A digital legacy demanding attention

Simon Bignell on 'All the Ghosts in the Machine' by Elaine Kasket.

Facebook, Twitter and Instagram might pride themselves on connecting people, but should this extend beyond a person’s lifetime? Psychologist Elaine Kasket tackles the issues most important to us – privacy, identity, legacy, memory and love. This new book tells the stories that show how the digital age affects how we live and how we die and what becomes of our digital afterlives.

The book uses many real-life case studies to push home Kasket’s main point: that we all should be more aware of our own ‘digital legacy’ after our death, asking us to think about to whom we leave control of this. These case studies are written in a way that pulls no punches. Each is designed to get us thinking ‘that could be me or my family’. Stories such as the parents of a soldier killed in action, who are desperately trying to access his emails and their long legal battles for control. Or, the struggle of a parent to remove photos on social media of her daughter posing with the man who murdered her. The last chapter gives a clear sense of what you can do today to protect your digital legacy and manage your online presence after you die.

We visit many places, people and examples of how our digital assets continue to tell the stories of our lives, for better or worse, long after our bodies die. Kasket presents these cases and the lessons learned from them, then moves rapidly to the next words of wisdom, cautiously and respectfully navigating the often culturally difficult topic of death. The reader is sometimes left hanging, wondering how things turned out. Having been drawn into their plights, the outcomes are less certain, which leaves a feeling of wondering ‘could this be me’. Whether this is an intended device of the book or a consequence of covering so much ground is uncertain. The pacing of the book is not so much an endurance marathon but a series of many rapid sprints that are as exhausting as they are exhilarating to consider.

The book will be of interest to anyone who has used the web and will be valuable to both cyberpsychologists and social psychology researchers. The book delves deep into the mass of ethical and legal issues that are emerging across this new digital territory. The writing is top-notch, and although written for non-specialists, it is never dumbed down and firmly speaks the language of psychology. For book lovers of psychology or popular science, this style of writing will be a familiar mix of personal anecdote and empiricism, with academic citations only when needed. This sense of balance in writing is rare and hard to achieve but was flawless.

Kasket writes from her perspective, using a witty and engaging style and draws on her own family experiences and career as a Counselling Psychologist in the UK. It is impossible to read the book and not be concerned about what your digital legacy might be. The book does not politely ask permission to consider these issues; it demands the reader’s attention to the future consequences of one’s posthumous digital legacy.

All the Ghosts in the Machine makes you aware of how we feel about death and dying in the digital age. It is a deeply psychological book with philosophical questions on almost every page. Would you ‘unfriend’ someone because they died, or would you retain them as a contact in the hope that their digital footprint might help you remember them? Some things don’t feel right, like the feeling of deleting the phone number or message history of a recently dead parent or friend from your mobile phone.

This move towards apparent digital immortality is obvious with Facebook. Kasket describes how in the past they just deleted the accounts of those who had died. But, for several years now Facebook has retained a dedicated legacy team within its staff of 38,000 employees. These specialist staff focus on the memorial pages of late users, and if you have elected to do so in your settings, you can even name a person to look after your account upon your death – both creepy and comforting at the same time. Friends may post tributes and a lasting memory can be preserved. Parts of the book address how social media companies deal with online profiles of the dead but much of the book looks deeper than that and reflects on who we are now and how we might be remembered, and if we can do anything about that.

In a thousand years, the archives of our digital presence might be the only personal artefact left that remains of us. If we want to reveal insights of who we are today to future generations, we better ensure that we get things in order before we head off.

 - All the Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age by Elaine Kasket is published by Robinson. Read an exclusive chapter here

- Simon Bignell is a Chartered Psychologist and Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Derby. He is a founding member of the British Psychological Society's Cyberpsychology Section.

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