When someone we knows dies there are certain rituals we all observe; we attend a funeral and we try to say goodbye, but do we need to take part in those rituals if we can live forever online

Most people lead a double life nowadays: one in the physical, real world and one online. In the former, limited by deteriorating skin and bones, at some point we will all cease to exist, but do our online selves ever really die?

Not wanting to delve too deep into stoner philosophy, but with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and a litany of other social media apps and websites, does anyone really cease to exist and do we need to grieve if we still have an almost palpable presence to communicate with? In the past anyone who continued to have contact with the dead would have been ostracised and recommended therapy, but now is it really so crazy that people continue to message Facebook accounts after loved ones have passed away?

“For something like Facebook people’s responses have been ‘when I sit on a park bench and I say a prayer and I talk to her, I don’t know if she hears me, but when I write to her on Facebook she hears me. I know it’s not logical, but that’s how it feels’,” says Stacey Pitsillides, lecturer in Design in the Department of Creative Professions and Digital Arts at the University of Greenwich.

But taking death online hasn’t just allowed people to maintain bonds forged in life, it has also created a legitimate space for people who might not be comfortable grieving in the real world. For example, people who suffer miscarriages or people with extramarital partners can find comfort in an online community of people going through the same things as them.

Message me when I’m gone

Our online presences have in some ways disrupted death. Age-old rituals and traditions no longer serve as a full stop at the end of a life well lived; we can think about ourselves as having a continued relationship with people that have died. This phenomenon may have been brought to the Western world by virtue of lingering digital existences, but as Hannah Rumble, member of the General Council for the Association for the Study of Death and Society (ASDS) and the editorial board for the academic journal Mortality, explains it has long been a part of the grieving process in other parts of the world.

“There is this new thing that people do, which is talking to the dead,” says Rumble.  “It follows a lot of cultures and traditions in Japan and Africa and in other places where actually talking to the dead as ancestors and figuring out what their place is in your life is quite an important thing – that kind of negotiation of actually I want to continue a relationship with you and not let go of it.”

Thanks to the digital world, we can see new rituals around death being constructed, and we are moving beyond traditional right and wrong ways of grieving. “People are making up their own rituals and the fact that these things are appearing online is quite good for people to begin to create the kind of space that allows them to feel comfortable enough to say in the middle of their friendship group, ‘I miss you and I wish you were back here’,” says Rumble.

At the wake

Whether you believe continuing relationships online after death is a good or bad thing, most people would agree that they have no right to impinge on others’ chosen method of grieving. Arguing that it’s a good idea to almost voyeuristically thrust yourself into the midst of others’ grief takes another level of apologist though. But Andréia Martins, journalist, anthropologist and PhD student at the University of Bath’s Centre for Death and Society, argues just that. She explains that in her native Brazil one of the most important rituals following a death is the wake, and Martins is an administrator for a group of Facebook users who tune into strangers’ virtual wakes.

“On a Sunday afternoon they [the viewers] can be at their homes in front of their computers watching the virtual wake of a stranger and they will debate what they’re seeing,” says Martins. “They can make comments about trivial things like the amount of people in the room or the amount of flowers, if there are people crying, but they will also share their own experiences of death and dying, so it can be quite a therapeutic thing to do.”

Martins says she has identified three reasons why people would want to be virtually present at a wake organised for someone they don’t know. Firstly, curiosity draws people in; some people want to be aware of how friends and family behave at a wake. Secondly, if some young people weren’t allowed to attend a funeral for a family member they take the opportunity virtual wakes present to be involved in such a peculiar event, and, thirdly, if someone has recently lost a family person or a friend they may want to see others going through the same experience.

For some virtual wakes may be a morbid experience, but in Martins eyes – and I’m sure to their viewers as well – they have contributed to people having a “nicer relationship with death”.

