23/11/2014

I Gave a Talk at Kingston University, London, UK

On November 19th 2014 I gave a talk about Death in the Digital Era at Kingston University. 

I thank the audience who attended the talk, including people who came from as far away as Dorchester, Bath and Nottingham

I thank my colleague and friend, Dr. Korina Giaxoglou - Senior Lecturer in English Language and Communication, MA Language and Society, Course Leader - for initiating this talk and for arranging everything so well and so kindly; Dr. Marina Lambrou, Head of Linguistics & Languages, for inviting me to give this talk; My friend and Linkedin wiz Daniel Alfon along with my friend and Social Media wiz Ben O’Hanlon of VisionsLive for their generous assistance in promoting this talk. 

I thank Korina Giaxoglou and Morna O Connor for taking the following pictures and I thank Morna O Connor for capturing the talk on video

First slide
Picture by Morna O Connor

"First thing, let's get this off the table..."
Picture by Korina Giaxoglou

Picture by Korina Giaxoglou

Students from Kensington University attended the talk as well
Picture by Korina Giaxoglou

The Digital Footprints we're leaving behind
Picture by Korina Giaxoglou

Death among Facebook users - 2011, 'Life Insurance Finder'
Picture by Korina Giaxoglou

Morna O Connor recording the talk on video - thank you!
Picture by Korina Giaxoglou

My brother and I 
Picture by Morna O Connor


For updates about my talks you're welcome to follow the Facebook page of the blog. 


18/11/2014

There will be a discussion in the Knesset about Digital Estate!

The Public Petitions Committee at The Knesset (the unicameral national legislature of Israel) will hold a discussion about Digital Estate / Digital Legacy / Digital Death on December 1st, 2014

I've been eagerly waiting to tell you about this for the past couple of weeks. 

I've been working on preparations for this meeting before I left - I'm currently abroad, as you know - and will resume working on it when I get back. 

More information to follow soon. 


Knesset, discussion room

10/11/2014

My Summary of 'Death Online Research Symposium', April 2014, Durham, UK - Day 1

First, I wish to thank the readers of the blog who participated in my crowdfunding campaign and thus allowed me to travel to the UK and participate in the symposium


Me at the 'Death Online Research Symposium', Durham
Picture by Astrid Waagstein

Second, I wish to share one of my personal highlights from this trip: being able to walk into a place and say: "Hi, I'm with the Death Online Conference Group", so thank you for that experienec, Tim :) .


Print screen of email

Third, I wish to thank the organizers and and my fellow attendees for the symposium (a total of about 40 people), as it definitely broadened my perception of what 'Digital Death' or 'Death Online' IS. It was great meeting some of my friends and colleagues from the 'Digital Death Day' unconference I attended in 2012 as well as making new ones: 

Left to right: 
Stacey Pitsillides, Korina Giaxoglou, Mórna O Connor and me
Train ride back from Durham

But now let's move on to the symposium itself: 

Getting ready to start!
Picture by Astrid Waagstein

Day 1 - April 9th

  • Opening Reflections: Douglas Davies and David Eaton, UK
  • Paper Session 1: "Digital Media in Funerals and Graveyards"
         Session Chair: Dorthe Refslund Christensen
    • "The humanist funeral practitioner’s perspective": Simon Allen, UK
    • "QR-codes on Danish gravestones: issues of privacy with public access": Stine Gotved, Denmark
    • "The living dead? Graveyards and augmented reality": Phillip Wane, UK
All three talks were fascinating for me. 

Simon Allen:


 
Both pictures by Vered Shavit 

 Simon Allen explaining how chapels and crematoriums etc. have modernized themselves and digitalized their services

I wasn't aware of the digital implications in this area of death. Simon shared anecdotes ranging from funny to moving: a smartphone used as a source for playing music during a ceremony, at the request of a family member, ringing in the middle of the ceremony while connected to the speakers; family members taking selfies at funerals or crematoriums etc..

