After a loved one passes away, accessing his or her Facebook profile, emails, and other “digital assets” often puts family members in a legal bind. But there’s a robust array of online services tailor-made for people who want to control the future of their own digital content, pre-mortem. Brooke talks with Evan Carroll, co-author of the book, Your Digital Afterlife, about the potential for these services to change the way we think about death.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the Uniform Law Commission’s proposed law could offer a solution to this most modern of problems. But meanwhile, the private sector has stepped in. Evan Carroll, co-author of the book, Your Digital Afterlife, says there's a robust array of online services tailor-made for people who want to secure the future of their own digital content, pre-mortem.
EVAN CARROLL: That sounds a bit morbid to think about, but in reality if you start thinking about all the photographs, the videos, the emails, all the digital information you've collected over the years, if you don't do something to make sure your heirs can access that information, chances are good they will have difficulty accessing it. Thinking about the various online services available, there are ones like SecureSafe, based out of Switzerland. They're basically an online safe deposit box that allows you to put in your usernames, passwords, other important documents, and when you’re gone make sure that’s shared with an heir.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s a service that caught my eye called Dead Man’s Switch. You can create a message to be sent after your death and Dead Man's Switch asks that the users log in periodically to verify that they are still alive, and if they don't log in after three email reminders then their post-death messages are sent out. That's really asking for trouble, isn’t it?
EVAN CARROLL: It is asking for trouble. This was actually one of the earliest services that I saw come about in 2008, and it operates kind of like a, a train. The train operator has to have their hand on the switch in order for the train to continue running. If their hand is removed from the switch, that's when the train stops. And so, this is a similar concept. I’ve actually signed up for Dead Man's Switch.
I have effectively killed myself by ignoring all of the emails. The third email says, “We really hope to hear from you soon.”
And it’s, it’s kind of interesting to read their increasing motivation to get you to reply.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Once you didn't reply, though, did your after-death goodbyes get sent out?
EVAN CARROLL: They did, in fact, get sent. And, of course, they were sent right back to me because [LAUGHS] I specified myself as the recipient.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There's one called LIVESON, which learns your tweeting voice and tweets after you're dead. It has the tagline, “When your heart stops beating, you'll keep tweeting.”
EVAN CARROLL: You know what's interesting about these services, like LIVESON, what they really are is they’re a way for you to have control beyond your physical life. They look at the way you typically use phrases, they look at things you typically said and they use basically artificial intelligence algorithms to figure out how you should sound in the future. They’re not perfect right now but I can only imagine that these will become more and more accurate over time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you foresee a time when we just have a digital presence that would actually make a difference in the world after we’re gone?
EVAN CARROLL: Well, let's back up and talk about Facebook and what happens to it when we’re gone. Our profiles become a memorial. Let's say that you and I both know a person who has passed away but we don't know each other ourselves. On the anniversary of their death, I might go post on their Facebook page and you might do so, as well, and perhaps we get a conversation started. The person who is no longer with us still effectively introduced you and I.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
EVAN CARROLL: And so, if we extrapolate that out to how technology might advance and how we might have robots that continue to post on our behalf and things like that, the question I start to ask is, you know, why not? Why could we not continue to participate in society once we’re gone?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm.
EVAN CARROLL: Now, I'll also answer my question. Thirty years in the future, my great-grandchildren might be able to sit down and have a conversation with me that's based upon all the tweets and emails that I had written, my opinion on current events, my mannerisms. It would certainly be synthetic but it would be a richer experience than they might have today.
But on the age-old question, “just because we can, should we?” I think we have to get to the point where society is willing to accept it before we can really move forward.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On the other hand, there are already a couple of services that claim to be able to do something like this, LifeNaut and Eterni.me, which has got the tagline, “Simply Become Immortal.”
It professes to collect everything that you created during your lifetime, process it through these artificial intelligence algorithms and then generate a virtual “You.”
EVAN CARROLL: So thinking about these services, like LifeNaut or Eterni.me, these are really prototypes. And even though the results may not be quite good enough yet, if they have the content, chances are good that they’ll continue to advance their technology. So if you want to have one of these available, it might make sense to start looking into them now –
- so that in the future, [LAUGHS] they, they might improve.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Doesn’t the industry have to wrestle with the problem of just kind of creepiness?
EVAN CARROLL: You're absolutely right. If we still had the ability to talk to every single person who ever lived, wouldn’t we find that a bit overwhelming?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Actually, the way that you put it, as long as they're not eating and creating a carbon footprint and using nonrenewable resources, you know, if I could go back and talk to Galileo or something that would be really cool!
EVAN CARROLL: Certainly, it would be really cool for some individuals. My question is, would we feel this obligation to tend the digital avatars of our ancestors? And would that just simply become too much over time? I'm, I'm honestly not sure. We’re kind of breaking the rules of life as we have this discussion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But I can imagine a kind of Library of Congress of – characters. We don't tend them, we just plunder them when we need them for our purposes. They’re not alive, after all.
EVAN CARROLL: You’re onto an interesting notion there, that we could pull up the remote and turn Grandma on and speak to her and then say, okay, well, “Grandma, this was a nice visit and we’re going to put you on mute now.”
And there is a certain guilt you don’t have in doing that because they’re, they’re not really there. It, it would certainly be a fascinating proposition.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Evan, thank you very much.
EVAN CARROLL: Thank you so much for having me.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Evan Carroll is co-author of the book, Your Digital Afterlife. He also runs a website called The Digital Beyond.