Life and Death in the Information Society
Jesse Dinneen, Maja Krtalić, Nilou Davoudi, Helene Hellmich, Catharina Ochsner, Paulina Bressel
Throughout our lives we create, consume and accumulate information. And then we die. But what happens – and what should happen – to our information after our death? This question is very complex and thus increasingly intriguing to researchers, but different groups of stakeholders have different values and interests that would shape a potential answer. Let’s briefly look at these groups’ concerns; a full scholarly review is available here.
—What happens—and what should happen—to our information after our death?—
Information and legacy concerns the living and the dying. In today’s society death is a much-avoided topic, and advice and services to aid in managing one’s information collections and digital footprint are scarce. So how should we as individuals prepare and integrate our current digital materials into the legacies we eventually leave behind? Are these decisions and actions our own responsibility, or should there be more collaboration and consultations within our families and communities? Is it somehow bad to ignore the inevitable and neglect managing our digital collections, and if we do, do others then have the right to do whatever they want with our information after we are gone? People who are more immediately anticipating death, the dying, are more likely to reflect on these issues and possibly more willing to act, but in many places the legal landscape still does not clearly cover digital possessions and inheritance and so may be an obstacle to their intentions. Further, health and care providers do not see advice on information management as part of their support of the dying, and online services that advertise expertise in helping the dying to ‘put their affairs in order’ still lack assurance that such services will remain accessible and sustainable in the future. Even cultural heritage institutions struggle to find the resources to review and manage donated digital collections. Digital inheritance is a relatively new phenomenon but clearly already poses many challenges for society.
The bereaved and the dead navigate a landscape of digital mourning, remembrance, and immortality. Those who have experienced the death of someone else, the bereaved, grieve and remember the deceased. This is an experience as old as humanity, but bereavement practices have significantly changed in the digital era. Nowadays, they often include creating online communities to aid a collective sense of mourning and remembrance. Though digital mourning can occur in different ways, the communities often rely on personal information of the dead: photographs, videos, emails, letters, and social media posts. The dead, though not physically with us anymore, remain present, sustained through their digital remains and the posthumous management of their information and data. The ongoing virtual presence of the dead among the living raises philosophical questions about their so-called digital immortality and in what situations their information and data should be kept or deleted. What should be done when the deceased have not expressed desires about these topics, and how should desires to mourn be balanced with values like privacy? Could it be morally wrong to delete the data of the deceased and let them die a second, final death? Who should then be expected to maintain the digital remains or collections?
Beyond private individuals, researchers, and the state, another group with a keen interest in matters of death and information is the business sector (or industry). Death care industries (e.g. funeral homes and services) have predictably embraced digitally supported and technology-augmented death practices and rituals, many of which only function with carefully selected information about the deceased, such as photos for memorials. Also within the business sector, the digital afterlife industry uses data to provide people with a persistent digital representation of them, sometimes promising to maintain their digital immortality. There are other services that contribute to the landscape inadvertently, for example, allowing post-mortem social media profiles to persist and weave with the living. AI seems poised to further complicate this space, particularly through chatbots trained on the deceased’s personal data and writing in their style. Such bots may be requested by the dying in advance of their death but may also be done on their behalf, for example by their family or even by digital historians hoping to study lives and times gone by. Will such digital resurrection be permitted? Once again the relevant laws provide little explicit guidance, even in benchmark regulation like Europe’s GDPR.
Will the future bring everlasting memory or the right to be forgotten? The matter of information after death is clearly complex, involving technical, ethical, legal, societal, psychological and cultural considerations. We argue that it is the responsibility of each stakeholder interacting with information in the context of death to consider how their actions affect the well-being of individuals and families and shape future societal death rituals and grieving norms and behaviors. As research continues to investigate the many questions above, it is important for human dignity that the wishes of the dying are respected when possible, whether that entails digital immortality or erasure, and that rules and practices are established to cover the information and data of the deceased whether or not the deceased’s desires are known. Doing this right will require grappling with human values, behaviour and culture, technology, ethics, and law around death and information.
Dinneen, J. D., Krtalić, M., Davoudi, N., Hellmich, H., Ochsner, C., & Bressel, P. (2024.) Information science and the inevitable: A literature review at the intersection of death and information management. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 1–30. https://doi.org/10.1002/asi.24861
Cite this article in APA as: Dinneen, J. D., Krtalić, M., Davoudi, N., Hellmich, H., Ochsner, C., & Bressel, P. Life and death in the information society. (2024, January 22). Information Matters, Vol. 4, Issue 1. https://informationmatters.org/2024/01/life-and-death-in-the-information-society/