Here are some quotes from his abstract:

"The Humanist Funeral Practioner’s Perspective
 Across 22 plus years of taking Humanist funerals, the progression of digital technologies continues unabated. Apart from the obvious use of digital technology within the funeral and disposal trades, every secular Officiant and religious minister uses technology in ways that could not have been imagined 30 years ago. I recall these particular examples of the first time that I saw:

  1. Families use e-mail to send me text and images: Now standard and they also send me music tracks. 
  2. No audio tape or CD players at crematoria: Now standard, as well as fully digital music play-out systems. 
  3. A family used analogue video camera to record the funeral: Now they use iPads, digital cameras and Smartphones. 
  4. Showing analogue video/slide show of the deceased: Now some Crems have digital projectors and 55” flat screens. Commercial companies offer this service. 
  5. Webcasting of funerals started in The Netherlands: Now many UK Crems have webcasting facilities. 
  6. A family defeated by the passwords of their son, an IT professional, so there were very few at the funeral as they could not notify his friends: Public recognition of the problem. 
  7. I am referred to Facebook and given temporary membership of their pages to gather information and view images: Now a commonplace, also sent comments from other social media. 
  8. Audio conferencing during my family visit to include those far away: Family now use video Skype, to include a relative overseas. 
  9. A grandchild reading his tribute direct from his Smartphone: Now a commonplace, also Tablets. 
  10. Mourners taking still photographs of the coffin before, during and after the funeral. Also, photos of the floral tributes: Now a commonplace, although usually on Smartphones. Commercial companies offer this service".

Scroll down for a short video. 


Prof. Stine Gotved:


Stine Gotved presenting her research about the usage of QR barcodes on graves in Denmark. 
Picture by Vered Shavit

I've been mentioning QR codes on graves in my talks since 2012, and it was interesting for me to hear about Denmark's current take of this issue. We have QR codes on graves in Israel as well, since 2011 (at least): 


Here are some quotes from her abstract:

"QR-codes on Danish Gravestones: Issues of Privacy with Public Access
In our digital age, even the gravestones offer online access. With the epicenter in Japan (2004), QR-codes on gravestones is a slowly spreading global phenomenon, changing our perceptions and traditions around the physical death and the related memorials. The gravestone is simultaneously physical and digital, the visitors to the grave can venture into a digital dimension while there, and the descendants are free to change the stone's content over time. Thus, the areas of physical death, mourning, and memorials are under transition due to pervasive technology, a growing culture of digital sharing, and persistent performances of individuality.
The cemetery as a secluded space is challenged by pervasive communication technology, and presumably, today most visitors bring their mobile phone. More often than not, the phone includes a camera, and the ever-growing amount of smartphones further have the possibility of applications for scanning QR-codes. Related to the dispersion of such mobile technology, QR-codes on gravestones have entered the cemeteries under the radar. No authorities have been involved, no act of regulation is passed, no priest seem to bother. Nevertheless, the article argues a fundamental shift in issues related to privacy, both offline and online. First, the stonecutters (who in Denmark sell, deliver and host the QR-codes as part of their service) have different ways of presenting the possibility to their customers, invoking various issues of privacy in the process. Second, the cemetery get subtle shifts in spatiality. Now there is a digital dimension with accessible content to enhance the existing infospace (primarily name and life span). Also, the downloads might transgress the privacy of the moment by disturbing other mourners at nearby graves. Third, the content behind the QR- code can be more or less private, most likely directed at family and friends of the deceased, rather than strangers (including researchers) passing by and downloading".

Phillip Wane

Phil wane demonstrating the usage of augmented reality with graves and tombstones. 
Picture by Vered Shavit

While I have heard of augmented reality before, for me it was the first time to "see it in action", and I was very impressed. Maybe this is the current future of headstones, until the next and newer technology will come along? 

Here are some quotes from his abstract:

"The Living Dead? Graveyards and Augmented Reality

This early stage research looks into the potential of commercially available Augmented Reality (AR) applications to allow visitors to cemeteries and other memorials to view relevant images. The author has experimented with the free Aurasma application, which allows users to overlay an augmented reality image onto a physical object when viewed through a mobile phone. One of the big advantages of AR applications over other approaches, such as the addition of Quick Response (QR) or Bar codes to headstones, is that nothing needs to be added to existing physical artefacts. It would also be possible to tailor the information based upon individual needs, for instance a family member might view one image and a member of the general public might view another. This might prove particularly useful where the deceased had a high public profile or where an organisation might want to provide AR information. For instance visitors to Commonwealth War Graves sites could call up images of the deceased, war records, or information about the campaign (where available). Especially timely given the approaching anniversary of the First World War.

