The problem of digital demise and digital inheritance boils down to the question of who has ownership. As mentioned in previous posts, our personal data is controlled by higher powers such as the government or giant tech corporates who owns the physical data centers that hold our data. How do we take more control over our own data? Decentralizing the digital assets could be one possible way. The trend now is to decentralize many products and services that used to be dominated by a single group. For example, mobile apps such as Firechat, used for the Hong Kong Umbrella Protest, provide a decentralized form of communication. Rather than relying on one centralized network, people are seeking ways to communicate with each other without having any ties to huge telecommunication companies. Similarly, the development of 3D printers ushers a new era of decentralized manufacturing. No longer do people have to rely on traditional manufacturing methods to produce their products in factories. People will be able to make their own products, food, and even possibly organs on their own with the right materials and a 3D printer. Can we decentralize data?
There are already companies providing storage and data inheritance options. Most notably, LifeNaut, which is a company under the umbrella organization Terasem, allows one to upload DNA samples and memorabilia for hundreds of years. Their main purpose is to “educate the public on the practicality and necessity of greatly extending human life…concentrating in particular on facilitating revivals from bio stasis.” Not only will LifeNaut allow one to hand down own digital assets but also allow your descendants to download and recreate your virtual presence. They could even use your own digital information to recreate a person in the physical world through cryonics. Rather than using Google drive, Dropbox, or other commercial cloud sharing and storage services, one should use multiple storage services such as LifeNaut or CyBeRev to securely pass down your digital information to people you trust with detailed instructions. However, there is always a question of whether “something free from a chartable organization will remain so over the long-term, or whether the organization will remain in existence.” Hence, relying on a third party storage always raises challenges.
In my imagination, there could be a virtual cemetery, where one could come to an official closing with someone’s digital death and inherit his or her digital assets. I am not thinking of a simple website with bunch of people’s profile pictures and logs of their digital activities. I believe a two-dimensional website does not do enough justice for the dead. Just like we hold rituals and funeral services for the dead, there should be a sacred act of acknowledging someone’s digital death. Perhaps virtual reality display technologies such as the Oculus Rift could be incorporated so that people could fully immerse themselves into officiating someone’s death.
A person will be able to upload their social media, business documents, and emails along with a digital will to a cloud service. The digital will can specify who can have access to those information, how he or she wants her data to be used, and what ethical guidelines to follow. These stored data will not belong to any data centers, but remain in a collective digital space. Admittedly, I understand all data needs to hold some kind of physical presence. However, perhaps in the future what we consider the cloud will actually be an intangible cloud, a space that only exists in the digital world. This cloud will belong to everyone. To access a specific person’s folder in the cloud, a person would need to provide a password as well as some biological information specific to the person. Once the computer uses its highly detective sensors to verify that the user matches the person listed for access, only then the user will be able to tap into the deceased’s information. If the deceased granted access to multiple people, those people could access the cloud at the same time. Besides peeking into photos or emails of the dead, maybe those people could even interact with the dead or interact with each other in this virtual space. These fantastical thoughts may seem farfetched. However, the underlying question of how data storage is changing our fundamental view of memory and privacy is worth its attention.