in content and design.”

The emergence of these companies highlights the beginnings of awareness, towards the issue of digital death and indeed towards the need to ‘take care’ of ones digital assets.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

The Iceburg of My Digital Self




Second Life Impersonators



Are there impersonators in Second Life? I have yet to come across any impersonators in Second Life, which i strange as in Second Life you are free to look as you choose...

How would people react to seeing an avatar which resembled a public figure in Second Life...? Why is it ok to impersonate someone like Elvis but somehow wrong to do the same for Princess Diana, could this avatar be considered a tribute or is it just disrespectful?

Public Grief: How have things changed?



The death of Princess Diana was one of my first memories of someone very famous dying. If i'm honest I will admit to remembering more about her death, then her life itself.

Many people refer to Diana's death as being a day that will remain in the 'memory of the British public forever.'

In England grief is generally a private emotion, experienced only within a close network of friends and family who knew the person. Diana was a public figure, 'the people's princess,' this made people feel like they could share in this loss and publicly express the grief they felt. Through this shared emotion a bond was created within the British public, for a couple of days millions of people shared an experience and felt like they had a right 'to grieve'.

"Many people across the country brought [flowers] and placed them along with very personal messages written on attached cards ... A single flower with a message ... read 'Beautiful Lady, Rest in Peace, With Love, Sam (A homeless friend.)' "

The Mourning for Diana (edited by Tony Walter) 1999

Through this example we see how a huge majority of people engaged in communal grief. Public grief is a “way of rebuilding community,” through grief we feel a connection to each other and associate with each other in an emotional way.

After studying the topic of Digital Death, for around a year, the death of Michael Jackson took me by surprise. It was another example of public grief but this time flowers were not the main feature. The death Michael Jackson marked a landmark in digital culture because so much of the public grieving, remembrance and memorialization took place in a digital environment. Many people even discovered the news of his death through online sources and the reaction of the digital community was immense.

Even in somewhere as niche as my own network of Facebook friends around 70 percent of friends commented on his passing, many lamenting this loss in some way, either by donating their status as a tribute e.g. "RIP King of Pop" or perhaps by tagging their favorite song on You Tube. The internet allowed for this connection to spread quickly and visually and Michael Jackson will not only remain in the memory of the public but in their processors and networks.

The presence of the internet meant that any person could quickly and cheaply announce to the world, that they too, were sad that he is gone and that collaborative grieving was no longer focused within a specific community or even a specific nation, now people from all over the world have the opportunity to group together and feel that moment of connection (togetherness.)

Thursday, 5 November 2009

An external collection of good and bad memories...



We are constantly remodeling our conceived futures,
ever get the feeling your being manipulated by your past?

Segmentation of a Digital Identity...



An experiment was undertook in which four elements of a person's digital self (a random selection of facebook photos, their avatar, their inbox and their desktop) were segmented and given to four separate groups to analyze and discover all they could about who "this person is..."

The resulted yielded were interesting:

Those with the facebook photos 'discovered' that this person is a young, female (possibly Goldsmiths student) who is full time, as she attends a lot of parties. She is possibly a design student as she attended the Design Xmas Ball at the Rivoli Ballroom. She is trendy and likes East London as she is wearing Tatty Divine.
(source = information rich)

Those with the avatar screen shots 'discovered' that this person is a teenage boy, possibly around 14, as the woman (avatar) depicted in the screen shots is an idealized version of a woman. She has very large unnatural breasts and is often wearing little clothing.
(source = information poor)

Those with the inbox 'discovered' that this person is a middle aged man, as he receives many e-mails from companies regarding business opportunities and time saving strategies. This man has very few friends as there is only one message from a friend in his inbox.
(source = information poor)

Those with the desktop 'discovered' that this person is a young female designer (as she has a mac desktop with design programs: In Design, Illustrator and Photoshop.) She also has an interest in vintage prints as this is her desktop wallpaper, there are many icons displaying her interest in craft and tattoos. She is also thinking of starting a business, as business plans and strategies litter the desktop. She is also either a busy or un-tidy person as the icon have no order or structure.
(source = information rich)

The groups were all surprised when it was relieved that each of these sources were an element of the same person's digital persona. It makes one wonder how much we actually know about a person if we only know them in one context?

It also proves that if we are to begin using digital data as 'digital historical artifacts' we must consider how reliable each source is and how many sources we must evaluate to get valid results.

Can the digital self be split or must it be kept whole as this is what gives it it's context??

What Happens when Virtual Friends Die?

Say you meet someone online, start chatting, e-mailing or gaming together. You do this for say two years, then all communication stops. What do you assume? Do you assume that person has simply lost interest and found a new hobby or do you assume that they are dead?


There are various websites which offer you the opportunity “to search government death records very easily. They vary in what kind and extent of information you are able to extract from them. They are only as good as their database after all.” However in order to use these databases, one first has to consider the possibility that this person is dead, before actively ‘searching’ for them. Today we have virtual acquaintances, virtual colleagues and even virtual friends. If they die, how are we to be informed? Do we have a right to be informed? Can a virtual friend (bit) be as close as a friend (atom)? Are family members aware of all your virtual friends?

Second Life’s ‘Linden Lab’ states that “if there is a legally binding will and testament they will divide assets and inform loved ones in-world of your passing.” However in order to do this Linden Lab would need to be provided with: a testamentary letter or other appropriate order, a copy of the death certificate, a copy of the will and a copy of a government-issue ID sufficient to identify you. This tedious process would perhaps prevent many people from attempting to inform virtual friends. However one must ask, if this process were to be implemented, how far is Linden Lab responsible for the way these virtual friends receive this ‘bad news’ and the aftermath of their bereavement.


Most of our virtual identities do not expire immediately with our body. Digital information tends to have a different set of laws to the physical world. It will generally remain intact until someone decides to close the accounts. Communities such as ‘Friendster’ write in their user-terms agreement that “the provider of the site’s services [are prohibited] from removing your profile without your express consent." It also specifies that a relative must provide “written proof,” which means that grieving relatives must scan and e-mail a death certificate to each of these communities, if they want the persons account to be closed down.



USB baby



How far can we extend the human memory?

Thinking about Digital Heritage... does the Digital Afterlife offor immortality?

An area which has recently come to my attention and must be considered when thinking about ‘Digital Death’ (and the potential deletion of digital data) is the relevance of that data to our historical and sociological futures.

Regarding archiving, in the non-virtual world, rubbish and buried bodies are an archaeologist’s bread and butter, so is digital information in the digital world. This information has the potential to provide a detailed account of our present digital society and culture.




Through this we begin to consider Digital Heritage, to do this we will first consider the amount and type of data typically being inputted into social networks, including photos, popular music, films etc. We question whether and where information relating to ones digital life should, or could exist, including after death (in other words what its context should be). Should it be placed in a digital museum, at a funeral or in a historical archive? We will look at methods of how one would begin to manage this mass of data once they have recorded it, and who would be responsible for the collecting, archiving, updating, and curating, of this ‘database’ of people’s social networks. This resource would allow historians, anthropologists or even family members to literally look back in time and examine a specific moment of history, pristine and in perfect clarity.