Adele McAlear, a social-media and marketing consultant, became interested in this subject a few years ago, when one of her regular
ON OCT. 18, 2009, Mac Tonnies updated his blog, sent out some public tweets and private messages via Twitter, went to bed and died of cardiac arrhythmia. While he had experienced some symptoms that indicated potential heart problems, his sudden death came as a shock even to those who knew him well. He was 34.
Tonnies lived in
Rita J. King, an expert on online identity and persona who is an “innovator in residence” for
The last entry on Posthuman Blues was titled “Tritptych #15,” a set of three images with no text. The first comment to this post came from an anonymous reader, wondering why Tonnies had not updated the blog or tweeted for two days. Some similar comments followed, and then this: “Mac Tonnies passed away earlier in the week. Our condolences are with his family and friends in this time of grief.” The author of that comment was also anonymous. After a rapid back-and-forth about whether this startling news was true and some details of the circumstances, that post’s comment section transformed into a remarkable mix of tributes, grieving and commiseration. You can still read all this today, in a thread that runs to more than 250 comments.
“It was a very strange feeling,” Dana Tonnies, Mac’s mother, told me, describing how she and her husband became aware of the swirl of activity attaching to her son’s online self. “I had no control over what was being said about him, almost immediately.” Dana and Bob Tonnies were close to their only son — in fact they had coffee with him, in a regular Sunday ritual, the morning before he died — but they had little contact with his digital self. Sometimes he would show them his online writing, but he had to do so by literally putting his laptop in front of them. The Tonnies did not read blogs. In fact they did not own a computer.
In the months after their son’s death, Dana and Bob went about the difficult business of organizing his papers (letters, e-mail printouts, story drafts) and deciding which of his belongings to keep (like his thousand or so books) or to give to his friends (his leather jacket, his three watches). This painful process took awhile, and they were not really focused on his blog or Flickr account and the like. They also inherited their son’s computer and have since learned how to navigate it and the Internet. But by then, their son’s online circle had already taken action.
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I spoke to a half dozen people Mac Tonnies met online and in some cases never encountered in the physical world. Each expressed a genuine sense of loss; a few sounded grief-stricken even more than a year later. Mark Plattner, who lives in
Plattner was one of several online friends who got involved in memorializing Tonnies and his work. Dia Sobin, an artist who lives in
“I only ever knew him over Twitter,” Sarah Cashmore , a graduate student in
This outpouring of digital grief, memorial-making, documentation and self-expression is unusual, maybe unique, for now, because of the kind of person Tonnies was and the kinds of friends he made online. But maybe, his friend Rita King suggests, his story is also a kind of early signal of one way that digital afterlives might play out. And she doesn’t just mean this in an abstract, scholarly way. “I find solace,” she told me, “in going to Mac’s Twitter feed.”
Finding solace in a Twitter feed may sound odd, but the idea that Tonnies’s friends would revisit and preserve such digital artifacts isn’t so different from keeping postcards or other physical ephemera of a deceased friend or loved one. In both instances, the value doesn’t come from the material itself but rather from those who extract meaning from, and give meaning to, all we leave behind: our survivors.
The most remarkable set of connections to emerge from Tonnies’s digital afterlife isn’t among his online friends — it is between those friends and his parents, the previously computer-shunning Dana and Bob Tonnies. Dana, who told me that her husband now teases her about how much time she spends sending and answering e-mail (a good bit of it coming from her son’s online social circle), is presently going through Posthuman Blues, in order, from the beginning. “I still have a year to go,” she says. Reading it has been “amazing,” she continues — funny posts, personal posts, poetic posts, angry posts about the state of the world. I ask her if what she is reading seems like a different, or specifically narrow, version of her son. “Oh, no, it’s him,” she says. “I can hear him when I read it.”
Mac Tonnies’s digital afterlife stands as a kind of best-case scenario for preserving something of an online life, but even his case hasn’t worked out perfectly. His
It’s unlikely the material Tonnies left online would have fared as well had it not been for his savvy and generous circle of Web friends. For most survivors, coping with the physical possessions and conventional assets of the departed can be overwhelming enough, but at least there are parameters and precedents. Even if a houseful of objects is liquidated through an estate sale or simply junked, mechanisms exist to ensure some sort of definitive outcome, even in the absence of a will. And there’s no way of ignoring or forgetting it: eventually the stuff will have to be dealt with.