The afterlife

What people who continue to message Facebook accounts, once their family and friends have passed away, have stumbled upon is that when we die we leave behind vast digital archives that contain our personalities, our fears, our interests and our desires. These archives are created incrementally from information that appears ephemeral, but adds up to us, a complete reproduction of our character. It’s not outrageous then that people would use that information to bring people back from the dead.

This idea has already been explored in fiction. In the sci-fi drama series Black Mirror, a young woman named Martha subscribes to a service that uses her deceased fiancé’s social media accounts to create a digital avatar capable of mimicing his personality. And this has already moved from fiction into real life; a Russian woman Eugenia Kuyda used artificial intelligence to bring back her friend Roman Mazurenko. The bot Kuyda created was able to impersonate Mazurenko and interact with people in text form. While it only represented a shadow of the real man, some people found it therapeutic.

Not everyone will be comfortable communicating with people once they have died, but soon enough everyone may have to ask themselves the question: if you have a chance to keep hold of your loved ones, albeit in another form, would you take it?

In a world of increased connectivity, where our presence and behaviour is increasingly being tracked by the technology we use, is there a place for privacy? We hear from Scobleizer’s Robert Scoble, author, blogger and VR and mixed reality evangelist, and Salil Shetty, secretary-general of Amnesty International, about whether there’s space to hide as the technologies of 2017 provide us with ever-more data about the world around us

From 2017, according to technology evangelist Robert Scoble, we are going to see technologies that give us unprecedented information about the world around us, including the people in it.

“The next iPhone is going to be a clear iPhone with a 3D sensor that is so sensitive that it can see your heart beating from about 3ft away,” said Scoble, CEO of Scobleizer, at a debate at Web Summit, during which he spent the entire time wearing a Microsoft Hololens. “It’s so sensitive it can see how hard you’re touching on a desk and it can see the fibres on a jacket from 3ft away so it can check its authenticity from that distance.

“It’s the same technology that is going to be running our self-driving cars, or a very similar technology, and is already being used at Qualcomm in drones to see the world. We are heading into a mixed reality world; one where things like this Microsoft Hololens are going to be very commonplace.”

In a world where the digital seems to be stripping away our privacy at every turn, however, this may not be the best news.

“The world we’re about to enter is going to bring us huge new increases in functionality and features, and they do come with a scary price: I will know a lot about you. Soon,” said Scoble with glee.

Value of technology’s utility

In reality, any technologies that do infringe further on our privacy will likely be accepted, Scoble argues, because they will provide us with knowledge and abilities that will enrich our lives.

“The utility of all these technologies that are coming are going to be extraordinary,” he said. “They’re going to save my kid’s life from killing himself in a car; they’re going to make it easy for me to walk into a shopping mall and find the blue jeans; it’s going to let me play new kinds of video games with my kids in virtual reality, augmented reality.”

Image courtesy of Web Summit

He gave the example of a scenario familiar to many convention regulars: where you are in the presence of a person you know is important, but you can’t work out who they are. This situation was experienced by Scoble himself when he was talking to Peter Piot at the World Economic Forum earlier this year.

“He had a badge on so I knew his name – I knew he worked for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – but I couldn’t get on my phone because I couldn’t get Wi-Fi, and I couldn’t figure out who he was,” he said.

In this instance, it was obvious to Scoble that Piot was extremely important, but not why.

“I did know he was highly technical because of how he was talking to people, and I knew he was a god among people because everybody was genuflecting, so I knew he was important in some way but I couldn’t figure out how.”

In the future, Scoble said, this problem would be resolved, because mixed reality glasses would provide the wearer with pertinent information pulled from the web about those around them.

“Soon I’m going to have glasses with LinkedIn right here that’s going to tell me who he is,” he said, pointing to his eyes. “The first line on LinkedIn is going to say he discovered the Ebola virus. I wish I had known that when I was talking to him!”

Protecting privacy

As exciting as this technology is, in this increasingly connected reality we do, however, need to maintain a certain level of personal privacy. Salil Shetty, secretary-general of Amnesty International, was keen to remind the assembled crowd of developers, investors and tech enthusiasts of the importance of something we often blindly take for granted.

