Death + Digital + Creativity + Humanity


Maybe you’ve had this kind of experience.  You’re about to stand up or perform in front of a group of people, having been touted as an expert in something, or an actor that knows their lines, or someone who can carry off a violin solo, or who can dance without falling over.  Suddenly you think, ‘There’s been some terrible mistake. I’m going to let these people down.  I’m going to let myself down.  In fact, I just might die of humiliation right there on stage.’  Did someone just whisper ‘you’re a fraud’ in your ear, or were you imagining it?…sorry, am I making you break out in hives?

I’m not saying I got to that point, mind you. I’m one of the lucky ones who’s never been afflicted with crippling stage fright.  Nevertheless, as I took my seat at Hill + Knowlton’s Creativity + Humanity, doing my best to be unobtrusive because the event had begun, I felt a frisson of unease.  The people on the stage were talking about brands.  Then someone with an impressive title assumed the podium to talk about the future of banking and to give me a PowerPoint inferiority complex. Then an international panel filed on stage to speak about energy.  Rummaging in my branded canvas bag and encountering a paper packet of Lego along the way, I located a card that described the sector knowledge and specialist expertise that One H+K offered and scanned it for any terms at all that resonated with me as a psychologist.  I found ‘Behavioural Science Unit’ and ‘Issues + Crisis’, which had the ring of familiarity, but there were a lot of other words too.  ‘Financial + Professional Services.’  ‘Consumer Packaged Goods.’  ‘Energy + Industrials.’  I know people in these fields, but I can’t picture what they do at work.  Would anyone in the room have any interest whatsoever in what I had to say?


I’ve learned that when you’re worried about something like this, often it’s best to just name it, which I did.  (When I eventually see the video, I’m sure it won’t sound this slick, but it went something like this.)  ‘I’m Elaine Kasket,’ I said.  ‘I’m a psychologist.  And you are not my usual audience.  In fact, I don’t know what many people in this room do.’  Having confessed this, and having noticed that nothing bad happened as a consequence, I began to breathe more freely.  ‘But I’m guessing that many of you in this room, directly or indirectly, and without necessarily realising it, are in a position to have an influence on people’s experience with regard to the digital remains of the deceased.’

The more I spoke, and the more conversations I had with people at lunch afterwards, the more I realised just why I shouldn’t have been worried.  This is relevant – incredibly relevant – to all sorts of people.  Every organisation and every brand represented in that room has control of some sort of digitally stored data about people – data that could be sentimentally or financially significant to someone – whether it’s associated with employees, clients, users, account holders, customers, service users, or patients.  I was reminded of what I’ve known all along, which is that this is a critical time to be considering this issue, and it’s important to so many people who haven’t even thought about it yet.  The Q&A that I did with Megan after the event is part of my argument as to why that’s the case, and it was also an opportunity to think further about what creativity means to me, which was already on the docket for a blog post in the near future.  Follow the link, or read it reproduced in full below.  Thanks again to H+K Strategies for a great day!

Elaine Kasket in conversation with Megan Jackson of Hill + Knowlton Strategies

H+K:  What does creativity mean to you?

Elaine Kasket (EK):  Creativity is a kind of tonic for the human spirit.  If we could mix it up in a bottle, every one of its constituent parts would be an ingredient that’s critical for our flourishing, for the psychological and spiritual health of individuals and societies: curiosity, openness, willingness, flexibility, perseverance, movement, growth, change, connection.  While it might not be a cure-all, it’s pretty close.  Creativity helps us to be resilient, to navigate sticky situations, to solve problems, to sprout seeds on the stoniest of grounds, to discover and pursue what we value.  I’ve found that the more I’m able to make space for creativity, the more able I am to live a satisfying, values-driven life.

H + K:  Does the sheer quantity of online profiles/data ever frighten you when considering where the digital world will be in 100 years? What is the role or responsibility of brands in this conversation?

EK:  I wouldn’t even know where to begin in considering where the digital world will be in 100 years.  Where it comes to death and the digital, neither brands nor individuals should concern themselves with fretting about the future, or with trying to predict what’s going to be happening in a century’s time, because we’re already way behind the curve with realising what’s happening right now, and with figuring out what we need or want to do about it. When I ask people in any industry, representing any type of brand or company, ‘So what will happen to [that data you hold] when your [employee/customer/client/user/account holder/patient] dies?’ – the answer I almost always get goes something like, ‘Uhhhhh….no idea!’  I would argue that this is an issue that’s right here, right now, and rather than messing about with crystal balls we need to look at what’s in front of us, which may prove frightening enough as it stands.