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Bit-based personal effects are different. Survivors may not be aware of the deceased’s full digital hoard, or they may not have the passwords to access the caches they do know about. They may be uncertain to the point of inaction about how to approach the problem at all. Any given e-mail account, for instance, can include communication as trivial as an “I’m running late” phone call or as thoughtful as a written letter — all jumbled together, by the hundreds or thousands. Similarly, let’s just say not all of us are discriminating curators in uploading pictures to Facebook, for instance, flinging more images from one weekend onto the Web than an earlier generation would have saved from a weeks-long vacation. When you inherit a physical scrapbook or even a diary, some choices have already been made — either by culling or by constraints of space — but accessing and then assessing the digital effects of a dead loved one entail a thicket of choices and challenges that many would simply rather avoid.
This has inspired a variety of entrepreneurs to place bets that, eventually, people will want control over the afterlife of their digital selves. Several promise to manage the details of your digital death — storing your passwords and your wishes for who gets access to what and integrating your content-related instructions into a kind of adjunct to a traditional will. Legacy Locker claims “around 10,000” people have signed up for its digital-estate-management service. Its rivals include DataInherit, a service of DSwiss, “the Swiss bank for information assets” (you can even update your digital-legacy data via its iPhone app), and Entrustet, of
The founders of Entrustet are surprisingly young. Jesse Davis , who is 23, was still a student at the
Such businesses rest on a simple idea: Web, mobile and social-media use keeps exploding; everyone still dies. Meanwhile, much of the archiving of basic family life is becoming digital. It has become routine to have an online “presence” even as an infant, by way of a picture posted on a parent’s social-networking profile. Lustig pointed me to a recent corporate study that identified “chief memory officer” as a kind of unofficial role taken on by someone (often mom) in many families — the person who is paying attention to the idea that there may be no physical scrapbook or set of journals to hand down to future generations and that bits-and-bytes memory objects need to be preserved somehow.
I spoke to a couple of Entrustet users, who said they particularly wanted to protect photos stored online, along with hosting and domain-registration information for personal and business sites. Entrustet also offers an “account incinerator,” to obliterate content its users would prefer not to have linger on after them, and one person I spoke to mentioned having tagged a personal Twitter account for deletion — “it’s just inside jokes, personal ranting and raving” — along with a Gmail account. “I don’t need people judging the personal e-mails that I sent to my friends,” he explained.
Given the degree to which the most popular online platforms involve promoting a quasi-public persona — the “you” who declares fandom of
Most people do not leave such directives, making the fate of their digital lives uncertain. One of the better-known instances of a disappeared digital legacy involves Leslie Harpold, a Web pioneer who died unexpectedly in 2006, at age 40. Her writing and other online projects connected her with friends and admirers who were helping create the Internet’s self-expression tool kit back in the mid-1990s. In early 2010, after her sites Harpold.com and Smug.com quietly disappeared, some of those friends lobbied Harpold’s family to let them preserve her work. “Her work is her legacy,” one admirer, Rogers Cadenhead, wrote to Harpold’s niece, Melissa Krauskopf, an attorney who served as the personal representative of Harpold’s estate. “I have corresponded with several of Leslie’s friends about her sites all disappearing from the Web. For what it is worth, all of us believe that she would not have wanted that to happen.”
This offer was declined. Harpold’s niece replied that Harpold’s legacy isn’t in her online work but rather “is with every person who knew her and loved her.” I spoke to Krauskopf briefly, and while she was cordial, she had little to add. Had her aunt left directives about her online work, they would of course have been honored, she said. But in their absence, the domains were part of the estate that went to Harpold’s mother, and while Krauskopf appreciates the perspective of her aunt’s Web friends, it was a family decision that doesn’t require public explanation. “People need to appreciate that she was a real person,” Krauskopf says, and the family prefers to “remember her as she was.”
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You might think that stories like that would inspire at least the most cutting-edge true believers in the importance of online expression to stampede digital-afterlife-management companies. But Entrustet and its rivals acknowledge facing a variety of challenges, from an estate-planning community that isn’t particularly tech-forward to convincing potential customers that the start-up meant to deal with their digital afterlife will still be a going enterprise by the time they die. I tried out Entrustet myself. It seems to ease the unwieldy process of sorting out what to do with lots of online accounts with different passwords and so on, but I would add another challenge to the list: it’s depressing. I made my wife my “digital executor,” which meant that she received an e-mail about her responsibilities that she found jarring and a little chilling, even though I’d warned her. The idea of updating this thing every time I change a password or try out a new social Web tool that I may or may not keep using seemed even less enticing than cleaning out the attic.
Perhaps as a way around this problem, Entrustet is testing the waters on making deals with social-networking services. Its first partner in that approach is Broadjam, a service where musicians store and share their work. The idea is that Entrustet will function as a quietly integrated feature built into something you are happily using rather than being the go-to brand for everything you would rather not think about.