The author began to investigate this area following the death of his own parents at separate times in 2009. The modest cremation headstone seemed insufficient (but was all that was permitted) so the idea of using an AR application to allow family members to see and, possibly even hear the deceased (via video clips) without having to physically change the headstone was compelling. The author tried some initial experiments which were crude but successful using the free software to call up images when a mobile phone was pointed at family headstones and the local cenotaph (the author’s father having had his photograph taken there). There are now commercial services looking to exploit the potential of AR in cemeteries (such as Digital Memorial), other pilot projects include the REACT FutureCemetery Project and large national war cemeteries have introduced applications to help visitors, though not always with full AR (Arlington National Cemetery in the United States). Whether from an individual perspective, or from a formal historical one, AR has the potential to enrich the visitor experience to cemeteries".

You can see a short video I filmed at the symposium with Simon Allen and Phillip Wane here


    • "Memorials, commemorative practices and digital games": Martin Gibbs, Michael Arnol and Bjorn Nansen, Australia
    • "Challenging mortality: committing suicide in digital games": Karin Wenz, The Netherlands
    • "RIP James and Lily Potter or 65.000 tweets about death that did not happen: real commemoration of a fictional event in digital communication space": Ilze Borodkina, Latvia

All three talks were very interesting for me. 


Dr. Martin Gibbs


Martin Gibbs talking about gaming, gamers and death
Picture by Vered Shavit

I wrote about gamers memoralization before (Jon 'NEVERDIE' Jacobs and Tina Lieu, James Payne) and this was a good opportunity for me to become acquainted with more stories and angles. 

Here are some quotes from their abstract (Martin presented by himself):


"Memorials, Commemorative Practices and Digital Games



As people devote more leisure time to online video games, and as they form social relations associated with these media, it is unsurprising to find that these games become vehicles for expressing grief and for memorializing the dead. These games provide a social context in life, and they also provide a social context for people's attention to death. Many examples of funeral rites that act to memorialize the dead are conducted within multiplayer games and are documented through player-generated materials posted to video hosting sites such as YouTube. Much like book dedications, the developers of games also have been known to place epitaphs and mementos acknowledging the deceased within games. Sometimes these can take the form of a dedication in the manual, or in release notes for the game. More interestingly, developers have placed memorials within games. In some cases these memorials take the form of "Easter eggs" — text, images or sounds hidden away within the game. For example, deceased developers, players and fans of particular games have been represented as non-player characters in games such as World of Warcraft, Rome Total War II and Borderlands 2. Other memorials are more explicit. For example, memorials to Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the co-creators of Dungeons and Dragons, were added to Dungeon and Dragons Online shortly after their deaths in 2008 and 2009.

Online game engines provide game developers with a range of materials for memorialization. These memorials can invoke the semiotics of traditional stone monuments, gravestones, and cenotaphs. They can also connote a form of mummification through the preservation of avatars. They can also take dramaturgical forms, drawing players into interactive stories that honor, evoke and recall the deceased. Multiplayer online games also provide players with the opportunity to commemorate deceased players through ritual-like practices within the game".  

Dr. Karin Wenz

I'm not a gamer but I have several friends who are. I think that through meeting Karin, people will take gaming and gamers more seriously, which makes her a good ambassador to those communities (even if it is not her intention - she is simply being herself, which includes being a gamer). 
Listening to her talk reminded me of a genre of games I read about in which the character of the player "really" dies - that is, his/her avatar dies, and the player has to start all over again: the character can't "resurrect" as avatars in games usually do. Gamers refer to it as "permadeath".  

