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Future Society

The Digital Afterlife is Open for Business. But It Needs Rules.

Ethicists argue that our cyber selves should get the same postmortem dignity as our corpses.

Dan RobitzskiApril 18th 2018

Death in the digital era is just plain weird. People keep writing “happy birthday” on the Facebook walls of deceased friends; that relative who keeps changing her profile picture to your late grandmother. In short: no one is quite sure how to navigate the little-charted territory of the digital afterlife.

A number of companies have popped up to cash in on confused grief  help us modernize the way we mourn. But so far (and perhaps unsurprisingly), the digital afterlife industry, which can include online memorial services or even re-creation algorithms that attempt to write messages and posts in the dead person’s voice, has been more or less unregulated.

So let’s say you commission some company to write messages in your dead daughter’s voice. What’s to stop it from trying to sell you something in the process, or suddenly having your daughter spout Nazi gibberish? Nothing but the company’s own whims. Which is messed up.

A solution? To treat people’s digital remains as though they were physical human remains. That’s what ethicists from the Oxford Internet Institute argue in a research article published in Nature Human Behavior earlier this month.

The study authors draw inspiration from relatively successful ethical guidelines for how museum exhibits and other archaeological finds ought to handle human remains. That is: according to the International Council of Museums’ Code of Professional Ethics, which requires that museums treat their collections professionally, with the primary purpose of benefiting culture and society. That is, it requires treating remains with “human dignity.”

Applied to the virtual persona, one could imagine that the digital afterlife industry would similarly be expected to do everything they can to represent people genuinely, with as accurate a recreation of who they were as possible.

One key element: the code applies to the remains of people who haven’t even heard of it. So the deceased hadn’t learned about re-creation companies or any other digital afterlife service pre-mortem, the code would add transparency and accountability for how their data will be stored and used.

For people who sign up for these services themselves, the regulations suggested by the Oxford ethicists would require companies to inform customers exactly what will be done with their digital remains when they die.

And for everyone else, it’s probably comforting to know that there are ethical guidelines for an industry that profits off of grief and confusion. Whatever value people glean from these companies is their own business, and that’s all well and good. What these ethicists are trying to stop and prevent is those people from being exploited along the way.

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