A FEW MONTHS AGO, I got a terrible fright. I was on my smartphone, rereading my old WhatsApp exchanges with a friend who had died in a car accident a year earlier, when suddenly the screen flickered and the friend came “online.” Presumably a relative had possession of the phone and was going through it; maybe they were looking to retrieve some specific piece of information, or perhaps they simply wanted to revisit their loved one’s online life — just as one might peruse a photo album or a trove of letters. There was a simple explanation, but I was nonetheless spooked: it was unnerving to see the account spring to life, because we tend to think of social media profiles as being inextricably entwined with their owner’s personhood — an extension, almost, of their physical selves.

What is the moral and legal status of a person’s digital avatar and its accumulated data? Is it merely property like any other, or does it occupy its own special category? In 2018, Germany’s Federal Court of Justice ruled that the parents of a 15-year-old girl who died after falling under a train had the right, under inheritance law, to access her Facebook account. The parents, who believed their daughter may have intended to kill herself, wanted to read her online correspondence to establish whether she was being bullied at the time of her death. This brought them into conflict with Facebook’s strict privacy policy, which permits only the most limited access for relatives of deceased users: they can either “memorialize” the profiles or delete them outright. Overturning the decision of an appeals court that had found in Facebook’s favor, the country’s highest court held that such digital data should be treated no differently than a person’s private diaries, passing to their legal heirs after death.

Intuitively this feels right, especially in the circumstances of that particular case. But merely having access to an account is one thing; using it to post new content in the name of the deceased person is another. Over the years there have been several well-publicized cases where grieving parents have taken control of their dead child’s account and posted from it, only for Facebook to sweep in and shut it down. Whatever spiritual consolation the bereaved parent may have derived from using the account was trumped by the child’s right to privacy. This, too, feels correct. Clearly there is a balance to be struck: if and when other jurisdictions decide to recognize a concept of digital inheritance as Germany has done, it must be legislated in such a way as to safeguard the sanctity of the deceased user’s online identity.

There were some 50 million dead Facebook users as of June 2019, and the number of dead users is projected to exceed the number of living ones before too long; with each passing day, the platform is turning inexorably into a giant ghost ship. The burgeoning market for “digital end of life planning” services — with companies such as DeadSocial offering to help you sort out your “digital legacy” — reflects a growing acknowledgment that the bureaucracy of online life needs tending to in advance of IRL death. Davide Sisto, a philosopher and thanatologist at the University of Turin, has written a fascinating book on death and the internet, now translated into English by Bonnie Mcclellan-Broussard as Online Afterlives: Immortality, Memory, and Grief in Digital Culture.

While acknowledging the legal and ethical dilemmas spawned by the digitalization of the grieving process, Sisto is relatively sanguine about its long-term social effects. As death “has become digital,” he writes, “[w]e are now experiencing a rediscovery of its communal dimension,” with the help of various companies specializing in “digital memory preservation services.” Sites like Elysway echo the format of a memorialized Facebook page: users upload photos and videos of their loved ones, along with condolences and memories. Another site, SafeBeyond, differs slightly in that photos, videos, and other materials are curated by the deceased themselves in advance of their death, and bequeathed to their loved ones as a sort of parting gift. These platforms can be a tad corny — Elysway users are called “passengers,” while the deceased person is called a “star” and the admin is an “angel” — but they serve a valuable function, allowing people to come together in virtual space to grieve and pay tribute.

Attempts to enable the dead to achieve “digital immortality” — through bots, holograms, and digital “counterparts” — are altogether less wholesome. These operate by means of an elaborate deception, drawing on preexisting digital data to produce a simulacrum, replacing, as Sisto explains, “the physical person, in the process of decomposition, with their digital surrogate.” Replika, an Artificial Intelligence “emotional chatbot” app launched in 2018, uses sequence-to-sequence “deep learning” to replicate real human conversational patterns with a high degree of realism. “The goal,” writes Sisto, “is to get closer to creating a digital avatar that would be able to reproduce us and replace us once we’re dead.” This is the explicit logic of Eterni.me, a startup launched in 2019, which aims to create a “digital counterpart” of its user. More than a mere chatbot, the counterpart takes the form of a realistic 3D digital avatar, which will be able to converse with your loved ones after you die. LifeNaut goes even further, offering to “back up” both your mind and your body. Users supply a “BioFile” made up of cryogenically frozen DNA samples for possible future use if cloning ever becomes possible. This is then complemented by a “MindFile”:

[E]ach user needs to respond to around five hundred questions about their personality. The responses are then processed in order to recreate an exact psychological profile of each user. The final result should be an electronically animated avatar that uses a voice synthesizer to describe some key events from the user’s life. This avatar will connect with other people — living and dead — who are interested in exploring the future of technology and enhancing quality of life. Equipped with the user’s facial features, after an individual’s death, these avatars will interact primarily with the surviving relatives and embody the first principle of digital immortality: what matters is the fullness of your mental self, which can and must be transferred to a technological body that will enhance and add value to it. 