FOR NOW, THE DIGITAL identities of people whose Web contacts aren’t sophisticated techie types are simply languishing, or quietly fading away, with no hubbub, controlled not by friends or family but by the defaults of the services that enable their creation. And maybe that’s as it should be: what difference does it make what happens to the mundane accumulated detritus that makes up so much of what we do online? Once the people who cared about our status updates are gone, who cares if the updates persist?
One answer to that question is future historians. They surely won’t be poring over as many physical documents as today’s historians do, and surely the granular documentation of life in the 21st century, in digital form, is unprecedented. Fragile digital selves, then, represent a potential loss to the future.
This point of view has been most convincingly articulated by Dave Winer, the software developer whose Scripting News site is regarded as one of the first examples of what would come to be called blogs. He has been writing about the issue of online content preservation — he calls it “future-safing” — for several years. His views are a surprise to anybody who assumes that expression preserved in bits is somehow more durable than expression preserved in atoms; in fact he has drawn the opposite conclusion, repeatedly pointing out that digital technologies can be surprisingly unstable or can change rapidly in ways that leave a trail of obsolete material in their wake or both. He has written about his own efforts to preserve the original specs and code for some of his most significant technological creations on a suitably reliable server that future historians and others will be able to access. In thinking about how to do the same for his (and others’) online writing, he sounds pessimistic.
At one point he suggested a big company like Amazon or Google might be a suitable repository — maybe charging a flat fee to host content in perpetuity. But lately he has leaned more toward solutions involving institutions like universities or maybe the government. “What’s needed,” he wrote in early 2010, “is an endowment, a foundation with a long-term charter, that can take over the administration of a Web presence as a trust — before the author dies.”
In general, the companies that have created the most popular places and tools for online expression don’t exactly encourage users to stop and think about these subjects. Specific policies vary — details, buried in terms of service agreements, often involve a fair bit of effort, like providing a death certificate — and newer social-media services often have no particular policy at all. (Twitter established its guidelines only in August 2010.) The most prominent place this issue has come up, not surprisingly, is Facebook. For some time now, it has offered an option to request that a profile be switched to “memorial” mode when an individual dies. A post on the company blog explained that the issue first arose internally back in 2005, when one of its employees — there were only 40 at the time — died in a
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To Winer, however, the issue goes beyond how a person is remembered by those he or she knew. And he’s right that Web sites come and go — often vanishing in months, depending on the whims and intentions and
“This is a huge gap in the Web we’re building today,” Winer has written. “Eventually it’s going to catch up with us when we lose a huge amount of stuff we thought we couldn’t lose.”
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Cameron Hunt is one of the few people I encountered who is actively trying to preserve his digital identity. A 38-year-old
His motivations aren’t obvious: he is in good health; he’s divorced and has no children; and unlike Tonnies he is not engaged in traditional acts of creative expression, like writing books. Raised a Mormon, he never really connected to that church’s penchant for genealogy, which always struck him as a bunch of dry lists of names and dates. Then, a couple of years ago, his grandmother died, and he was given a copy of various family stories she had written. “Reading them as an adult, I was able to read between the lines,” he says, “to understand things in a rich way, and see how the stories and the experiences had influenced down through multiple generations.” Something else happened at the same time: the family realized that a big batch of slides in his grandmother’s possession had faded beyond recognition. Hunt was stunned. “Memories that were precious to me — not just living them, but after that going back and revisiting them — and now it’s gone,” he recalls. “I thought: I really need to do something.”
Hunt uses Twitter and Facebook; in fact, he has no privacy restrictions on his Facebook account, which lists his address and cellphone number. “I do that as part of my persona,” he told me when I suggested that it was a bad idea. “My friends know — if there’s an image that maybe I’ve cultivated, it’s ‘Cam’s crazy, he won’t be afraid to do it.’ Therefore opportunities come to me or people confide in me.”
In any case, while he’s also a user of Flickr, LinkedIn, Foursquare and various other online services, the core of his digital legacy is a collection of e-mail dating back to 1994. He has come to realize that achieving his goal is going to take serious effort. “I want to fund a bank account,” he says, “so that when I die, a curator can be paid to digitize anything that may not have been digitized, manage the collection, maybe do some research, help people find stuff if they’re looking for it.
“You know,” he adds with a chuckle, “all these ego-driven things of not being a famous man yet treating my digital afterlife as if I were famous.”
Admittedly, Hunt’s thinking sounds over the top. But part of the reason it seems so audacious is that there is so much to preserve, compared with, say, the physical material his grandmother left behind. A side effect of digital life is that the border between the real-time self-expressive object and the durable memory object has become porous.
