After You Die, What Happens To The Digital You? | St. Louis Public Radio

After You Die, What Happens To The Digital You?

Originally published on February 3, 2017 8:05 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Screen Time - Part II

About Adam Ostrow's TED Talk

Many of us have a second self, a virtual personality composed of posts and tweets stored in the cloud. Adam Ostrow asks: What happens to that personality after you die?

About Adam Ostrow

Adam Ostrow is the editor-in-chief at Mashable, a role in which he is responsible for defining and implementing strategic initiatives across the organization.

Ostrow has been quoted by numerous mainstream media outlets, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, USA Today and The Times of London.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. Our show today, part two of a two-parter we're calling Screen Time.

So August 24, 2015 - this was a big day for our digital lives because it was the first time Facebook attracted a billion users around the world in a single day - 1 in 7 people on the planet.

ADAM OSTROW: Yeah, I think this is one of the most dramatic changes in the way we interact with people, kind of the advent of your social network living within a screen.

RAZ: This is Adam Ostrow. He works at an Internet media company called Mashable. And Adam says the nearly 75 percent of people on earth who use social media have just one thing in common - they are all going to die. At least, in the real world.

OSTROW: We are posting, over the course of a lifetime - if you kind of look at the trajectory of how much people are posting online today - we're creating hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pieces of content that are going to live online long after we're gone. But ultimately, you as an individual can decide what happens to your profiles and your digital data after you die.

RAZ: Here's Adam on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

OSTROW: Now, what first got me thinking about this was a blog post authored by Derek K. Miller, who was a science and technology journalist who died of cancer. And what Miller did was have his family and friends write a post that went out shortly after he died. Here's what he wrote in starting that out. He said, (reading) here it is. I'm dead, and this is my last post in my blog. In advance, I asked that once my body finally shut down from the punishments of my cancer that my family and friends publish this prepared the message I wrote, the first part of the process of turning this from an active website to an archive.

Now, while as a journalist Miller's archive may have been better written and more carefully curated than most, the fact of the matter is that all of us today are creating an archive that's something completely different than anything that's been created by any previous generation.

Consider a few stats for a moment. Right now there are 48 hours of video being uploaded to YouTube every single minute. There are 200 million tweets being posted every day, and the average Facebook user is creating 90 pieces of content each month. So when you think about your parents or your grandparents, at best, they may have created some photos or home videos, or a diary that lives in a box somewhere. But today we're all creating this incredibly rich digital archive that's going to live in the cloud indefinitely years after we're gone. And I think that's going to create some incredibly intriguing opportunities for technologists.

RAZ: It's actually kind of amazing how many technology companies are already thinking about this, about what happens to all the stuff that makes up our online lives once our real lives are over. So for example, Gmail lets relatives order a CD of all the messages in a deceased user's account. They actually have this very detailed form for this request. You need to upload a government ID, have power of attorney. For Facebook, you can choose to keep your profile in a memorial state after you die. There are sites like Legacy Locker that store your password so a preselected recipient has access to them after you're gone. And there are a lot of services and apps out there that let you send posthumous messages, actual last words.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Last words. We all hope we'll get a chance to say some. But not knowing when or where we're going to die makes it a bit tricky. Thankfully, with if I die, it's a whole lot easier. Simply install the app on Facebook, leave your message and choose trustees that will be in charge of reporting your death. Now, you're probably thinking to yourself, I don't remember scheduling an appointment with death anytime soon, and you're right. But so is death right - around the corner.

OSTROW: Kind of creepy, right? So another service right now is called 1000Memories, and what this lets you do is create an online tribute to your loved ones, complete with photos and videos and stories that they can post after you die. But what I think comes next is far more interesting. I think as machines' ability to understand human language and process vast amounts of data continues to improve, it's going to become possible to analyze an entire life's worth of content - the tweets, the photos, the videos, the blog posts that we're producing in such massive numbers. And I think as that happens it's going to become possible for our digital personas to continue to interact in the real world long after we're gone, thanks to the vastness of the amount of content we're creating and technology's ability to make sense of it all. Taking it a step further, MIT's media lab is working on robots that can interact more like humans. But what if those robots were able to interact based on the unique characteristics of a specific person, based on the hundreds of thousands of pieces of content that that person produces in our lifetime? I think that's going to become completely possible as the amount of data we're producing and technology's ability to understand it both expand exponentially.

Now, in closing, I think what we all need to be thinking about is if we want that to become our reality, and if so what it means for our definition of life and everything that comes after it. Thank you very much.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: I mean, if our lives - if our digital lives are meaningful enough to live on beyond our physical life spans, like, what does that say about the lives we are actually living?

OSTROW: From my perspective, I don't think you're ever going to be able to re-create what makes us human, right? I do think, however, that technology will enable us to think differently about people that are gone and maybe interact with them in a way that is somewhat lifelike. You know, when I think about - my last grandparent passed away about 10 years ago, in 2004, and I don't even have one video or audio recording of their life. I mean, I have some writing that they did, some letters, some photos. But there's zero digital data, and the only place I even have a vision of their voice or their motion is in my head. And that's just so radically different than what future generations are going to experience. They're going to be able to look back at their - not only their parents, but their grandparents, their great-grandparents, and just see this tremendous amount of first-person data about who they were and what they did and how they lived their lives. And I think that's incredibly fascinating and a huge shift in how we deal with legacy and knowing who we are and where we come from.

RAZ: Imagine that - your great-grandkids looking at an archived version of your Facebook profile or your Twitter page a hundred years from now.

OSTROW: Oh, gosh, what was my last tweet this week? What's our fantasy football draft? (Laughter).

RAZ: That is your legacy.

OSTROW: (Laughter).

RAZ: And then he said, is it the fantasy football draft?

OSTROW: Yeah, it was definitely not anything too inspiring (laughter) for future generations.

RAZ: Adam Ostrow is the chief strategy officer at Mashable. His talk is at Ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.