The Afterlife of Data: What Happens to Your Information When You Die and Why You Should Care (Hardcover)

The Afterlife of Data: What Happens to Your Information When You Die and Why You Should Care By Carl Öhman Cover Image

The Afterlife of Data: What Happens to Your Information When You Die and Why You Should Care (Hardcover)


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A short, thought-provoking book about what happens to our online identities after we die.

These days, so much of our lives takes place online—but what about our afterlives? Thanks to the digital trails that we leave behind, our identities can now be reconstructed after our death. In fact, AI technology is already enabling us to “interact” with the departed. Sooner than we think, the dead will outnumber the living on Facebook. In this thought-provoking book, Carl Öhman explores the increasingly urgent question of what we should do with all this data and whether our digital afterlives are really our own—and if not, who should have the right to decide what happens to our data.

The stakes could hardly be higher. In the next thirty years alone, about two billion people will die. Those of us who remain will inherit the digital remains of an entire generation of humanity—the first digital citizens. Whoever ends up controlling these archives will also effectively control future access to our collective digital past, and this power will have vast political consequences. The fate of our digital remains should be of concern to everyone—past, present, and future. Rising to these challenges, Öhman explains, will require a collective reshaping of our economic and technical systems to reflect more than just the monetary value of digital remains.

As we stand before a period of deep civilizational change, The Afterlife of Data will be an essential guide to understanding why and how we as a human race must gain control of our collective digital past—before it is too late.
Carl Öhman is assistant professor of political science at Uppsala University, Sweden.
Product Details ISBN: 9780226828220
ISBN-10: 0226828220
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication Date: May 22nd, 2024
Pages: 200
Language: English
"Fascinating. . . . [Deep] questions of memorialization, ownership and preservation, deftly teased out by the author."
— Wall Street Journal

"[A] groundbreaking empirical and philosophical exploration of how we should think about, and act to protect, data generated by those who have died. . . . Compulsively readable, peppered with engaging personal anecdotes, rich historical examples, and analyses of major cultural touchstones that offer readers insight into one of the most important digital ethics debates of the day."
— Science

“This short and accessible book is not to be missed. Öhman draws on his groundbreaking research to explore a pressing issue facing any digital society: the rapid accumulation and management of data belonging to the dead. The Afterlife of Data is a fascinating, provocative, and theoretically rich exploration of the ethics and politics of our digital remains. It will be of personal interest to any mortal with a digital presence.”
— Luciano Floridi, author of The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence

“What happens to the data of the deceased was first regarded as a morbid curiosity, then as a niche concern for those with particularly hefty digital footprints. With deft reasoning and great eloquence, Öhman exposes the true scope and significance of the digital dead, and how fundamentally they are intertwined with our collective present and future. In finely tuned, incisive prose that cuts straight to the bone, he effortlessly brings readers into deeper understandings of novel territories and urges us toward what ultimately feels like an obvious conclusion: the digital dead are our responsibility, for without them, we lose ourselves.”
— Elaine Kasket, author of All the Ghosts in the Machine

“The online presence of the dead may seem like a somewhat marginal, if creepy, quirk of life in the internet era. But as Öhman shows in this clear-eyed and wide-ranging book, the digital dead sit at the intersection of fundamental historical, economic, and cultural forces. Situating hypercontemporary phenomena within a human narrative stretching all the way back to prehistory, he guides us through urgent problems of the ownership, exploitation, preservation, and destruction of the dead. The Afterlife of Data makes it inescapably clear that, as the first citizens of a new global archive, we owe it to both those who have died and those yet to be born to take control of our digital destiny.”
— Patrick Stokes, author of Digital Souls

“The very possibility of storing and retrieving ‘digital remains’ poses complex and interconnected questions about data ownership, expectations about privacy and the duties one generation may owe another.”
— Inside Higher Ed

"What happens to all the mountains of personal data. . . after you die? Who owns them? Who wants them? Who is trying to make money from them? These and many more such questions bother Carl Ohman in his remarkably wide-ranging examination called The Afterlife of Data. There is lots to think about here. The book takes readers in directions they never considered, and weighs pluses and minuses of each path and aspect. It is exhaustive and thorough. . . big data, Ohman says, probably knows more about you than you do."
— Medium

"According to author Carl Öhman, how we navigate our digital remains is one of the most important issues of the 21st century. As he notes in his book, The Afterlife of Data, the data we produce today is arguably the largest archive of human behavior ever assembled in the history of our species. . . . With every search and click, we offer more and more to these platforms. Leaving behind a trail of activity—the accumulation of which forms a living, breathing data identity that doesn’t necessarily die with our physical bodies and still holds immense value to many stakeholders long after we’re gone."

— Grazia Magazine

"[Öhman's] book reminds readers that before there was social media, when a person died, there was little left behind except perhaps memories, belongings, photographs, and written text. Today, social media profiles and other online postings have the potential to live on indefinitely. . . . Best for readers curious about artificial intelligence, internet history, ethics, or sociology."
— Library Journal