Data, Death, and What Comes Next

Katie Shilton - April 30, 2024

A scholar outlines how to respect the digital traces the dead leave behind

Digital humanity in space.

The digital traces of the dead are increasingly part of our lives, argues professor of political science Carl Öhman in The Afterlife of Data. This supposition sparks Öhman’s groundbreaking empirical and philosophical exploration of how we should think about, and act to protect, data generated by those who have died. To make his arguments, Öhman draws from fields as diverse as philosophy, political science, history, sociology, museum and archival studies, human–computer interaction, and media studies. The book is compulsively readable, peppered with engaging personal anecdotes, rich historical examples, and analyses of major cultural touchstones that offer readers insight into one of the most important digital ethics debates of the day: how we should treat digital data about (dead) people.

Öhman begins by placing our interactions with the dead in historical and social context, likening our current digital age to the first ancient civilizations that lived among (rather than migrating away from) their dead. He then extends a current philosophical and policy debate about whether personal data should be thought of more like property, or more like something constitutive of personhood: what he calls “an informational body.” Öhman builds a convincing argument that digital data should be considered not only part of a person’s living body but also part of their corpse. This analogy provides guidance for legal and cultural protections to preserve the dignity of corpse-like digital data.
Öhman next moves into the territory of knowledge creation, exploring how digital data can serve as a diverse, representative, and (perhaps frighteningly) detailed archive of the lives of the dead. Öhman adds a convincing voice to a call begun by archivists, librarians, data curators, and researchers for urgent societal-level conversations about who should control, have access to, and be able to learn from the digital heritage documented by social data.

The book is sometimes sweeping in its statements, and some conclusions are less convincing than others. Öhman starts and ends with the argument that how we deal with our dead is at the core of how we define civilization—and that the dead’s digital presence among us therefore represents a civilization-shifting disruption. Even after reading the book’s many examples of tweets from the dead and artificial intelligence–enabled reanimations, I was unconvinced that the digital dead are manifestly present in the digital sphere and, therefore, disrupting our civilization in the ways Öhman argues. And although Öhman is refreshingly frank in calling out science fiction visions of the relationship between data and death, such as downloading consciousness or building sentient artificial intelligence, even the futures he sees as plausible—for example, platforms allowing huge numbers of bots that represent dead users to post indefinitely—seem dicey to confidently predict.

Fortunately, the challenges of predicting the future do not undermine the thought-provoking nature of Öhman’s call to action. As he argues, questions of digital data rights for the dead (and for the living, for that matter) require urgent democratic deliberation, and the book begins to sketch high-level ideas for action. Öhman recommends that large technology platforms adopt professional codes of ethics, such as those developed by museum professionals. More importantly, he advocates for expanding the number of organizations that have at least partial control over our digital heritage, decentralizing the absolute power now held by large technology companies. For example, he recommends that much-needed appraisal decisions about long-term data retention could be made by expert groups of archivists and historians, with the work coordinated by groups like international heritage nongovernmental organizations. And he emphasizes the urgent need for policy changes to include rights for the dead in evolving international data protection legislation.

Because the book is both accessible and wide-ranging, it would be a welcome addition to the classroom. Undergraduates and graduates in a variety of disciplines will find diverse, of-the-moment examples to inspire debates and perhaps change ingrained thinking about the nature of digital data. Furthermore, Öhman’s work holds the potential to influence not only current tech and policy decision-makers but also the next generation of software developers, social media executives, and policy-makers—the very generation that will increasingly live among the digital dead.

The original article was written by Katie Shilton and published by on April 25, 2024.