When We Die, What Becomes of Our Digital Lives?
Tomb-Sweeping Festival, which falls this year on April 5, is one of China’s most important traditional holidays. In the words of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) poet Gao Zhu, it is a time when the people busy themselves “offering sacrifices and cleaning tombs that scatter the hilltops.”
But not this year. After another outbreak of COVID-19, governments across China have once again tightened restrictions on tomb-sweeping, closing cemeteries and encouraging residents to instead pay their respects to their ancestors and loved ones online.
In its simplest form, this involves little more than typing, uploading, or editing memorial pages or visiting virtual cemeteries. But as the pandemic has stretched from months into years, more fashionable memorial platforms have sprung up, offering to sell house-bound Chinese digital incense sticks, flowers, and paper money. You can even pay to place kowtowing or bowing figures outside a digital tomb.
These metaverse mausoleums are no doubt convenient, but it’s safe to say that many Chinese see them as a poor substitute for in-person tomb-sweeping. They are a pandemic compromise, not a permanent solution.
If digital mourning cannot replicate the experience of a traditional Tomb-Sweeping Day, it’s also clear that young Chinese are increasingly accustomed to expressing their grief via online platforms and other virtual spaces. When a public figure passes away, it has become common for members of the public to leave notes, messages, and other expressions of grief on social media platforms, not only out of a desire to remember the deceased, but also as a kind of resistance to forgetting.
Perhaps the most representative example of this phenomenon is the public’s commemoration of the Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang. After Li tragically passed away from COVID-19 on Feb. 7, 2020, the comments section of his personal Weibo page became an informal memorial for people to express their condolences, with social media users leaving a constant stream of comments that continues to this day.
These posts and accounts are places of camaraderie and mass bonding. But they also raise an important question: After we die, what becomes of our digital heritage?
Narrowly defined, digital heritage refers to the portion of an individual’s digital assets passed on to relevant beneficiaries as part of their estate after death. In a broader sense, it also includes public assets, such as digital information and materials that have lasting value and merit preservation for future generations, according to UNESCO.
All digital content from our lives can be classified as part of our personal digital heritage. That includes computer-based documents; messages, photos, and videos on social media; email exchanges between individuals; paid-for services, e-books and movies; posts and datasets on knowledge sharing platforms; records and tokens in video games or online games; publications and products for sale on commercial platforms; and music and artworks on personal websites. This content, which can be traded and distributed just like real objects and money, are all part of a person’s digital assets.
The difference, however, is that tangible personal assets like money or property are legally recognized in China, while digital assets aren’t. As a result, many people’s digital assets cannot be passed on, and their accounts cannot be closed or deleted after death.
In recent years, a handful of digital service providers such as Google, Apple, and Facebook have recognized this issue and launched digital heritage services. Streaming site Bilibili announced it would allow accounts belonging to deceased users to be “memorialized” in 2020, while short video platform Kuaishou has begun allowing such accounts to be transferred to a trustee.
However, the digital content covered by these services does not and cannot encompass an individual’s entire digital heritage. Individual tech companies are incapable of systematically helping owners put together or execute plans covering all their digital assets.
If anything, the practices of online service providers often make the management and distribution of digital heritage more complicated. To start with, much of the data people produce does not actually belong to them after they upload it to a platform. In addition, this data is often stored in specific applications, and exporting or backing-up files often requires the same application or runtime environment. Even if the data has been saved or backed-up locally, it cannot be opened or used again at will. Other common problems include the disappearance or deletion of user data due to storage space limitations imposed by service providers or the termination of services by service providers, resulting in users being unable to obtain or permanently store their data.
Then there are the ethical issues around the handling of digital heritage. This problem has become more acute in recent years, as ethicists worry that some people may wish to use technology to permanently hold on to their deceased loved ones. In 2019, a mother in China sought the help of Alibaba’s artificial intelligence lab after her daughter passed away, hoping that engineers could create software that would allow her to interact with her daughter’s likeness. Although Alibaba’s lab was able to develop what she wanted, experts feared the woman, Li Yang, would become addicted to the AI and be unable to get over the pain of losing her daughter. After consultation with sociologists, Alibaba decided to indefinitely postpone delivery of the AI product to Li.
As the digital world grows, the real world needs more people who specialize in digital heritage — what scholar Davide Sisto calls “digital death managers.” Their services would include sorting through digital content that users have posted online; dealing with content that lives on after death, such as social media accounts that are still active; arranging mourning activities; and weighing the consequences and impacts of these activities on a person’s digital heritage.
In other words, digital death managers would not just play the role of traditional estate executors, but they would also be expected to familiarize themselves with the rules of the internet and be able to make the correct judgments and valuations regarding online markets and digital assets.
In the meantime, every one of us should ask ourselves: What parts of our digital lives do we want to be preserved, deleted, or removed? And how do we want them to be passed on? Although often dismissed as fleeting, our digital profiles will almost certainly outlive us. That does not mean we can’t have a say in what happens to them after we’re gone.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: C.J. Burton/Corbis Creative/VCG)