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I Won’t Die Entirely: Internet and Death

We live on the screen, and this has turned into a fundamental truth. When we lose our Internet access, we tune out and lose our space orientation. There are no longer separate offline and online realities, they are mixed into one. We live in the network. It seems, we can live in it forever. Oxana Moroz, a cultural expert and anthropologist, knows everything about death on the Internet. Oxana told Screenlifer about what death looks like in a digital environment.

Digital Reincarnation

In real life, death has two extensions. We die physically, that is, bodily, and socially: we disappear from the social world and other people’s engagement zone. On the Internet, a person is not physically present. The only thing that happens to us on the net is social death, but today digital technologies are able to overcome it.

The simplest thing is to turn to digital lawyers and make a will to sign away our digital data to someone. This is a kind of an archive transfer. Libraries were given before, and now a Netflix subscription seems more relevant.

On Facebook, one can choose an account keeper who can use it on behalf of a person after his or her death. The keeper can manage the friend list, post, or simply record a memorable page status. Your account, in fact, will continue to exist either as an online memorial headstone, or in a more active form.

Also, there is scheduled posting. For example, a well-known startup named ifidie offers users a possibility to schedule posts during their lifetime that will be released after their death. You can create an illusion of your presence. The number of posts and the publication time are not limited.

Digital Memorial Cemetery by Hadas Arnon/designboom

There are virtual cemeteries that were first invented in the 90s. It is a place in the online space where anyone can come and make an impromptu commemoration of the deceased, write something important and even leave virtual flowers. This is a place for personal grief, a new way of mourning. Not everyone has the opportunity to visit the grave, and in this case a virtual cemetery can also mean democratization of access to the deceased. There are even pet cemeteries. Many sites have been around for so long that their design is outdated, but people still visit them

Finally, special chatbots are being developed that ‘learn’ using all downloaded data — correspondence, voice messages, videos — and in fact become a digital avatar one can talk to.

Chatbot is a radical way not to overcome death, which is impossible, but to remain in the form of a digital presence for other people, and to be both an active archive of information about oneself and an equal conversation partner.

A famous example is DadBot. It was created by a young programmer whose father was dying of cancer. The bot’s creator recorded dozens of hours of conversations with his father, while he was still alive, and made a chatbot based on those talks, having received consent of all the relatives and his father himself. The program works fine; it realizes that it is a program that can’t replace a person, but it reproduces father’s voice and reactions. The project is not commercial, and the bot is only used by the developer’s family. It is their way to work through their loss. Almost like Black Mirror, but with a happy end.

WIRED/YouTube

Chatbots are very experimental, they exist only in the form of small startups and custom designed projects. The big problem is that you need to be sure that you are not violating someone’s rights: you need to collect informed consents from all the people involved, so that no one is against using the data and there is no ethical collision.

In addition, people are afraid of death. But after death, although physically we will not be there, there is a chance for us to be surrounded by family staying here as such chatbot. In this case, is there anything to be afraid of? There will always be an opportunity to Skype call, for example, your beloved grandmother, talk to her and learn a pie recipe. In fact, we can live forever. Then the existential tension of death will be removed, and people may even have to reconsider their attitude towards death in culture.

Nevertheless, many people like this idea, although the demand is not very high. One of the reasons is the strength of mourning tradition. Such doppelgangers seem to remove the need to grieve, but do not offer anything in return, and normally every person needs time to live through a loss after the death of a loved one.

Of course, technology can only create the illusion of life and can’t return a person as a living human being. But it is about working with the fear of death. Firstly, it is important for a person to understand that there will be something to remember him or her by, secondly, he or she has an opportunity to create a posthumous appearance while he or she is still here, make memories for for future generations, and, thirdly, those chatbots can have therapeutic effect and support a person who has lost a loved one.

Thanatosensitive Digital Environment

Black Mirror / Channel 4

The digital environment is space for those who are alive. Researchers studying the phenomenon of digital afterlife, began thinking on how to rebuild this environment so that it is more sensitive to the issues of human life temporality.

One of the first scientists to begin developing the concept of thanatosensitivity was Michael Massimi. He talked to people who had lost loved ones, and tried to understand what they expected from others when they felt bad. The answers were very different, from complete disregard to maximum involvement in all activities.

Therefore, thanatosensitivity suggests that people will be able to demonstrate the same attitude to death online as they do offline: grieving, visiting the place where the deceased is, commemorating, or just being left alone. The digital environment should be so adaptable that any person who is in a state of grief feels comfortable.

The difficulty is that attitudes towards death are highly dependent on cultural characteristics. Japanese and Americans, of course, will grieve differently, but they will use same global services. It turns out that these services should be able to adapt to the peculiarities of different cultures, and this is a very difficult task that has not yet been solved.

To date, Facebook is the most thanatosensitive. Here you can grieve, make a tombstone, and choose a death keeper. Although there are other problems. First, people are often unable to figure out and agree among themselves what the correct mourning looks like and how to grieve. Secondly, every year in Facebook there are more and more ‘dead’ accounts, and the social network is turning into a graveyard. Researchers predict that by 2070 the number of ‘dead’ accounts will exceed the number of ‘living’ accounts. Moreover, it is not always possible to distinguish the ‘dead’ page from the page of a living person, and someone may try to contact the already dead. Plus, Facebook’s algorithms work in a unique way, and the network can offer ads on behalf of a dead person’s account.

Evgenia Sozankova

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