Consider Gordon Bell, a famous computer engineer whose innovations date back to the 1960s. More recently he undertook a project under the auspices of
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, in his book “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age,” notes Bell as an extreme example of a general cultural drift. It is only relatively recently, he argues, that our tools for recording what we see, experience and think have become so easy to use, inexpensive and effective that it is easier to let information accumulate in our “digital external memories” than it is to bother deleting it. “Forgetting has become costly and difficult, while remembering is inexpensive and easy,” he writes. This is so even though a great deal of our digital expression is simple communication about the present, “intentionally ephemeral.” But because it’s more trouble to delete old blog posts, digital pictures and tweets than it is to make new ones, “society’s ability to forget has become suspended, replaced by perfect memory.”
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Mayer-Schönberger is only glancingly concerned with the notion of legacy; he is mostly making a point about privacy and personal information, not about what happens after life ends. So in the long run, his contention that the digital memory is “perfect” is doubtful. And as he notes, even in real time, digital memory can be flawed and misleading: it often merely seems perfect but can be incomplete or even altered.
Stacey Pitsillides, now finishing a graduate degree in design at Goldsmiths, University of London, has been researching digital afterlife issues for a few years now, drawn specifically to the question of what the piles of identity that we’re building up online will ultimately amount to. “We just see it as this infinity,” she says, but it isn’t. “There are certain costs, financial costs, physical and social costs, to keeping this amount of data. One of the social costs is that we kind of lose the ability to begin to choose and arrange what we want to say about ourselves, and instead get lost in this wash of information.
“If every object you’ve ever owned was a memory object,” she continues, “and we gave that to a family member and said, ‘You have to remember this person by all of these objects,’ then what position would we be in, and how would we ever remember everyone?”
It is possible that technology will answer this question with new ways for organizing, sifting and coping with masses of preserved personal data. Richard Banks, an interaction designer for Microsoft Research in
That, to put it mildly, is a hard claim to take seriously. For now, the less pie-in-the-sky issue is whether most people scattering digital objects across the Web have strong feelings about their persistence, or whether, as Mayer-Schönberger suggests, it simply isn’t worth the time to dispose of them. To Hunt, his own project is perfectly consistent with any effort to preserve analog mementos of life, just as his family (and many others) have for many years. “I’m just part of another generation,” he says. “I really don’t think it’s different in instinct or desire from what other people have done — except that so much of that information is quasi-public already.” He has a point there: even if we aren’t obsessing about the persistence of online expression and memory materials, we sure are cranking it out. What’s really surprising is how few Cameron Hunts there are, actively working out which of the digital self-traces they want to preserve, and how to go about it. All he is really trying to do is have some say in how he’s remembered.
My favorite digital-mortality business,
DeathSwitch.com has enough subscribers to cover costs, according to Eagleman. It keeps tabs on users by sending a periodic e-mail to make sure they are still alive. I suggested to Eagleman that I would find this regular reminder of my own mortality pretty unnerving, and he seemed perplexed. “If you allow the fact that you are going to pass away,” he replied, “and there are smart things you can do before you pass away to keep everybody in your family happy and well, then it’s as useful as a will, or a do-not-resuscitate.”
Eagleman is an interesting character. He is an assistant professor of neuroscience and
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His speculative afterlives end up offering provocative takes on what mortality and legacy really mean. One story posits that there are three deaths, the last coming when your name is spoken for the final time. In another, there is a hell in which you see yourself as others saw you; and in yet another, we sit in the afterlife looking back at life for evidence of our influence, as long as it lingers. “Death Switch,” the story, suggests that there is no afterlife as we think of it but that “a version of us” lives on in the endlessly sophisticated last notes we each send out, creating a strange network of “transactions with no one to read them.” The afterlife isn’t some other place or state of being. “Instead an afterlife occurs for that which exists between us.”
Wertheim pointed out that cyberspace had become a new kind of place, where alternate (or at least carefully curated or burnished) identities could be forged, new forms of collectivity and connection explored, all outside the familiar boundaries of the physical world, like the body and geography. It’s not such a long journey to follow those assertions to the “view that man is defined not by the atoms of his body but by an information code,” as Wertheim wrote. “This is the belief that our essence lies not in our matter but in a pattern of data.” She called this idea the “cybersoul,” a “posited immortal self, this thing that can supposedly live on in the digital domain after our bodies die.”
