One Question Quiz
a pixealated skull on a laptop with "death week' in the background
Image: AI Assisted/Tina Tiller

InternetAugust 7, 2023

Welcome to your digital afterlife

a pixealated skull on a laptop with "death week' in the background
Image: AI Assisted/Tina Tiller

As humans live increasingly digital lives, the end of a lifetime means hundreds of accounts and thousands of emails and photos remain. Dealing with this data is a practical problem with profound social implications. 

All week long The Spinoff will be opening up about the end. Click here to read more of our Death Week content

Rachael Newsome’s husband died 10 years ago in an accident, but on Facebook, he is present still. She tags him in posts sometimes: a reminder to herself, their children and his friends that he was part of their lives. She found his password soon after he died, and was glad of it. “It was a nice way for his friends who I didn’t really know to make contact with me,” she says. “I go through the Facebook page often on the anniversary of his death, show the kids what he’d posted about them when they were born – I like having it as an archive.” 

Most of us have made archives of ourselves like this, perhaps unwittingly. There you are, flesh and blood, and there is your glass touchscreen. A few taps: in goes your bank password so you can pay a friend; in goes a dozen selfies of your new haircut, texts to your friends, an email to your daughter, 500 searches containing varieties of the term “what to make with wilting carrots”. More taps: out come videos of NPCs, pictures of other people’s breakfasts, moving replies to your texts and emails, photo memories of where you were two years ago and answers to your search queries. 

And when your fingers cease tapping, that information is still there, held in silicon chips and whirring rooms full of servers. What happens to these pieces of yourself you’ve left encased in ones and zeros? 

digital marae looking futuristic
There’s a tikanga around death, which needs to include digital files too, experts say (Image: Tina Tiller/Getty Images)

Data is part of our lives and deaths, but tikanga hasn’t caught up 

For Māori, the idea that technology contains pieces of yourself is an old one. “If you touch something, if someone takes a photo of you, it has your mauri in that thing,” says Karaitiana Taiuru, an indigenous data expert. “You and I are talking through our cellphones – the data we’re sharing contains a mauri too.” That objects associated with a person contain a sense of that person has long been part of the tikanga around grieving in te ao Māori. 

“When someone dies you bless the house they were in, maybe put a photo of them up in the marae – there are ways to let that mauri go in peace,” Taiuru explains. Technology changes that. “It creates a tikanga issue,” he says. So far, there isn’t such a clear tikanga process for how rituals at the time of death can be adapted when there are thousands of pieces of data about that person on hard drives and servers. 

Is having digital data all accessible on one or two devices really so different from the past, where physical pieces of a person’s life could endure long after their deaths, too? After all, in most cases there are physical media equivalents to documents that loved ones might want to examine after someone’s death. Photo albums with handwritten labels describing where a photo was taken and who it shows is the same as iCloud recognising people’s faces in pictures and tagging the GPS location; a record collection might tell you just as much about someone as their Spotify downloads; a filing cabinet filled with a lifetime of written correspondence may have to be sifted through just like an email account of the same.

For people like Newsome, attempting to delete profiles and subscriptions after her husband’s death, the difference between physical files and digital ones is practical: when relying on fingerprints, facial recognition or passwords, digital files are much harder to find and access. “It’s difficult to trace his digital footprint,” she says. “But [when he died] Facebook was the big thing, there was no Instagram, no Snapchat – it would be even harder now.”

an asian man with round glasses and grey streaked hair tied in a ponytail looking at the camera with a wry smil
Grant Otuski, an anthropologist, has studied how people in different cultures interact with technology (image: supplied)

“We’ve always had a sense of ourselves through information – the things around us that tell us who we are,” says Grant Otuski, an anthropologist who studies technology at Victoria University of Wellington. But while information in this digital form might be quite literally lighter than its physical equivalent, the shared location of all this digital data sets it apart even when its owner is gone. It’s all on your phone and computer, maybe a hard drive, not in disparate physical pieces. “It changes who can access your information,” he says. “Google or Facebook or Apple are the mediator – they have control of the information, and you may have to go through them to access it.”

Newsome is troubled by the lack of control loved ones have over the information about the deceased; before she’d had the chance to publicly say anything about her husband’s death, someone who’d heard about it had posted on his Facebook page. “That could quickly get difficult – in any situation where you’re dealing with trauma [it’s just] another way that there could be more drama.”

The practical stuff 

If the end of a life is also the end of adding to a digital life, it is not the end of digital work, with tasks seconded to those you’ve left behind. “It’s a whole lot of admin,” Newsome says. “I didn’t know how to access stuff that was in [my deceased husband’s] name – I still use his Flybuys account because I didn’t know how to transfer it.” She got lucky; she found some of her husband’s passwords written in the back of a notebook, and was able to use this information to guess at most of his other accounts. 

Belinda Heunis, chief business officer at digital will service Footprint, concurs. “We encourage people to think about password managers – many password managers and social media accounts allow you to add a contact to your account who can close it down.” Accounts can often be deleted or archived – most social media sites and digital services will include a “legacy” option that allows you to nominate a contact to take care of your account when you die. 

a white woman with dark brown hair staning in front of a building wearing a cool looking green top and matching earrings and a big smile
Kimberly Lawrence says that when people talk about digital assets, one of the first things that comes of mind is cryptocurrency. Luckily, there’s a legal precedent for that. (image: supplied)

For the most part, wills don’t address what will happen to your personal devices after your death – instead, Kimberly Lawrence, a director at Greg Kelly Trusts Law, says most people’s wills will cover devices as part of a more general clause applying to all chattels, but in some cases, if someone’s home set-up is particularly elaborate, they might leave more specific instructions.

