TechKNOW Tomorrow – Digital Possessions: What Happens to Our Virtual Selves When We Pass Away?

Image by Marvin Meyer via Unsplash.

The only certainty we have in life is death. It’s a topic we try to avoid at all costs because it’s usually the thing that we fear the most. That said, it’s important that we plan for it, which includes creating a will that details what happens to our physical AND digital possessions after we pass away.

With each passing year, we become even more reliant on technology to help us with our day-to-day lives. As a result, physical media seems to be on its way out. We take pictures with smartphones and store them digitally instead of having images printed and organized into albums. We download video games rather than buy game cartridges or discs. Streaming services like Netflix have all the movies and TV shows we could ever want to watch, replacing DVDs and Blu-ray discs for the most part.

‘What’s the big deal?’, you might be thinking. Well, this means that most of us will be leaving virtual possessions behind to our loved ones. Your photos stored in the Cloud (virtual storage) aren’t as easy to inherit as a series of photo albums. To complicate matters, it’s not as simple as writing down your passwords; these are often required to change periodically.

Furthermore, it’s impossible to tell which virtual services will still be available in the future. PlayStation Plus, Facebook, Amazon Prime, Spotify… Who knows how long any online service will continue to exist for? In the blink of an eye, you can literally lose years of priceless memories if you don’t regularly back up data to an external hard drive or the Cloud.

Spirits in the Cloud

Image by Neda Astani on Unsplash.

The Cloud is used for practically everything we do online, from the files we upload to the social media websites we use for posting. For example, the only reason we can see tweets from people around the world – as well as live updates, edits, and frequent comments – is because they are stored on a massive server somewhere, just like our pictures are when they’re uploaded to Google Drive.

When you buy physical media such as “a hardbound book or music on a physical CD … The work itself is still protected by copyright, but the actual book or CD is yours. … The harsh reality, though, is that when you download a book from Amazon on your Kindle, or buy a new album from iTunes, you don’t really own anything“.

When you buy digital goods, all you truly receive is a license to access or use that content. You don’t own the songs you’ve bought on iTunes; you’ve agreed with Apple to have access to the songs as long as you’re still alive. That license can’t legally be transferred to others.

In short, you can’t transfer your digital collections. Much of what helps shape who you are – your “spirit” – will be lost in the Cloud, eventually deleted or scavenged by the companies you bought licenses from. No one knows for sure how long your files will safely be stored on the Cloud. Your accounts will likely be deleted after a small period of time following your passing.

If this sounds terrifying, don’t worry. There are some potential solutions that can ensure that your family and friends have things with which to remember you by.

How We Can Inherit Digital Assets

Think about any post you’ve ever made online. It could have been a blog post, an e-mail, or a poem you shared, or maybe even pictures or videos of a convention you visited. With physical media, you would have just written your documents on paper (like a book) or stored your photos in a lovely album, making them easy to give to loved ones once the time finally came. But how do you inherit a digital image or a blog post?

While licenses for cloud products and services expire when we do, the same isn’t true for content that actually belongs to us. The files and online posts we create are considered digital assets, and can be treated identically to physical ones once we pass away. “This means they can be bequeathed (providing we have actual ownership – not just a licence to use them) or, if they contain information which we wish to be kept forever private, deleted“.

And while it may be difficult to imagine inheriting a lengthy Facebook memory post, there are some workarounds. For instance, you could copy and paste your post into a text editor and save the file. You could take a screenshot of the post on your screen. From here, you can safely transfer the file to an external hard drive or a thumb drive, burn it to a disc, send it via-email/text, or even print it off if you feel the need to.

The point is, the post belongs to you and it’s your job to safeguard it. Family heirlooms are kept in a safe spot and photo albums need to be kept in good condition. Otherwise, your family wouldn’t have anything to inherit. The same goes for anything you store on a cloud server. The significant words or images we capture on social media, the documents, images, and videos we store virtually… All of these need to be saved, transferred, and/or printed.

Similarly, it’s important to include your digital assets in your will and to name a digital executor for them so that they can “close certain online accounts (such as social media accounts, subscription services, or any accounts that are paid for like Amazon Prime or Spotify); archive personal files, photos, videos, and other content you’ve created; and delete files from your computer and hard drives“. Regularly send updated username and password lists to the executor to prevent account lockouts. Give that person permission to delete your social media or paid subscription accounts.

Another important thing to note is that most cloud services don’t have a policy in place on the data we upload, meaning it’s still unclear what will happen to our files once we pass away. As we become increasingly reliant on cloud technologies, however, we may soon start to see shifts in policies regarding digital rights management after death.

Ultimately, if everything that defines us is stored virtually, then that means we need to progressively find ways to inherit digital possessions. The only way we can be sure that parts of our digital selves will be remembered is to safeguard our digital assets and transfer them to a physical format of some sort. Whether that’s in the form of an external hard drive, a series of discs, or printed documents is entirely up to us. You can – and should – even do this with smartphones and tablets (though it’s trickier to backup that stuff to an external hard drive)!

In short, the more prep work we place into our digital assets, the more memories we can preserve for future generations.

. . .

At techKNOWtutors, we realize that adapting to technology isn’t easy. Although most services have closed, we remain open – digitally – to answer your internet-related questions. If you need help with improving your digital literacy, send us an email at techknowtutors@cscnl.ca or join our Facebook group and send us a message.

Better yet, sign up for one of our online classes that we offer for FREE every week! Until then, stay in the techKNOW.

3 Comments

  1. Fortunately some companies have started to think about some of those digital possessions. In the Facebook Settings I recently found a Memorialization Settings section, where you designate someone to look after your account after you pass away. Maybe Google will have that feature in a near future. That was a great article as usual Kyle Wiseman and TechKNOWtutors.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that’s right! Facebook has already thought of this, so it should be just a matter of time before other companies implement policies, too. Thanks, Sergio!

      Liked by 1 person

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