Here are some quotes from her abstract:

"Challenging Mortality: Committing Suicide in Digital Games

This contribution discusses the function of dying and committing suicide in digital games. Games challenge the concept of mortality as they offer replay as the player can return to the last safe point, be resurrected or simply start over again. The question whether the player or the game are in control are in focus of this presentation. How players gain control through replay and counterplay strategies as committing suicide is opposed to the game's impact on the player to adapt to the affordances of the game.

The omnipresence of death and dying in digital games can be seen as based in the computer's ontology. Do we understand the computer as a simulation machine then we challenge the concept of mortality. While symbolic representations of death in novels or movies allow for an imaginary examination of death and dying and philosophical questions of mortality, digital games differ in their death simulations. They hinder this reflection and examination because of their replay function as this highlights repeatability without consequences. What games add, however, different to death in novels or movies is the observation of the own death, even though it is just the own avatar dying. As the player is still able to resurrect and continue playing, death is connected to control and gains an airiness that is reflected in gaming practices as committing suicide in game. The amount of suicide gaming videos on YouTube shows how the experience of dying is central for some players of games and how they try to find out which and how many ways there are in a game to commit suicide. This can be described as counterplay, a concept that is used to describe a way to play a game against its rules or against the intention of the designers. Counterplay means using the in-built game algorithm not for solving tasks given by the game but using the game for something else than expected. Instead of fighting monsters or another team of players and submitting to the game’s affordances players can use the game environment for different performances. Instead of submitting to the game the players take over control and try out what else the game environment can be used for. Being in control while facing the loss of control is central for suicides in game". 

Ilze Borodkina


 Both pictures by Vered Shavit

Ilze Borodkina talking about virtually grieving for fictional characters

I wasn't aware of this prior to her talk, but turns out we not only have virtual grieving for people who are still alive and virtual grieving for people who are no longer alive, but also virtaul grieving for people who were never alive - such as characters in a book

Here are some quotes from her abstract:

"R.I.P. James and Lily Potter or 65.000 Tweets about Death that did not Happen: Real Commemoration of a Fictional Event in Digital Communication Space

The book series about Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling and especially the last book has assigned a special meaning to October 31st, 1981, that the writer has chosen as the day when parents of main hero died. Although just five years ago this fact was yet unknown and twenty years ago even the fantasy world that these characters inhabit was not created, on October 31, 2011 the digital communication space experienced commemorative activities of different formats with the goal of recognizing 30th anniversary of James and Lily Potters’ death. The intensity of these activities reached a level, where, for example, phrase RIP James and Lily Potter not only appeared on the list of trending topics in Twitter, but even was brought to the position Nr.1. In this sense, Potters became equal to other celebrities whose deaths initiated massive online mourning campaigns like Michael Jackson or Amy Winehouse, with the only difference being that they actually never lived.
To gain a deeper insight into this phenomena, 65,483 tweets containing the above mentioned trending phrase were archived during approximately 24 hours, and analyzed within the framework of grounded theory".

And now, let's step outside, where you can see a picture of Ilze and me: 


Ilze Borodkina and me, Durham
Picture by Jakob Borrits Sabra 

My summary of day 2 - April 10th will be posted soon, stay tuned.

07/11/2014

I'm giving a talk at Kingston University in London on Nov. 19th - You're Invited!

I'm giving a talk about 'Death in the Digital Era' at Kingston University in London on November 19th at 13:00

All the details can be found in this Facbook event. Directions to campus can be found here

Please feel free to invite your colleagues, students, teachers, friends, family members etc. - admittance is free of charge. 

If you wish to attend, please drop one of us a line so we'll save you a seat: Ben O'Hanlon: ben.ohanlon@visionslive.com or me: death.in.digital.era@gmail.com.

If you're learning or teaching at Kingston, please drop Dr. Korina Giaxoglou a line: Korina.Giaxoglou@kingston.ac.uk‏ and she'll save you a seat. 

I haven't been to campus yet, from the pictures it looks very modern: 






I wish to take this opportunity to thank: 
My colleague and friend, Dr. Korina Giaxoglou Senior Lecturer in English Language and Communication, MA Language and Society, Course Leader - for initiating this talk;
Dr. Marina Lambrou, Head of Linguistics & Languages, for inviting me to give this talk;
My friend and Linkedin wiz Daniel Alfon along with my friend and Social Media wiz Ben O’Hanlon of VisionsLive for their generous assistance in promoting this talk. 

