Does the internet allow us to live forever?

What happens to our data online when we're no longer around? Can our identities created on social media allow us to live forever? Meredydd Williams (Department of Computer Science, University of Oxford) explores these questions. 

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Phone laid on a map- showing different social media icons

The digital age has brought us so many benefits. We can chat with our friends from every corner of the globe. We can stream music and movies from the comfort of our sofas. And we can share and store more data than ever before. With the Internet connecting our world together, we often live our lives ‘online’. But what happens when our physical existence comes to an end? Can we live forever in cyberspace?

Our digital footprints

The Internet creates a record like never before. Our playground gossip is short-lived, with comments vanishing as soon as they’re made. But while WhatsApp chats feel the same, your data is stored for years to come.

This can cause problems, such as when your selfies are found by potential employers. But it can also create opportunities to extend our lives.

Can you imagine your Facebook videos being viewed by your children or grandchildren? Your blogs could be read and enjoyed by millions, even decades after your passing. And while it’s currently sci-fi, artificial intelligence (AI) might bring a solution.

Facebook and Instagram might be giants now, but will they be around in 20 years?

‘Machine learning’ describes techniques where computers can ‘learn’ from studying large amounts of data. With this approach, hidden patterns could be extracted from your posts, images and messages. If a robot could simulate how you act, could it continue your identity? Or are there some things that technology could never replace?

‘Digital death’ refers to the concept of death in the information age. We spend our lives building an online self - what’s known as a ‘digital footprint’.

Some of this is intentional, like when we upload Facebook posts or YouTube videos. However, much of this comes from using apps or surfing the web. Whenever you like a photo, share a selfie or shop on Amazon, all this data is stored. And over time, companies might know your online habits better than your own parents.

When our lives come to an end, what happens to all our data?

The life of your data

As we all know, immortality isn’t simple. Even if your data survives, what use is it in a Google warehouse? Can you have a digital self when nobody can see it?

Your data can also disappear for other reasons. The ‘right to be forgotten’ is an EU article designed to protect privacy. It helps people manage their pasts by deleting Google search results. While this can enhance our privacy, your data could be threatened by others improving their reputations.

All our thoughts assume one unlikely thing: the tech of today will be the tech of tomorrow. Websites fade and die each year, even those storing our photos and videos. Thousands of MySpace users have passed away, but their profiles disappeared when the site relaunched. Facebook and Instagram might be giants now, but will they be around in 20 years?

Your digital legacy depends on where your files are stored. Your laptop might contain thousands of files, whether essays, photos or videos. As this data lives in your own home, it would be passed on to your loved ones.

When files are stored online, things become more difficult. By using free services such as Dropbox or Gmail, we give control of our data to other people. And when we pass away, different companies have different policies. Some delete your files, some return them, and some do nothing at all.

Even if you’re a Brit living in London, your Instagram photos might be in California. UK law could demand your data returned, but this has no force in the US. Clearly, digital death is a tricky process.

Social media icons

What about social media?

While social media connects our lives, the companies have also tried to predict possible issues. They recognise the pain their mistakes could make – imagine receiving birthday reminders for a dead friend.

Facebook offers two options – either delete your account or  ‘memorialise’ your profile. These tribute pages are run by predefined members, and host photos and memories of a deceased user.

Google collects tons of our data, whether through searches, Gmail or Google Drive. Fortunately, they let users set what happens when their account is unused.

First, after an adjustable amount of time, the account is deactivated. After that, your online files can either be returned or deleted.

Twitter and LinkedIn also offer limited support following a user dying.

But what about your online property, such as eBooks, apps and iTunes tracks? Who gets control of these? Absolutely nobody. Surprisingly, you never ‘buy’ these files - you only get a license to use them. And when you die, your tracks die with you.

Technology offers great opportunities to extend our lives. Photos and videos we upload now could be viewed for generations to come. However, this doesn’t come without its complications and privacy risk.

Some argue that many people spend too long looking at screens (computer, phone etc), which doesn't allow them to appreciate real life fully. What do you think?