For example, data protection and privacy are issues for many brands these days, for some types of brand more than others.  Consumers are more closely observing the positions that brands take with respect to their privacy, and they’re using those impressions to help them decide whether they like or trust those brands.  We didn’t think much about data protection for the dead historically, because there wasn’t so much persistent, widely accessible data to go around, and hence there wasn’t much of a concern about postmortem privacy.  That was then, though, and this is now.  Now we have hyperpersonal, comprehensive, hyperconnected, potentially persistent digital identities – not just digital footprints, digital identities.  No wonder we’re starting to consider whether the dead should have a right to privacy and ongoing data protection!  Unfortunately, laws and regulations can be quite slow and sluggish, quite stuck in the past, in well-established traditions of thinking and behavioural responses.  We don’t usually think about legal systems and regulatory bodies as ‘creative’, and that’s because they’re not, it’s not really in their nature!  Industry, however, is full of creativity and of people that may be in a better position to think flexibly and nimbly and to bring outside-the-box perspectives and solutions to thorny issues. In a legal and regulatory void, creative minds can lead the way and generate useful templates that eventually the law might actually follow.  That’s a huge opportunity but also a massive moral responsibility.  You’re literally dealing with life and death, and with the attachment of the living to the digital artefacts of people whom they’ve lost. By all means, let the creative juices flow and brainstorm all you can, but before you roll something out, engage in appropriate consultation with professionals that understand loss, and also with your consumers.  Do your research! In emotive areas like this, a misstep could have significant commercial implications.

H + K:  Why should the public care about their post-death digital legacy? How can they prepare?

EK:  How would you feel at the prospect that, after you were dead, people could see every scrap of correspondence you’d ever exchanged with anyone – with your co-workers, lovers, friends, family members – and every single photo you’d ever taken, or that had been taken of you?  On the other hand, how would you feel at the prospect that your nearest and dearest people couldn’t access anything at all to evidence your onetime physical existence on earth, that all the passwords and double-verification steps you’d put in place to protect your privacy in life could result in your being rendered invisible to loved ones after your death?  Even if you say that you don’t care about what happens after your death, really think about those two questions – and imagine yourself as a bereaved person in either of those scenarios – seeing absolutely everything about a loved one, including things that might hurt you or change your impressions of the person you’d lost, or not being able to access anything at all to remember them by.  Are you really still so sanguine about what happens after you die?

What you can do to prepare is a slightly harder question, and keep in mind the moving and changing nature of everything that’s happening now.  One thing has always been true, though – a huge percentage of people don’t even make wills, so you can imagine what a small percentage of people make formal provisions for their digital estate.  Hardly anyone puts their digital house in order before they die, either because they haven’t thought about it, or because they don’t know where to start or how to go about it.  But you might want to try and get your head around those aspects of your digital life that are most important to you, at the very least.  I’m part of an organisation called the Digital Legacy Association, which exists to raise awareness about all this and to provide information and tools to help people think through and make plans for their digital legacies.  Even if it doesn’t prove legally binding in your jurisdiction, it’s still very useful to let people know your wishes by appending instructions for your digital legacy and assets to your traditional paper will.  You can also record those wishes on a digital legacy platform, ensuring that a trusted contact will be able to access it, which is usually built into these kinds of systems.  A caveat, though: while you can certainly leave passwords behind as part of that digital will, just know that these may have limited usefulness if the platform or service has T&Cs that stipulate deletion or lockdown when the user dies.  (That’s highly likely, by the way.)

Finally, keep in mind that technological obsolescence never goes out of fashion, and that the way we store and access information now may have completely changed a relatively short time from now.  Everybody talks about information on the Internet as being ‘forever.’  It’s not.  Seriously.  A looming data storage could occasion a mass culling of information.  People 10 years from now may be saying, ‘What the hell’s a “URL”?’  We could all fall down the black hole of a 21st century digital dark ages.  Believe it or not, it might just be that the best way of increase the chances that your loved ones and descendants will inherit sentimental artefacts like photographs and correspondence is to go old school.  Print ’em out!



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