Every single day, we leave some kind of personal imprint on the internet. What exactly that imprint is – we like to believe – is up to us. But this isn't quite true. As last week's Myspace mass-deletion proved, we're not quite in control of what we leave behind, even if we're told that everything we post online is forever.
This is hard enough to swallow when we're alive. But what about when we're dead? Psychologist Elaine Kasket has spent the last decade investigating this dilemma, and in a new book – All the Ghosts in the Machine – she goes further, questioning whether we can even start asking these questions in a meaningful way while big tech has its claws dug into every facet of our lives.
I sat down with Elaine to chat data, digital privacy and death.
VICE: What catalysed your interest in what the book is about?
Elaine Kasket: I started seeing more and more stories in the popular press about the juncture between death and the digital; I thought it was time to write something that looked at things from a really big picture vantage point. The books that were out there didn’t get into some of the really big moral, ethical, psychological and philosophical questions. I wanted to use death as a lens to understand more about big tech control over us; nothing concentrates your mind on the control it has more than looking at what happens to your data when you die.
We're told everything we post online will be there forever, but as we've seen with Myspace it can very easily be erased. What does this tension mean?
Every legacy website you belong to talks about "eternity", "forever", "perpetuity". Their message is that everything online is sticking around forever, and people buy into that in an unthinking way. But we have a baby internet – just think about all the systems that have been rendered obsolete from just a few years ago. We still have papyrus scrolls from Ancient Egypt; I can't play the minidisc I have from 12 years ago. It could render us invisible to history. On an individual level, that might not matter very much. On a collective, societal level, it matters a lot.
So is there any way of ethically managing – and obviously, the word "ethical" is up for debate too – the data of the dead while tech is ruled by very few, very big businesses?
No. Observing what happens to the data of the dead is actually a really, really powerful argument for web decentralisation. It’s not perfect – they’d still have to figure out what the terms and conditions are, how they’re going to regulate what happens when the owner of that data passes away. But it does bring it back to a more individualised, decision-making space, where you have control over what happens to your data. Because I’m not just talking about social media – it’s your hardware and software, location data, the inadvertent autobiography of your search history...
Yeah, I'm not sure I'd want people to see what anxiety-induced googling I've been doing at three in the morning.
Exactly! We’re always focusing on our public-facing profiles. But if someone’s gone and you’re doing a deep dive into the data they’ve left behind, you’d inevitably come up with at least some questions that the person is no longer around to resolve. We’ve never had that wealth of surveillance data before.
We're very aware of what we’re putting on social media, but there are traces of us everywhere – which I guess people are less aware of.
Yes, and this is partly because of companies being disingenuous about the continued benefit they derive from retaining the data of the dead. Facebook acts like it's doing some kind of humanitarian work preserving the profiles, but once someone has died that account fully belongs to Facebook – they can use with impunity that data any way they want, because the person is no longer subject to data protection laws. And it helps them retain living users. By the end of the century, there could be 3.6 billion profiles of the dead. How powerful is that? People don't want to lock themselves out of the cemetery, lock themselves out of the memorial garden.
In the book you talk about continuing bonds, the connections we continue to feel after death. Could these profiles prolong our grief or prevent us from moving on?
It is fundamentally different now, in that the dead are integrated with the living in social spaces online. But it's only since Freud and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross that we’ve had this idea that we’re supposed to proceed through stages and "let go". Some people do have complicated grieving processes, but there's nothing to indicate that the presence of online material is problematic.
I suppose the difference is we don't have control of it in the same way we might have a photograph or other material mementos.
Absolutely – the problems with online are primarily to do with control and access. Grieving is idiosyncratic: right now, on Facebook, you wouldn’t be able to fine tune what kind of relationship you wanted to have with a specific profile. The major negatives are to do with control over your own interface with grief.
So what would you say to people who want to know how to manage their data after death?
The first way to start dealing with this is being able to confront your own anxiety about death and start thinking about your own mortality. Very few people confront the realities of death beyond making their own will. So making a digital will, even if it’s not legally executable, is a good idea – you can at least let people know what your preferences are.
The major thing I would say is to take back your memories from big tech. The stuff you want to look back on and remember in your later life – if there’s anything that’s precious to you in terms of information or memory, check the extent of your automatic trust that these systems will continue to have our best interests at heart.
Finally? Always think when you're setting your device to collect more data rather than less. Not just for now, but for later too.