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Ron Patton | May 1, 2019
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I guess it would be an understatement to say that the culture is changing rapidly. America has always had its culture wars, and they’re only intensified when news events big and small are filtered through the prism of Republican or Democrat, Right and Left, white-privileged, male-dominated, non-diverse, politically correct, Nationalist vs. Communist, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish agendas.

We are the melting pot that has boiled over and the scalding reality is that consensus has been fragmented and a sense of extremism permeates through every group that sees itself as special or victimized.

All cultural arguments and talking points are now being tested in the mainstream media after they have been grown in social media.

We now have to filter information through the clutter of Russian Collusion, the debate on transgender and gay rights, the faking of hate crimes by minority celebrities, real hate crimes motivated by religious bigotry, Alex Jones V.S. Sandy hook, and the debate on whether eating eggs are good or bad for you.

Individuals spend less time engaged in face to face conversations.

Most people prefer using texts and face time as opposed to actually visiting someone at home or having a lunch date.

People are avoiding stores and malls and are doing their buying online, which is putting many stores and retail outlets out of business.

Travel agents are obsolete. Young kids don’t spend their summer days riding bikes together, playing baseball all day with a break for lunch or hanging out at the local public pool.

During the summer we used to have a local youth center where we could hang out with people our age. We played video games, shot pool, played tennis and sometimes would go swimming.

Now the culture has changed – the young people today prefer to interact by playing first-person shooter video games, taking selfies, and posting to various social media sites in hopes of getting “likes” to validate themselves.

In the present, it is as if we are trying to balance the social structure between what would be seen as the normal culture and a digital culture. It has to be said that while a lot of us have a typical day of work and socializing, while a lot of us have friends of different races and sexual orientation, and even while a lot of us have associations with people of other faiths – the truth is that we are slipping into a digital culture where we have our online digital selves as opposed to our organic selves.

We are becoming less religious according to recent studies of the culture and with this fact, we are beginning to see new explanations for the great unknowns.

Science is now fixated on consciousness, pansychism, and the origins of where we come from. Scientists are searching for the unique fingerprint of the human mind and are beginning to learn about what life truly is and what happens after we die.

The religious views about life after death have been argued for millennia. The soul is whatever the Bible, the Torah or Koran tells you it is and yet the idea is still nebulous in a lot of respects.

Culturally, our thoughts about death and how we deal with our dead loved one have changed dramatically.

As we reported recently, cremations have outpaced burials for the first time in United States history. And as the National Funeral Directors Association points out, this upward trend is set to continue over the coming decades, with the national cremation rate predicted to reach nearly 80 percent by 2035.

In Washington State composting the dead will be an option for those who believe that cremation and embalming harm the environment and contribute to Climate Change.

I know that death is a hard thing to talk about – I mean it is really hard to actually think about that there will be a time where you won’t exist anymore and while it is comforting to think that this is not the end for you spiritually, it may be a bit weird to think about how many of us will live on digitally.

Yes, we now live in an age that when you pass away, you have to also contemplate how you will live in an afterlife online.

Now before you think this is some sort of mad up blasphemy, you have to understand that while you probably know where you want your money and other physical possessions to go, but you have a lot of digital assets to pass on too. You need to plan for the future of those accounts.

People are so used to making living wills, and leaving behind instructions for the living after death that they may not have considered instructions on the digital items that your family may want to access after you die. That includes financial accounts, but also any photos and videos stored online, digital notebooks, email, social media accounts, your phone, and even your contact list.

I remember that there was a kind lady that would always show up at the Ground Zero lounge. She was financially well off, and every time she would come to the shows she would give me a hundred dollar bill and then she would buy a lot of my merchandise.

She became a bit of a friend – I had been to her house, we would have lunch and then when her husband died she had to move away.

We would keep in touch on Facebook. I would see her post things from time to time. I would say hello and she would look me up on messenger and we would text each other. For some reason, she just wasn’t available online. I tried to call but her phone had been disconnected.

Then one day I got a reminder on Facebook that it was her birthday – I went to her Facebook page and wished her a happy birthday. I later received a message that she died a year ago.

I was told that the family had no access to her passwords or even to her contact lists – and so most of her friends in social media learned of her death when Facebook sent out a birthday reminder.

A recent extension to the cultural relationship with death is the increasing number of people who die having created a large amount of digital content, such as social media profiles, that will remain after death.

This may result in concern and confusion, because of automated features of dormant accounts, the uncertainty of the deceased’s preferences that profiles be deleted or left as a memorial, and whether information that may violate the deceased’s privacy such as email or browser history should be made accessible to the family.

Issues with how this information is sensitively dealt with are further complicated as it may belong to the service provider (not the deceased) and many do not have clear policies on what happens to the accounts of deceased users.

While some sites, including Facebook and Twitter, have policies related to death, others remain dormant until deleted due to inactivity or transferred to family or friends. The FADA (Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act) was set in place to legally make it possible to transfer digital possessions legally.

Gmail and Hotmail allow the email accounts of the deceased to be accessed, provided certain requirements are met. Yahoo! Mail will not provide access, citing the No Right of Survivorship and Non-Transferability clause in the Yahoo! terms of service.

In the early days, Facebook used to delete profiles of dead people. In October 2009, the company introduced “memorial pages” responding to multiple user requests related to Virginia Tech shooting (2007). After receiving proof of death via a special form the profile was converted into a tribute page with minimal personal details, where friends and family members could share their grief.

In February 2015, Facebook allowed users to appoint a friend or family member as a “legacy contact” with the rights to manage their page after death. It also gave Facebook users an option to have their account permanently deleted when they die.