Ben was kind enough to do a short, informal Google+ hangout with me - please feel free to watch, share and invite people to attend: 


Duncan Stewart from Deloitte Canada was kind enough to recommend this talk in Facebook: 



Looking forward to seeing you there! 

17/10/2014

Seriously, Yahoo?

Justin Ellsworth was a 20 years old United States Marine Corps Lance Corporal. 


He served in Iraq and sent his family emails and pictures using his Yahoo account: 


Print screens of emails Justin sent shortly before his death


A picture Justin sent his family from Iraq via email

In November 2004 Justin was killed in Iraq in an act of bravery which awarded him a Bronze Star Medal with Combat Distinguishing Device (V Device). Sadly, Justin did not become posthumously famous following his acts of bravery, but following the media coverage his family's law suit against Yahoo has received, asking for access to his email account (I wrote about this in the 2nd article I wrote for ynet in 2011). The words and pictures he sent and received during his deployment were very meaningful to them after his death. 
A court order in favor of his family was issued following a prolonged legal battle in court. The family did not get his password, but they did receive a copy of the content of his email account on a DVD. Following this court ruling, Yahoo changed their terms of use, making sure this will not happen again: 

Print screen: Yahoo's TOS

According to the current TOS
"No Right of Survivorship and Non-Transferability: You agree that your Yahoo account is non-transferable and any rights to your Yahoo ID or contents within your account terminate upon your death. Upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate, your account may be terminated and all contents therein permanently deleted".
Recently, a committee of experts at the ULC has drafted an act regarding fiduciary access to digital assets. As reported by Jim Lamm of 'Digital Passing': 
"The final version is the result of an active collaboration by Uniform Law Commissioners who were members of the Drafting Committee and over 130 observers who participated in the process, including representatives from The American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, the American Bar Association, the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, the American Bankers Association, Internet service providers and several of their industry groups, and consumer rights and privacy groups".   
The act was approved in July 2014 at the ULC's Annual Meeting and Delaware was the first state to enact it, in August 2014. I (and other Digital Death colleagues of mine) hope that more states will follow suit soon.  

The essence of this new act is that: 
"...Legally appointed fiduciaries will have the same access to digital assets as they have always had to tangible assets, and the same duty to comply with the account-holder’s instructions".
And Yahoo? 
In September 2014 Yahoo wrote that they are against this new act. 
- Not only do they have such a strict, not-yielding, non-flexible policy regarding not granting posthumous access, they also disapprove of the new act. 
If their argument was that "we wish to maintain the user's privacy after his or her death regardless to his or her wishes", that would have been one thing. If their argument was that they don't like the current phrasing of the new law and they think it should be phrased differently, that would have been one other thing. But it is another thing when their arguments is that "it should be the user's choice": 


Print screen: Yahoo's Tumbler

Seriously, Yahoo? If the user's choice is so important to you, why don't you launch a service similar to Google's "Inactive Account Manager"? (It's an imperfect service, but it's an important step in the right direction).  
Why don't you force your users to check boxes regarding their wishes for posthumous access, just like you force them to check boxes regarding reading your terms of use? 


Graphics by Nimrod Benzoor
This is my proposal to websites, ISPs and platforms:
force their users to state their wishes 
in case
they will no longer be able to access their account

Why is your default choice - which is also the single, one and only choice - to have the account "terminated and all contents therein permanently deleted"? What if the user would have preferred for his or her loved ones to have access to his or her account after his or her death? If the deceased will pass the password on, they would be doing so in violation of your TOS (although you would probably never find out) and if the manager of his or her estate, a relative or a loved one were to contact you with a request for access, you wouldn't grant it. So how are you respecting the users choices? You're not giving them any!
I agree: some people would prefer for their account to get terminated upon their death. It is a legitimate wish and should be respected. But what about the people who would prefer otherwise? From the results of a survey I held in Israel last year (in collaboration with two other blogs), we've learned that there is no one answer which suits all (sorry, hope to get around to translating the results soon, you can read some of it in a paper I co wrote with Dr. Roey Tzezana and was published in Finland this summer about the gap between ISPs / platforms / websites policies and people's wishes). 