However technologically advanced and lifelike, these pseudo-beings will only ever be as good as the recycled information they are made up of, so that “reality becomes just a question of imaginative storytelling and retelling.” The thing that distinguishes a human being from a mere automaton — let’s call it, for the sake of argument, a soul — will be crucially lacking. Sisto insists that “a human being is not a closed system, a system that is conditioned by the total autonomy of procedural reasoning, with its schematic models and principles based on a rigid cause and effect mechanism.”

The companionship offered by such a thing could conceivably provide comfort to people dealing with grief; at a societal level, it could mitigate the effects of long-term loneliness in an aging population. It is perhaps no coincidence that both Replika and Eterni have their origins in personal loss: the former’s founder, Eugenia Kuyda, made a precursor chatbot after she lost a close friend in a car crash, while James Vlahos, the founder of Eterni, was similarly inspired by the death of his father. The impulse is understandable, but there’s a fine line between consolation and denial, between healthy grieving and a kind of digital necrophilia, and Sisto is surely right to wonder if the proliferation of such technologies will alter our relationship with death for the worse, vitiating the sense of closure that the funeral ritual is meant to bring about, and leaving the bereaved stuck in a “pathological melancholy […] unable to spring forward into the future.”

In her 2011 book Planned Obsolescence, literary scholar Kathleen Fitzpatrick suggested that the digitalization of literary life would take us back to the coffee-house culture of storytelling that preceded the advent of print and the codex. Sisto makes a similar argument here about grief: “The internet offers us an occasion for putting the grieving process back into a protected, community context,” restoring a communal aspect that “was lost in the twentieth century with the increasing isolation of the terminally ill in hospitals, the dead in cemeteries […] [,] and the mourners confined in their homes.” QR code headstones, which are increasingly widespread in the United States, are a small step in this direction: they enable users to access a curated digital archive of memories of their loved one — an online biography, videos, and photos — on their smartphone by scanning a barcode on the headstone. The fact that the barcodes are potentially accessible to any cemetery-goer, regardless of their connection to the deceased person, is symbolically significant: the archive of memories effectively becomes public property — on a par with the biographical information traditionally displayed on the headstone.

Sisto suggests that, by tearing down the walls of privacy, such digital innovations can help us overcome the taboo around death itself. He invokes the German Romantic term Weltseele — “world soul” — to express the concept of a communal subjectivity: “[W]e are experiencing the shift from an individual identity to an intersubjective or interconnected one.” The idea that the dead might live with us, not as creepy automatons but in the form of a vast open-source memory box, evokes the metaphysical utopianism of 19th-century philosopher Gustav Theodor Fechner, whose Little Book of Life After Death (1836) advanced the fanciful but comforting theory that life is made up of three stages: the womb stage, the stage from birth until death, and a third stage in which the immortal soul mingles with the rest of the cosmos: “Whatever anyone has contributed during his life, of creation, formation, or preservation, to the sum of human idealism, is his immortal part, which, in the third stage, will continue to operate even if the body […] were long since destroyed.” 

While hanging out with deep-fake ghouls probably won’t do us much good, other digital innovations may, in the long run, reshape our relationship with death and grief in positive ways. In her recent BBC documentary, journalist Jordan Erica Webber interviewed several grieving people who memorialized their loved ones by writing them into video games, a practice that appears to have brought therapeutic benefits. We can expect to see more of this kind of thing in the years to come. Many of us are instinctively squeamish about tinkering with long-established social mores around death, but there is every reason to keep an open mind.

A small but important caveat to this tentative optimism concerns the long-term sustainability of data systems, which, as Sisto rightly points out, have a tendency to be rendered obsolescent by the relentless pace of technological change. A format that feels permanent today might, within a few generations, be unusable. If you want something to really and truly last, nothing beats paper and ink.

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Houman Barekat is a writer and critic based in London, and founding editor ofReview 31. He is co-editor (with Robert Barry and David Winters) of The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online (O/R Books, 2017).