As of January 2019, all of the 3 options were active.

By the close of the century, Facebook will be a massive virtual city of the dead, researchers have calculated.

An analysis of growth patterns within social media provided by Carl Öhman and David Watson from the University of Oxford in the UK finds that within 50 years the dead will outnumber the living on Facebook.

Based on 2018 figures, the end of the century will see 1.4 billion Facebook accounts in the name of people who have died. However, if current rates of expansion continue, that number will rise to a staggering 4.9 billion.

The findings, published in the journal, Big Data and Society, carry significant implications.

These statistics give rise to new and difficult questions around who has the right to all this data, how should it be managed in the best interests of the families and friends of the deceased and its use by future historians to understand the past.

The topic of what to do with your digital remains is not always something you bring up in casual conversation but it should be discussed. The management of our digital remains will eventually affect everyone who uses social media since all of us will one day pass away and leave our data behind.

The totality of user profiles of the dead also amounts to something larger than the sum of its parts. It is, or will at least become, part of our global digital heritage.

Facebook should invite historians, archivists, archaeologists and ethicists to participate in the process of curating the vast volume of accumulated data that we leave behind as we pass away.

Keeping an account open of a dead loved one on Instagram or Facebook or some other social media site can create a lot of painful memories for people.

A social media site might prompt you to invite the deceased to an event or remind you of their birthday.

Facebook recently announced a series of updates targeted at accounts of users who have passed away, including a new tribute section, additional controls for survivors overseeing those accounts and artificial intelligence updates to prevent sudden and potentially painful reminders of the deceased.

Facebook announced that AI updates will prevent birthday reminders and suggestions to invite people who have passed away to an event, while the tribute section will act as a hub where friends and family can post stories, photos, videos, and other remembrances, without clogging up the user’s original feed. People who want to reminisce will be able to scroll through that original feed separately.

Like a kind of living will, Facebook users can plan in advance who can access their page in the event of their death. Users can also choose to have their account be deleted when they die. However, the feature isn’t available to minors, so parents who have lost children under 18 need to request access to their child’s account.

To prevent anyone from abusing this feature and targeting someone who is still alive, the memorialization request process requires documentation — family members are asked to upload or provide a link to an obituary or other proof of death for verification before a team from Facebook reviews the request.

Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, also memorializes the profiles of deceased users upon requests from loved ones. But the accounts are then frozen — nobody can log in, the account won’t appear on Instagram’s “Explore” page, and its original privacy and visibility settings will remain. Twitter, meanwhile, only allows family members to request that a deceased user’s account be deleted.

Death one thing – but deletion is yet another very important matter.

You don’t want to be erased from history and become a “un-person” and find yourself erased by some tyrannical government.

George Orwell devised the word ‘unperson’ to describe someone who had so offended official thought, he or she was vaporized — not just liquidated but wiped from the record for eternity.

In that way, the unperson couldn’t set a bad example. All memory of the impertinence would be forgotten.

In the book, 1984, Winston Smith became an unperson because he was too intelligent and free-thinking for the Authoritarian Political Party. He was a loyal member of the Party and was devoted to the revolution, but because of his passion, the Party feared he could be a dangerous foe if he ever changed his mind.

1984, envisions a dystopian future with ubiquitous government surveillance and omnipotence. In the book, people and history were erased with impunity “We, the Party, control all records, and we control all memories,” the quote reads. “Then we control the past, do we not?”

1984 is a fitting comparison, Watson argues because the sum of our individual histories makes up a more significant societal history. “Control over the past is no small matter, and consolidating that power in a single firm or a small number of powerful companies is every bit as problematic as handing it over to a totalitarian government.

Orwell was satirizing Stalin’s Russia, where such practices were all too common. When a Politburo member called Nikolai Yezhov, People’s Commissar for Water Transport, fell out of favor with Joseph Stalin in 1940, he was not just killed.

A photograph of him beside Stalin in happier days was doctored to remove all trace of him.

It was as though he had never existed. And he was not the only one. We know the legacy of Stalin and his short fuse when it came to uncomfortable speech or speech that ridiculed his rule in communist Russia.

We are now in the middle of the same situation. The fact that fiction can leap from a book about gradualist despotism into our reality is frightening and should be seen as a warning to everyone about where our country is heading, ideologically.

It seems the new American strategy is that if we find someone who says anything we are uncomfortable with, the best thing for them is to be beaten, or exploited, censured, censored, arrested and eventually silenced.

It is also possible that your digital remains can be deleted or even abused for some agenda; maybe even used in voter fraud.

Imagine if your Facebook legacy is hijacked or maligned in such a way that eventually you are deleted and erased – you won’t care because you are dead but your loved ones will care and it could harm them indirectly.

This is why your digital remains and what should be done with them is as important as to what to do with your physical remains.

It is estimated that roughly 300,000 Facebook users in the United States reportedly die or will die in any given year. Of course, that number varies since it is a rough estimate and there can be more or less because sometimes the deaths go unreported or accounts become inactive.

Even if Facebook closes registration tomorrow, the number of deaths per year will continue to grow for many decades, as the generation who was in college between 2000 and 2020 grows old.

Facebook can afford to keep all our pages and data indefinitely. Living users will always generate more data than dead ones, and the accounts for active users are the ones that will need to be easily accessible. Even if accounts for dead (or inactive) people make up a majority of their users, it will probably never add up to a large part of their overall infrastructure budget.

More important will be our decisions. What do we want for those pages? Unless we demand that Facebook deletes them, they will presumably, by default, keep copies of everything forever. Even if they don’t, other data-leeching organizations will.

Written by Ron Patton

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