This essay is from a talk I presented at SXSW Interactive 2014

This essay is from a talk I presented at SXSW Interactive 2014

What we leave behind

To begin, I'd like you, the reader, to take a little journey with me.

Think about all the personal data you generate in a given day. Emails, texts, photos, voice memos, likes, tweets, even biometric data etc. Now, transport yourself forward, say 20 years. Our environments are now infused with an invisible, interconnected web of sensors, operating systems and devices taking note of even our most mundane, everyday activities. Each interaction you have with the systems and devices of this environment leaves behind a small memento about your thoughts, actions, preferences or emotions of the moment.


Digital purgatory

Now, imagine all these momentos coming together. A complete picture begins to emerge from your digital debris, creating a comprehensive picture of your and your life's experiences. When we die, this gets left behind. Available, yet intangible floating in the expansive web of our technological eco-system. 

What will become of this body? Will it slowly disintegrate, destined to live in an unreachable digital wasteland? Or do we want something else? What do you want for it? What kind of life should this information have after your death?


Losing our personal histories

The digital ephemera we generate throughout our life, and eventually leave behind raises interesting challenges and opportunities. The untethered and fragmented nature of this content makes it difficult to manage or know the scale of what we've left behind. Our histories become at risk of being taken from us. As Abby Smith Rumsey writes in her book, "When We Are No More: How digital memory is shaping our future"

As we outsource more of the most inimate parts of ourselves - our personal memory and identity - to computer code, the fear of losing our autonomy - the alienation of our data, so to speak - increases because in the digital age, only machines can read our memory and know what we know at scale.
— Abby Smith Rumsey, pg 106

Life after death

There is currently a lack of effective or meaningful tools in the marketplace to combat this trend. There is plenty of discussion about what should be done but little exploration of the 'how'. Without this discussion, we leave what will become of our digital 'ghosts' to the marketplace. 

What protection can we instill into these developing formats, to ensure they remain as potent as possible for years to come, and not get lost in the email accounts, profiles and other digital detritus that make up our increasingly lost digital lives?
— Being and Dying

Following in the spirit of speculative design, I began to hypothesize various forms our post-mortem digital content might take in the future, should we want to take steps to preserve it. Rather than provide answers, the goal of these concepts was to illuminate possibilities and provoke debate about what we want or don't want for our digital heirlooms. 

Science fiction has already provided us with many examples of how our identities and legacies will preserved and carried forward into the future. 

 Commander Data taking a moment to remember Tasha Yar.

Commander Data taking a moment to remember Tasha Yar.

Data taken from email, tweets, publications and other communications could be mapped, creating an AI of the deceased individual in which to re-engage in conversations with. Taken further, photographs and video could be used to re-create memories which could be re-enacted or relived.  

 From the short film "Rewirement"

From the short film "Rewirement"

In the short film, Rewirement, a son has his invalid mother's consciousness uploaded into a mainframe service called Gateway. His mother is kept alive in her vegetative state while an application creates a psuedo AI in which the son can interact with. In a viewing area he can re-experience memories with his mother in vivid detail. In this new space, mother and son are reunited and given a space in which to re-engage one another. Memories can be presented and activated by either party. Rather than simple memory playback, the memory is presented as an interactive play in which both Mother and son participate. During the re-enactment, both have the option to act differently from the original series of events. New actions amend the original memory - much the same as the human brain does. 

From my own speculative work, is the Twitter Urn project. 


The impacts of these types of developments are hard to predict. However, I do believe technology and proliferation of personal digital content will result in the social memory and presence of the deceased being extended and strengthen. In my mind, this may result in several potential and fundamental shifts in terms of our relationship with the dead:

1. Re-engagement with the deceased becomes less passive and more intentional.

2. Our knowledge of those before us will become deeper and more detailed.

3. The role the deceased play in our lives will increase and possibly more intimate.