An Aspen Update: Kicking off the Digital Afterlife Project!

Blog Posts ,Tech News
February 19, 2020

When people ask how I’m doing these days, I tend to laugh and say: “Time feels like it is simultaneously moving very slowly, and also very fast.” While there is certainly something to be said for how our perception of time varies, that’s a post for another day. Today, I just want to share an update on what the past month has been like, and what I’m working on these days with the Aspen Institute!

I went into the Tech Policy Hub with an idea that I would learn how policymaking would change the mixed reality industry – and I’ve got some ideas on that front – but what I wasn’t expecting was how my view of technology would also be shaped through the lens of policy. Throughout my career, I’ve thought about virtual and augmented reality from the perspective of an excited technologist, as a cutting-edge solution that could solve a lot of big problems. The past few weeks have given me an opportunity to break down a technology that I am intimately familiar with and explore the individual components of immersive technology into pieces that have more general applications.

As part of the Aspen Tech Policy Hub, fellows spend time planning and developing a policy project that excites them. For me, this was one of the more challenging components of the program and I thought about changing my focus on a daily basis. But, over brunch one weekend, one of the other fellows mentioned a passing interest in a project that would address the way that data is handled after users die, and my mind latched onto that. And so, with that idea on the brain, I spent one morning brainstorming project topics.

Liv sits on the floor surrounded by sticky notes
My process for brainstorming was to generate a ton of sticky notes, organized by question / topic, given the loose prompt of “What do I want my project work to be about?” It involved some 20-30 minutes of listening to K/DA’s “Popstars” on repeat. Photo: Cecilia Donnelly Krum

One very core component of my interest in mixed reality is how it allows us to explore and manage our concepts of identity – and protecting that identity is something that emerged as a principle that I wanted my project work to include. During the brainstorming process, I came to the realization about my beliefs and how I wanted my work to reflect them:

“I believe that my identity is not static, my likeness should be under my control, and my identity should be contextual, with a trust model that I define.”

From my initial sticky note brainstorming, I generated a Hubs room where I could layout my raw thoughts on identity and data protection. This solidified a few more concepts in my mind and helped me form a more complete picture of the project ideas in my head. And, it has the added bonus: you can visit yourself!

Please note that this is a public, social-enabled room without moderation. You may (virtually) interact with other people as an avatar in the space.

At this stage, another fellow had been doing her own research into the problem space of the “digital afterlife” and we began to trade ideas and thoughts. After spending a train ride reading the policies from several social media platforms on how to report a user’s death, I drew a small comic to capture, at a high level, the initial stages of how I was beginning to think about my death through the lens of technology.

From right-to-left, my personal user journey in considering how my information and data would be handled after I die.

After continuing to talk in-depth, Cecilia and I decided to spend our remaining time with the Aspen Institute working on the topic of posthumous data protections together, and The Digital Afterlife Project was born!

In her words:

“Besides the tech angle, my interest in the digital afterlife comes from a pastoral care lens. One of my goals with the project is to ease the burdens of people experiencing loss by simplifying the process of closing or otherwise transferring the online accounts of their deceased loved one.”

Cecilia (right) and I in Sacramento for a day trip to meet with state government officials! Photo: Alexander Romero

How our information is handled after we die is an interesting question for mixed reality. A company in South Korea recently released a video of a mother meeting her deceased child in a virtual reality environment, which introduces an industry-wide discussion about the ethics of using videos and photos of a late person to recreate their likeness digitally. However, before we even think about the frameworks that we use to consider recreating digital humans, we have critical information to tackle with the tools we use today.

As it turns out, there are no federal laws in the United States that govern how our surviving loved ones can access digital information that we leave behind. Most online platforms don’t have a public policy on how a family member or legal representative for a deceased user can access or delete their accounts. A shockingly small percentage of people include digital assets in their wills or trusts, and the majority of people in the U.S. don’t have a will at all.

Mapping out the user journey of getting access to accounts or data after a loved one passes away. Photo: Alexander Romero

Over the remaining three and a half weeks of the program, The Digital Afterlife team (made up of myself, Cecilia, and Matthew Schroeder) will continue to work on solutions that we think will help make the process of managing digital assets easier. One of the greatest takeaways from this experience so far has been looking at how much we can accomplish in a relatively short amount of time, but there have been a number of other key lessons:

  • While it may take practice, anyone can learn about the laws in their city, state, or country and share insight and expertise that can help shape new ones
  • Framing problems with an explicit actor who can solve a problem will help narrow down a solution space to one that is manageable and actionable
  • Stepping back from a particular area of technology and breaking it down into components can be an effective strategy for identifying the underlying systemic problems that exist
  • Diverse, multidisciplinary teams have outsized impacts on problem-solving

If you want to follow along more frequently with the work we’re doing, consider giving our team a follow on Twitter and stay tuned for more details about some of the other projects that I’ve been putting together that tie directly into the mixed reality space!

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