From the Archives
On March 4th 2020, ICTC spoke with Carl Öhman
as part of ICTC’s new Tech & Human Rights Series
. Kiera Schuller, Research and Policy Analyst with ICTC, interviewed Carl about his doctoral work at the Oxford Internet Institute, which falls at the intersection between economic sociology and ethics. Specifically, Carl’s research looks at the ethical challenges regarding commercial management of ‘digital human remains,’ the term for data left by deceased users on the internet, which was the topic of his 2016 award-winning thesis at Oxford. In this interview, Kiera and Carl delve into the intersections of emerging technologies and ethics, and discuss personal data, the digital afterlife, and the management/ethics of digital remains.
Kiera: Thank you for making the time to speak with us today, Carl. I know that you’ve been immersed in your topic for ages, but for the sake of our readers who may be unfamiliar with this field, could you talk a bit about “digital remains,” the “digital afterlife,” and what these terms refer to?
Carl: ‘Digital remains’ is the term researchers use to denote online data that you leave behind after you pass away. That can refer to any kind of data — not just stuff that is online or in the cloud, but also things that are stored on your private hard drive, cellphone, and other private devices. It can also be conceived as digital estates or an informational corpse. ‘Digital afterlife’ is a term that was primarily used early on when this field emerged and is essentially synonymous with the ‘being’ of your person after death. Our informational remains continue having a social life by themselves after we’re gone. ‘Digital Afterlife’ refers to the posthumous social life we have online — it is what happens to our profiles, their continuous role in the networks where we leave them behind.
It’s important to note that the relationship between information and the individual is not just something that you own: information is something that you are, like your body, hence the analogy of digital remains or a corpse.
Kiera: Are there cultural differences in the ways people perceive how digital remains, or profiles of the dead online, should be treated?
Carl: A common assumption is that questions of death are very culturally imbued, because death occupies such a central position in any culture, with rituals, etc. But when it comes to handling digital remains, there actually isn’t much evidence to support the idea that various cultures and religions have different perspectives on it. Rather, it seems that religions, which have given answers to so many parts of life, do not give guidance as to what to do with your Facebook profile. There is no cultural standard for how to approach digital remains, so we need to now invent a new cultural approach. Research so far shows that there tends to be conflicts in approaches between individuals — family members, friends, etc. — as to how to approach the digital remains of a loved one. People have different approaches to the status of the data — for example, perhaps a mother wants to take down any trace of her child from the internet, while her friends use these platforms to make sense of the absence of their friends, or perhaps vice versa. But these clashes of individual differences are not bound to cultures or religions. Generally, though, we need more hard data and research on this topic.