Lawrence also says that digital subscriptions – including to storage options like Google Cloud – need to be dealt with and cancelled if necessary, although if storage subscriptions are being deleted, ownership of those accounts and the digital files they hold may need to be sorted first. 

But for the most part, beyond passwords and social media, people don’t think very hard about what should happen to their digital possessions when making their wills. “Young people aren’t generally making wills unless they are buying a house or having a baby,” Lawrence says. “That’s the demographic of people who might have a lot of digital files, but they’re not thinking seriously about death so they’re not including the most detailed wills.” Older people, for whom death may be a more immediate concern, have spent less of their life interacting with digital files, so are less likely to leave instructions about it. 

She expects that as so-called “digital natives” get older, questions around what should happen to people’s digital information will become more frequent, and a larger part of how people put their wills together. “It’s always a good time to think about digital planning and what they have on their devices, and to leave instructions for executors.” 

“Baby boomers are less likely to have everything digitised, but they are increasingly open to making their wills online … services like ours have emerged because there is an increasing demand for wills to be like other life-management processes – easy, not expensive, and doable from home,” Heunis says. 

a pile of old phones lying on the ground
After you die, will the technology you used to capture your life become obsolete? Image: Getty

One particular example of digital assets which can have a high value is cryptocurrency. In a 2020 High Court case, cryptocurrency was recognised as property, which means it needs to be treated in the same way as other valuables after someone has died. This isn’t straightforward. “Whoever you say will get your crypto, there’s a practical problem – someone needs to know that you had cryptocurrency and also needs the key. Law firms don’t usually want to hold a [crypto] key in their offices as it could be a security risk – the only good solution is putting it in a safe deposit box at a bank and making the details to the safe deposit available.” 

Most importantly, if you have lots of digital files, particularly sensitive ones, experts recommend that you think about what happens to those after your passing sooner, not later. “It’s easier if you have these conversations while the person is still alive,” says Valerie Love, a digital archivist at the National Library. “If you’ve inherited someone’s digital data, it’s so much easier if you’ve talked about it beforehand.” 

Love recommends that people back photos up on non-cloud services, and regularly maintain their files, so that important documents and photos don’t get lost. Newsome knows this by personal experience: she had a moment of panic when Apple was deleting inactive accounts: she had to scramble to guess her husband’s Hotmail password, which was linked to his Apple ID, then download all his files onto hard drives. But not all files even made it to the cloud. “We have heaps of photos from that time on SD cards, and I don’t know how I’d access them now, let alone old video tapes,” she says. “You have to think about how you hold on to those records.”

Technology and death is changing. Ask questions now

Thinking – and talking – about what could happen to your data after your death is doubly difficult because technology is constantly changing. In 100 years, your descendants might not be able to read the files you burned onto CDs in the late 90s, but could they use all the data from your email accounts to create AI-powered responses to questions about your life or create 3D images of you based on photos?

Digital technology makes it possible to talk to people who are dead – that is, digital simulations of them. Earlier this year, a chatbot that let users create group chats with deceased historical figures such as Tupac Shakur and Ronald Reagan went viral – partially because of its inaccuracy. GPT-3, the technology that powers ChatGPT, has been used to create chats with deceased people by uploading transcripts of their conversations to a large language model. If you’re famous, at least, even death doesn’t free you from labour: actress Carrie Fisher appeared in Star Wars movie The Last Jedi after her death, after a digital stand-in had been created for her using special effects.  

“These things are technically here already,” Tauiru acknowledges. “We have generations of digital natives that might think ‘our uncle died – let’s put his digital AI form in the marae!’” 

a brain connected to circuits
When you die, do you want your robot brain uploaded into the mysterious digital beyond? (Image: Getty Images)

“I would be horrified if I engaged in something in an AI context and it was drawn from a photo [my husband] had taken, or was reconstructing his voice,” Newsome says. “Or if a photo from his Facebook profile turned up somewhere. You don’t expect it – when you’re using ChatGPT or something like that, where is that data coming from?”

Legally there are difficulties in anticipating how data might be used in the future. For instance, do the dead have any right to privacy? “The Privacy Act has limited protections for deceased persons,” says Lawrence. Your digital likeness – pictures or images of yourself – is in theory a kind of property right that shouldn’t be used without permission, even if you’re dead, but this isn’t something that people tend to think about when putting their wills together. This could also be an intellectual property issue. “These are the kinds of rights that people owning them haven’t thought much about,” Lawrence says.

Otuski, who has studied technology cultures in Japan, says that having access to digital data doesn’t change the desire for having physical rituals that are part of death – instead, technology becomes part of them. In Tokyo, traditional grave-cleaning can now be done via Zoom, or with the help of robots. “We want objects, as well as files on computers,” he says. 

The time to negotiate the blurry boundaries between digital artefacts and physical reality is coming for us all. If death is an inevitability, and digital acceleration is too, then many of us will be learning to live with the shadows of a digital afterlife.

Keep going!