“Privacy in a sense is being used as shorthand for human rights now because privacy is a key enabler for freedom of expression, freedom of speech and many other key human rights,” he said.

Privacy is a key enabler for freedom of expression, freedom of speech

“Every day of the week that governments are using the same power of digital technology to crack down on dissent, on freedom of expression, on our position and it’s very different if you’re having this conversation in mature democracies, say like the United States, but Amnesty’s work, a lot of it, is in places like Ethiopia, Egypt, Vietnam, China.

“If you’re raising your voice against the government in any of these places and you do not have the privilege of privacy, you’re dead meat.”

He gave the example of the Malaysian cartoonist Zunar who, according to Shetty “had 11 sedition charges against him, one each tweet”.

“Journalists in Mexico are being hounded because of what they do,” he added. “If you want to meet journalists in Turkey right now where would you go? You go to jail, that’s where they are. And a lot of this is happening because of exposure online. Women, minorities, LGBT activists, all being hounded.”

Technology: the cause and solution

However, although technology can expose people to human rights abuses, and any technology that is developed has the potential to increase this, Shetty believes technology can also provide the answer to this problem.

“It’s not a question in my view as to whether it’s privacy or human rights, technology or human rights. I think the question is can we make it technology for human rights? How do we make it work for human rights?” he queried the 15,000-strong crowd of attendees.

Amnesty International secretary-general Salil Shetty. Image and featured image courtesy of Amnesty International

“I personally believe that in some ways digital technology’s expansion has done more for making people aware of what their human rights are and bringing to them the capability of claiming their human rights, and holding governments and companies accountable for their human rights violations.”

But using technology to protect privacy does also mean needing one rule for everyone, no matter who they are, according to the Amnesty secretary-general.

“We’ve had many battles with Apple. We’re having one right now about the potential use of child labour in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the production of lithium batteries, which are in every single device,” he said. “But on [encryption] they are right. There is no backdoor only for good guys.

“You have a backdoor, you have a backdoor everyone is going to enter from there. And so on the FBI case I think Apple has absolutely taken the right stand and we were very much with them on this.”

Old rules, new reality

While government surveillance can be fought against by maintaining strict encryption, the everyday creep that new mixed-reality devices are set to provide is harder to counter.

For Scoble, the answer lies is the existing laws we have, which can be reapplied to the new abilities technology has given us.

Privacy is a key enabler for freedom of expression, freedom of speech

“In journalism school we learned about the difference between public and private, and a lot of these rules still will apply in this 3D world,” he said. “We’re heading to a world where the old rules still have some value to talk about, right? In a public street I have the permission to take a picture of you, which actually helps with human rights because if you’re getting shot by the cops you might want that picture of you to be displayed to the world.”

In spaces such as your own home, there is an expectation of privacy, meaning tighter rules already apply.

“The rules change from the publicness of the public street to: where are you in your own private world, did you have expectations of privacy? Did you close the drapes so nobody could take a picture of you inside?” said Scoble. “The more things you do like that, in a court of law you will have more of an expectation of privacy to show the judge that hey, somebody was breaking the rules when they took a drone into my window.”

“The principles are the same,” agreed Shetty. “So when it comes to individuals we would go for maximum privacy, but when it comes to things which are of public interest we go for maximum transparency.”

However, there are times when new technologies will be required to assist with the protection of this privacy.

“This 3D sensor on your glasses is also going to be able to capture you in a locker room, or somewhere inappropriate, and we have to have technology that turns the glasses off because a lot of us are going to forget we have them on,” said Scoble.

“Particularly when we get to contact lenses in 10 or 15 years, we’re going to forget we have them on and we’re not going to take them off just to go into a restroom, right?

“But they’re going to be capturing stuff about what’s going on in those places, so we need new kinds of technology to block it, because I’m not going to be one of the guys who are going to say we have the right to capture something in the bathroom in 3D when you walk in. No.”