Without coming across as too macabre and curmudgeonly, we’ll simply say that with dawn of the internet, the business of death has gotten a lot more complicated these days. Consider that wills once existed for the sole purpose of ceding ownership of physical objects, and quests for immortality - things like cryonics, transhumanism, fountains of youth and religion […]
To further complicate matters, while the space continues to evolve at an accelerated rate, the legal system struggles to keep pace, leading to a current situation where notions of who exactly owns these digital assets – individuals or sites – remains unclear. Though you may have spent the last 20 years building your character’s dominance in the dungeons and on the battlefields of World of Warcraft, if you never pass along your login information to anyone who can carry on your legacy, what then?
In cases where credit card information is exchanged with a site, there is at least some proof of ownership, but this is still no guarantee. And given that much of the web’s foundation is based on loose affiliations and social transactions that are more often than not, anonymous, determining who really sent out thousands of emails from a Hotmail account is difficult at best.
As Lilian Edwards, professor of internet law at Sheffield University notes in a recent interview, lacking any concrete laws to follow, these matters fall to the discretionary policies (the terms and conditions that we scan across as we search for the “I Agree” check box) of the individual sites. Assuming that who owns this virtual flotsam and jetsam once you’re gone is something that concerns you or your loved ones, then this an eventuality that needs to be planned for.
Which leads us into the emerging commercial marketplace of Death 2.0, populated by companies hawking services to ensure your transition into the after life (both real and virtual) is as seamless as possible. Preparing people for the inevitability of their own demise is never any easy sell at any stage of the life, but given the relative youth of the audience that these sites are catering to, their prospects for return on investment are far down the road to say the least. And though these businesses might want to keep their own longevity in mind, their “future-forward” models point to a trend that can’t be ignored.
So while you’re still walking the hallowed hallways of the web, albeit non-corporeally, you can start planning for your after life. At Do Your Own Will, a site that allows you to create and print a simple, legally-binding contract online, you can take care of matters relating to your physical estate. As for sorting out the more complex questions surrounding your digital possessions, like determining who is going to inherit the social cache (and minutiae) of your Twitter account or run your thriving eBay store that trades in antique Pez Dispensers, turn to Dead Man Switch or Legacy Locker.
And if you always wanted a New Orleans-style funeral complete with a second line, then make it happen at My Wonderful Life because as the site advertises, “you only get one chance to make a last impression.” But why stop with your final day? Make your voice heard from beyond the grave without the need for seances or ouija boards. The Last Email and Last Message Club offer a way for you to send emails to those you leave behind, from sentimental notes like birthday wishes and endorsements of love to secret messages like who did it and where the formula is buried.
Coping with the idea of death (either our own or someone else’s) is never an easy thing, and now with the evolution of the internet, we’re presented with an entirely new set of “things we can’t take with us”. It may be more complicated, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Though admittedly, it’s a rather strange concept to wrap our heads around, considering that the digital environment already seems to exist halfway between the physical world and “the great unknown”.
Still, we always seem to adapt (and make up stories for the things we can’t explain). Needless to say, the continued shift in our perspective and customs to encompass the virtual worlds in which we increasingly live, work and play will be an interesting one to witness.
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