And that, essentially, is what is implied by Gordon Bell’s assertion that his MyLifeBits project is a way to “leave a personal legacy — a record of your life.” Or to put it more prosaically, it’s the same thing Trendwatching.com meant by calling your digital traces on social networks the “nucleus of one’s personal brand.” It’s what the uncanny avatars of Lifenaut and Virtual Eternity hope one day to encapsulate. It’s at the heart of “singularity” theory.
Wertheim, it should be noted, saw the cybersoul notion as both flawed and troubling, and I would agree. Life’s essence reduced to captured data is an uninspiring, and unconvincing, resolution to the centuries-old question of where, in mind and in body, the self resides. At least other imagined versions of immortality (from the Christian heaven to the Hindu wheel of life) suggested a reconciliation, or at least a connection, with the manner in which a physical life is lived; the cybersoul’s theoretically eternal and perfect persistence ignores this concept. Most of all, though, fantasizing about living forever — in heaven or in a preserved pattern of data — strikes me as just another way of avoiding any honest confrontation with the fact of death.
Avoiding that confrontation isn’t merely a stumbling block for those digital-afterlife start-ups. I was struck by how many of the people I spoke to who professed a keen interest in the issue of preserving a digital legacy had in fact done absolutely nothing about it for themselves. “Hmm, that’s a good question,” one of the organizers of that Digital Death Day event, a Web-identity expert, replied when I asked her why she had not taken steps to plan for the future of her digital creations. “I’m probably afraid of resolving the issue,” another online-expression enthusiast offered (before joking that all he really wanted to do is “save my work better than my enemies save theirs”). Actually, I completely empathize. I’m not anxious to resolve the issue either, at least not by making any prolonged and thoughtful effort centered on the extended contemplation of my demise.
For me, at least, pondering the digital afterlife made me rethink digital life. We’re encouraged to record and express everything, all the time. In real time, we can record and distribute the most important moments of our existence, and some of the least. For the generations growing up in the Web era, this mode of being is more or less taken for granted. But the tools we use privilege the moment, not the long term; they also tend to make everything feel roughly equal in importance and offer us little incentive to comb back through our digital scribblings and sort out what might have lasting meaning from what probably doesn’t. The results are pretty much the opposite of a scrapbook carefully edited to serve as a memory object but could end up serving that function by default.
If “digital litter” is all around us, then thinking about how to clean it up in real time — or producing less of it in the first place — might be more productive. Rita King, the online-identity expert who was a friend of Mac Tonnies’s, is clearly pleased to have access to his online effects and generally optimistic about new forms of remembering that digital technologies might enable. At the same time, though, she expressed some caution about the mindless expression of everything, the default veneration of “sharing” over “curating.” While she’s clearly an online-life enthusiast, she’s also careful about what she discloses in that new form of space. “If people thought about dying more often,” she observed, “they’d think about living differently.”
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I found myself wondering, oddly enough, about what Mac Tonnies’s take might be. The last of his friends to whom I spoke was Paul Kimball, a filmmaker who lives in
Among their shared interests, it turns out, was the relationship among technology, consciousness and mortality. Their play, based on a science-fiction story Tonnies had written in college, involves two women who turn out not to be, strictly speaking, creatures of organic matter: one is an artificial-intelligence program, the other a human consciousness uploaded into a form that could survive a centuries-long space journey. The very title of Tonnies’s Posthuman Blues blog, Kimball points out, hints at ambivalence about these subjects. But that was the place, he says, where his generally private friend “revealed himself,” post by post. The fact that the blog persists, in public, is what makes it distinct from, say, a journal Kimball owns that belonged to his grandfather and that has been read by perhaps 20 people.
The day before we spoke, Kimball continued, he had linked to an old Posthuman Blues post on his Facebook page, seeking reactions from his own online circle. “So I’m still having this conversation” with his friend Tonnies, he told me, “even though he’s been dead for more than a year.” Eventually, Kimball added, such situations may be routine. “We’re entering a world where we can all leave as much of a legacy as
After talking to Kimball, I ended up watching a couple of interview clips of Tonnies on YouTube. In one, he discussed “transhumanism,” the techno-scientific quest to transcend the traditional limits of the human animal, death included, whether through merging with machines or fiddling with our genes. Skeptics or opponents of transhumanism are missing the point that it’s well underway, he argued: medicine is transhuman, in that it thwarts mortality. While I didn’t find this wholly convincing, I will concede that it was interesting to find myself in a position to listen to his arguments at all. It made me wish I could offer Tonnies my counterpoints — but of course I can’t. So I’ll give him the last word. “I like to think of death as a glorified terminal illness,” Mac Tonnies said, and will continue to say, for as long as this particular collection of bits remains available for someone to watch and listen to. “If we can escape the boundaries of death, maybe we’ll be O.K.”