The first annual conference on digital legacies was held in London on 22 May, setting a precedent for what promises to be one of most hotly debated topics in the fields of medicine, technology and business in the future: what happens to our digital footprint once we die?
Anthropologists, physicians, IT specialists and lawyers came together at University College London to discuss the issues that arise once the lines between life, death and technology become blurred. Following the premise that many of us spend an increasingly proportion of our lives online, the speakers at Digital Legacy sought to explore the matter of death, grief and bereavement in the twenty-first century.
To a small but packed room, keynote speaker Evan Carroll of The Digital Beyond, a blog-cum-book about online existence and death, remarked on the “impressive” turnout, considering that the topic of discussion would have failed to attract practically any attention less than a decade ago.
What if, when you reach the pearly gates of heaven, instead of finding St Peter you’re presented with a request for login and password?
“It’s not actually that hard to get people involved. At first they act uninterested, but then you tell them to think about their photos, posts and things they would want their children to see and not to see and they start to realise that much of their life really is digital,” said Carroll.
The discussion expanded beyond virtual wills. Self-declared “cemetery enthusiast” Sheldon Goodman debated whether social media profiles are diminishing the value of traditional graves. Brazilian anthropologist Andreia Martins explored the peculiar phenomenon of the live streaming of wakes. Palliative care consultant Mark Tauber toyed with the idea of using social media as a placebo. “Consider passing your media on as a gift, protect your digital assets,” urged James Norris, founder of the Digital Legacy conference.
Despite the talks of deathbeds, check-lists to prepare oneself for digital death and musings on the digitalisation of grief, the Digital Legacy conference was anything but glum; it was in fact as lively as its speakers, who conveyed the excited enthusiasm typical of scholars who are confronted with previously unexplored territory.
The message was: inform yourself and prepare. Don’t leave your bereaved friends and family the burden of tracing your virtual footsteps. After all, if we admit that our lives have changed, why not recognise that our deaths will bring fresh challenges too?
Indeed, as Norris put it: “What if, when you reach the pearly gates of heaven, instead of finding St Peter you’re presented with a request for login and password?”
Probably best to start preparing now.