We Need to Make Digital Data That Dies Like Us

The nature of digital deletion is complicating the grieving process, say researchers.

by Michael Byrne
Aug 17 2016, 10:30am

Image: Adapted from Fairy Heart/Flickr

Humans have a cool 200,000 years worth of experience in dealing with death, but we're probably worse at it than ever. Technology circa 2016 makes it seem like such a violation—an unnaturalness. It's not that death has ever been a good thing to happen, but maybe at certain points in the history of the species it has been more of a normal thing to happen than it is right now.

Some large part of this abnormality is the existence of digital identities. As people, we're now able to spread ourselves very far and wide. We have the illusion—and then some—of immateriality. We're then left with the anxiety of a digital afterlife. Where once the material existence of the deceased (you or I) could be boxed up in a sad afternoon of cleaning and reminiscing, now it lingers and persists.

Isn't that a good thing? Maybe not, according to a paper published this month in the ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction by a trio of researchers hailing from the University of Lancaster, the University of California, and Carnegie Mellon University. However much we may want to keep the dead around us, and however easy it is, that's perhaps not what we need to grieve.

Deletion doesn't have nearly the same cathartic power as, say, burning or burying or giving away physical possessions

"People increasingly live their lives online, accruing large collections of digital possessions," the authors write. "Many of these digital possessions symbolically represent important relationships, events, and activities. [Human-computer interaction] research has begun to examine these digital possessions in the context of bereavement and separation. However, much of this work explores retention and celebration, specifically how such possessions can serve as positive reminders of a relationship and to honor the departed."

Less work is concerned with how to actually get rid of stuff, and this is a problem. The authors set out to better understand it via interviews with 10 psychotherapists—all of whom were experienced in facilitating disposal rituals of physical belongings with bereaved patients—from which they developed a conceptual framework for letting go of the dead's digital possessions.

"During life transitions, people often want to separate themselves from painful reminders, but the disorganized nature of people's digital collections makes it difficult to identify specific symbolic possessions to retain or to discard," the paper continues. "This lack of organization also means that people accidentally encounter painful reminders at unexpected times. People who actively try to dispose of digital materials relating to their recent romantic breakup are confronted with the inflexibility of deletion."

Deletion is a cold, abrupt act. Organized binary information representing some image or email or video is suddenly disordered, and the digital representation is as gone as if it were wrapped around a hydrogen bomb and pitched from the bay doors of an airplane. The therapists interviewed noted that such a deletion doesn't have nearly the same cathartic power as, say, burning or burying or giving away physical possessions. It kind of just happens and is over (such is life, but still).

"One could imagine future technologies making use of self-dissolving or biodegradable transient electronics to contain symbolic digital possessions."

What the paper concludes is that abrupt digital deletion is not at all conducive to healthy grieving. Letting go is best realized as a physical process occurring through time. It's not an act, but an experience. The question is then, how can we make digital deletion experiential? Can we?

The authors think so. In fact, it meshes well with what's known as third-wave human-computer interaction, in which bodily interactions and sensory experiences are emphasized—digital interaction beyond the screen, keyboard, and mouse. One implication discussed is the idea of digital containers that are designed not to store content, but to release it.

"When opened, containers could materialize/display digital possessions such as text, images, or sounds one at a time for the last time before they perceptually drift away (symbolically representing the deletion taking place) never to be found or seen again," the paper explains. "Disposal in this case is both visible and quick as it unfolds in front of one's own eyes."

"We could design for fragile and ephemeral storage rather than making it permanent and robust, like it is now," the paper goes on. "Our study suggests the value of the natural elements such as earth and water and their intrinsic qualities of decomposing, dissolving and renewal. For example, one could imagine future technologies making use of self-dissolving or biodegradable transient electronics to contain symbolic digital possessions. Such technologies could be physically disposed of through dissolution or decomposition."

There's a lot more where that came from, but you get the idea. When we die, we don't disappear like data does. So how can we make data die more like we die?