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Online grief and the digital dead

by Patrick Stokes
20 September 2016
TECHNOLOGY
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Grieving is hard when social media profiles become digital ghosts. Patrick Stokes asks whether we should be designing online zombies.
 

For many of us, social media is not just a way to communicate. It’s part of the fabric of everyday life and the primary way we stay present in the lives and daily experiences of some of our friends and acquaintances. When people die, their profiles continue to present their ‘face’ as part of our social world.

Such continued presence makes a difference to the moral world we continue to inhabit as living people. It forces us to make a decision about how to deal with the digital dead. We have to treat them in some way – but how? 

What should be done with these ‘digital remains’? Who gets to make that decision? What happens when survivors (those still alive who will be affected by these decisions) disagree? 

Death obliterates a person’s consciousness but we have some power to ensure it doesn’t destroy everything about them.

So far, tech companies have worked out their norms of ‘digital disposal’ on the fly. On Facebook, for instance, some profiles are actively deleted, others are simply abandoned, while others have been put into a memorialised state which lets existing ‘friends’ post on the deceased’s timeline.

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Facebook allows you to report a deceased person and memorialise their account - Want to decide what happens to your own account if you pass away? You can let Facebook know in advance what you'd like to happen in the event of your death. 

Given the digital dead could soon outnumber the digital living, it might be time to look more closely at the problem. This will require asking some fundamental questions: what is the relationship between an online profile and its creator and how might that matter in ethical terms?

I’ve said social media is one of the ways our friends stay present in our lives and in our ‘moral worlds’. The dead have in fact always been part of our moral world: we keep promises to them, speak well of them and go out of our way to preserve their memory and legacy as best we can. 

Jeffrey Blustein gives us one reason why we might be obliged to remember the dead this way: memory is one way to “rescue the dead from insignificance”. Death obliterates a person’s consciousness but we have some power to ensure it doesn’t destroy everything about them. 

As Goethe said, we die twice. First, when our hearts stop beating. And second, when the last person who loves us dies and we disappear from memory. 

This gives digital artefacts ethical significance. We can’t stop that first death, but we can take steps to delay the second through a kind of ‘memory prosthetic’. A memorialised social media profile seems like exactly this kind of prosthetic. It allows something of the real, tangible presence of the dead to persist in the world of the living and makes the task of preserving them easier. 

This gives us at least one reason not to delete dead peoples’ profiles: their deletion removes something of the dead from the world, thereby making them harder to remember.     

The right of a deceased person not to have their profile deleted might still be trumped by the rights of the living. For instance, if a bereaved family find the ongoing existence of a Facebook profile distressing, that might be a good reason to delete it. But even reasons that are easily overridden still need to be taken into account.

By recreating the dead instead of remembering them as they were, we risk reducing them to what they did for us

There might, however, be cause for concern about other kinds of memory that go beyond preservation and try to recreate the dead in the world of the living. For example, various (often ironically short-lived) startups like Lifenaut, Virtual Eternity and LivesOn aim to create a posthumous, interactive existence for the dead. 

They hope to create an algorithm that can ‘learn’, either by analysing your online activity or through a script you fill in while you’re alive, how to post or speak in a way that sounds like you. This may be as simple as tweeting in your name, or as complex as an animated avatar speaking as you would have spoken, chatting, joking and flirting with your survivors.

Nobody has had much success with this to date. But as the technology improves and AI becomes increasingly competent, the likelihood of such a platform becoming viable increases. Should that happen, what might this do to our relationship to the dead? 

This episode of Black Mirror is a moving and unsettling depiction of real avatars of the dead walking and talking among us.

Online avatars of this kind might seem like a simple extension of other memorialisation practices – a neat way of keeping the distinctive presence and style of the dead with us. But some, like philosopher Adam Buben, argue these online avatars are less about remembering the dead and more about replacing them. By recreating the dead instead of remembering them as they were, we risk reducing them to what they did for us and replacing them with something that can perform the same role. It makes those we love interchangeable with others.

If I can replace you with an avatar then I don’t love you for you but merely for what you can do for me, which an avatar could do just as well. To use a crass analogy: if memorialising an online profile is like getting your cat taxidermied, posthumous avatars are like buying a new, identical cat and giving it the same name as the old one. To treat the dead as replacable in this way is to imply the dead were never loved for who they were, but only for what they did for us.

Despite the danger, technology has a habit of outrunning our ethical responses to it, so it’s quite possible fully-functioning avatars will get here whether we want them or not. So here’s a modest proposal: if this technology becomes a reality, we should at least demand that it come with in-built glitches. 

...if memorialising an online profile is like getting your cat taxidermied, posthumous avatars are like buying a new, identical cat and giving it the same name as the old one.

The reason we need glitches is because when technology works perfectly, we don’t notice it. We feel like we’re directly connected to someone through a phone line or a Skype connection because when these technologies work properly they don’t call attention to themselves. You hear the voice or see the face, and not the speaker or the screen. But glitches call our attention back to the underlying reality that our encounter is being mediated by a limited piece of technology. 

If we’re going to have interactive avatars of the dead, let’s make them fail every so often, make them sputter or drop out – to remind us of who we’ve lost and the fact they are genuinely gone, no matter how realistic our memory devices are.

Dr Patrick Stokes is a senior lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University. Follow him on Twitter - @patstokes.

Header image credit.