Have You Prepared for Your Digital Afterlife?

“For us, it all started with a simple premise which is that technology has so focused on the near term that even as we developed social media systems that are supposed to consider and encapsulate the entirety of our lives, they’ve often forgotten to consider perhaps the most inevitable part of life – which is that it comes to an end,” says Jed Brubaker, an assistant professor in Information Science at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Brubaker tells Solace that the average internet user has over 190 digital accounts and produces over 850GB of data per year, but is given little information on what to do at life’s end. He’s working to change that.

Brubaker is one year into a five to seven-year project called Digital Hospice: Human-Centered Design for Personal Accounts and Data at the End of Life studying how we can better get our digital lives in order at the end of life. Brubaker has modeled it on hospice care, palliative care and human-centered design, guided by the idea that the “whole human” should be considered. His advisory board includes medical professionals, estate planners, archivists, death doulas and spiritual leaders.

Brubaker says his mission is to “make technology worthy of the complexity of our human lives.” He’s studied “digital afterlives” over the past decade “to improve the management of accounts and data after we die and to better support those we leave behind.” In addition to his academic work, Brubaker has studied death doula and end-of-life care.

With a grant from the National Sciences Foundation, Brubaker’s team is working with terminally ill patients 50 and under and their families in an effort to build best practices and tools to help them plan their digital afterlife. They hope to hold “clinics” to help guide people in planning their tech afterlives.

They hope also to influence software and Internet companies creating the platforms we use to consider what happens when we die. Brubaker helped design Facebook’s Legacy Contact program while still a student.

“There is this growing need to manage our online accounts and data and we have what is effectively a massive usability problem,” Brubaker explained.

He says planning is a piece of what’s needed. Brubaker says he’s encountered so many loved ones that “wanted to do right” but didn’t know how. Asked about what advice he’d give to people after his TEDx Talk, he recalls that he said, “Even if you do not care what happens to your Facebook account, tell them. The amount of burden that takes off them, angst at night or bickering or fighting between family, just tell them, even if the answer is ‘I don’t care. I trust you.’”

Brubaker is not just interested in the mechanics of managing digital data. He’s interested in the human connections behind our online accounts and respecting the meaning of our digital objects and their importance for people. “I think for me it is about preserving stories and relationships and culture because historically what used to happen is that things would be deleted because no one thought they mattered.”

Brubaker says thinking about this “post-mortem data” goes beyond deciding what to do with your social media account or online photos. He says that there may be opportunities in the future to use our data to remember loved ones, “Some proportion of that data is going to live on. And it means we have a future in which our post-mortem data will be available to technology to make designs around and maybe they are designs to help you remember a loved one that passed … there is so much that can be used to encourage remembrance, encourage connections to previous generations and to our own history and culture and I think we have an opportunity to leverage that data to encourage that kind of reminiscence and that historical perspective and engagement, but design work has to be done to help people start to see what that’s going to look like.”

Ready to start preparing for your own or another’s digital afterlife? Some social media and tech companies have provided ways to memorialize your account or arrange for a trusted contact to control your data after you die, companies like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Google and Apple. Find more tips from The Guardian and Cake.

You can follow developments from the University of Colorado’s Digital Hospice project by signing up for their newsletter here.

Photo: Johnson Wang

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