Review: Your Digital Afterlife

Charles 3 Comments

You wait and wait for a great book to come along. Unlike buses, great books don’t come along four at once. They are as single as they are singular. Today’s great book is Your Digital Afterlife.

There have been sporadic lightweight journalistic treatments of the growing importance of making provision for our virtual assets. I last had a look at some as far back, I am now ashamed to say, as November 2009. But, I have just learned, I belong to the nether end of the Boomer generation (46-64 yrs), and we Boomers are far from internet-savvy. Compared with the Millennial Generation (18-29 yrs), 80% of whom texted in the last 24 hrs and 20% of whom have posted videos of themselves online, just 35% of my crew texted in the last 24 hrs and but 2% of us have uploaded videos. Yikes the world is moving from physical to virtual very fast indeed.

Where all assets were once physical, except for lingering memories, now they are increasingly digital. The most obvious examples are letters, documents, music and photos. There’s more.

“Will future generations have less attachment to physical objects?” What an interesting idea. Physical objects are unique, but “one of the unique features of digital things is that two exact copies can exist or one copy can be accessed in multiple places at one time.” Had we only physical assets, they’d be divvied up, some thrown away, and our identity fragmented. Digital assets can be bequeathed complete – to more than just one person.

The law presently regards assets only as physical assets. How do we make sure these endure?

Your Digital Afterlife wants to persuade us of the necessity so, first, it makes the case. Our digital assets are identity-defining: “All this content forms a rich collection that reflects who you are and what you think.” Much of this content may be interactive – comments on your Facebook status “reflecting on your identity”; your comments on others. Future generations will be able to see us as we saw ourselves and as others saw us.

So rich is this content that there’s now “a huge opportunity that’s never been available to ordinary people – a permanent archive of your life that could exist beyond your physical life.” So great is the amount of our content that the authors call on us to curate it. With photos, for example, don’t just leave 10,000 – no one will know where to start. Whittle them down, grade them and tag them.

This is all so new that “as a society we have not thought through the ramifications or considered what will happen to this digital content.”

What’s more, a great deal of this digital content does not reside in our devices (computer, phone, etc), it is stored by businesses which can deny others access – or go bust. What’s more, most of these companies’ terms of service do not make provision for our content on our death. They never thought of it. Here is a matter which needs urgently to be addressed: “Ideally services that host digital content would have an industry-standard or legally enforced way to deal with the death of their members.” It will happen.

In the meantime, we need to appoint a digital executor with the technical nous to enable them to gather up and pass on our digital legacy – having, perhaps, got rid of specified content we’d rather others knew nothing of.

To enable our digital executor to do his or her work, we need to make an inventory of our devices and accounts – on a spreadsheet we can download from the YourDigitalAfterlife website. Meticulous instructions are given.

The book concludes with a speculative look into the future. Is it possible, they wonder, if, one day, artificial intelligence will become so sophisticated that it will be possible to process our store of digital content and create a humanoid robot in our own image?

Your Digital Afterlife is beautifully written – clear, jargon-free, accessible. Its tone is just right, too, companionable, not jokey and joshing nor loftily authoritative. It is both philosophical and practical. It has opened up a new and important field to me.

I have given you but a taster. I urge you to buy it.

And don’t hold your breath for the next book review on this blog.


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12 years ago

Sorry, Charles, but if ‘Digital Afterlife’ were written in Chinese it would make no less sense to me than whatever it is you’re talking about here. I’m of the Miserable Old Git Generation, who laments such ignoble truths as that 80% of children under 30 don’t know that milk comes from a cow; I bleieve it’s precisely because Virtual Reality is undermining physical reality by being the norm from such an early age for our offspring’s generation. My son was 28 yesterday, and I’m proud of him for not even owning a computer and hating the very idea. Ah well,… Read more »

Charles Cowling
12 years ago

Jonathan, you’re such a dinosaur!I made an enormous effort to understand this book and that’s why I am still down with the kids. I am even learning to rap.

You mustn’t let yourself become a relic before your time!