Department of Media, Culture, and Communication
New York University
2015 to 2016
Digital Afterlives: Patterning Posterity Through Networked Remains
This dissertation uses death as a lens to map digitization’s effects on everyday North American life. As individuals accumulate digital possessions across a dense ecology of platforms, interfaces, and smart devices, they increasingly view these aggregated communicative traces as assets or works they wish to preserve and pass on to kin members. Digital estate planning websites allow individuals to capture immaterial and potentially ephemeral possessions and bequeath them as heirlooms. While most digital estate planning websites do not espouse any religious affiliation, they are different from tangible estate planning: You are leaving behind your personality profile, not just your valuable belongings, to your loved ones. Digital estates preserve an entire social network and the cumulative effects of thousands of individualized actions; each node is precious within the context of digital posterity. Some digital estate planning websites are tied to transhumanism, a movement that promises immortality by uploading human consciousness into computers, thus connecting mundane actuarial practices to loftier techno-utopian goals. For surviving kin members, digital remains are complicated by the burdens of caring for them, which requires physical infrastructures and affective labor. Do we have obligations to digital souls, and what are the ethical implications of this kind of afterlife?