Yahoo, it's true that a user has a right to maintain his or her privacy, but what about his / her right to share

14/09/2014

A Solution from Within the Community

My good friend Shiri Yeshua, the talented graphic designer who does the graphic design for Digital Dust (pro-bono), is also a talented fan-fiction writer. 

She brought to my attention a solution found within the fan-fiction community: in the website "Archive of Our Own", in clause B in their Terms of Use, the site offers you a "Fannish next-of-kin" solution: 
"Registered Archive users may designate a fannish next-of-kin. A next-of-kin agreement allows the transfer of content maintenance in the case of a user's permanent incapacitation or death... Both parties to the agreement must be registered users of the Archive"...
What I like about this solution is that you have to leave your creations to be taken care of by a fellow member of the fan-fiction community - you can't leave it to an outsider. I think it is a wise choice as this solution is organic to this unique world of content.



The decision to give control over this content to a fellow fan and not to a family member - who is an outsider to this community - is not due to a wish to deprive a family member of anything. It is because only a member of this community, who is already immersed in this sub-culture, will know how this community works and what is valuable to it, and his or her choices will most likely reflect and respect the wishes and style of the deceased community member.   

May more websites, platforms and service providers come up with organic solutions and let their users know what these solutions are, in a clear, transparent and accessible way (especially in Israel, if I may add). 

25/07/2014

Facebook Cruelty. Not an Easy Read, but an Important One: Report

I wrote this post on Monday-Tuesday, July 21st-22nd 2014. I have given a lot of thought to the timing of publishing it. 
On one hand, I would have preferred publishing it only after the fate of the missing soldier, Sgt. Oron Shaul, will be known, as his family is still going through the nightmare of uncertainty. 
On the other hand, reporting these cruel, fake pages and profiles to Facebook can do some good. 
After plenty of deliberation, I decided to post it in Hebrew on Wednesday, July 23rd and in English on Friday, July 25th, for this reason: please report


Until now, the most difficult post to read - and write - in this blog was the ugly side of Digital Death. It tells about real, extremely cruel behaviors of 'Death Trolls': people who target grieving families and bully them online. At the time, I did not imagine it would only be a 'Part One' post, but here I am writing 'Part Two', which seems to be just as difficult to read - and write - and perhaps even more.  

Since news first came out that a soldier is missing, many fake Facebook profiles and pages were created under his name


Printscreen: Izz ad-Din al-Qassam's website

Not knowing if their son is dead or alive, if he has been captured and held in captivity or if his body is missing, his family is probably doing what any of us would have done and are looking for clues online. Extreme cruelty is directed at them as the Facebook search results come up with the following abomination: 

Search results from Monday, July 21st 2014, profiles only: 



The first result is his real profile: 

The real profile is no longer online. 
I hope it has been taken down by his family, as a way to limit access to pictures of his which have been "feeding" the fake profiles and pages

The next two results were fake profiles. In both of them he "works" at Golani - his IDF unit - and in one of them he "lives" in Gaza. Both of them are no loner online either, so I assume they have been reported as fake and taken down by Facebook. 

Search results from Monday, July 21st 2014, pages only: 



When opening a Facebook page, a page category has to be chosen. Further cruelty is presented by these choices, for instance in a page presenting him as a pet. I admit I had tears in my eyes when I saw it: 


Other page category choices have been to present him as a politician: 


A comedian: 


A fictional character: 



And as a public figure: 


Several pages were categorized as community. The first one used the same cover photo as his real profile: 






Search results from Tuesday, July 22nd 2014, pages only 

This time we get a slightly different outcome: 


Looks like some pages have been reported and taken down, while others have gained "likes". 

One page claimed he could "help", but it too has been taken offline since: 


I wish I could believe that person did mean well, but I'm afraid it was just a way to express further cruelty: 




Other pages under his name were used to spread Hamas propaganda, which is why I'm not linking to it. 
Most of the links will become unusable anyway as the pages are reported and taken offline. 

So what can you do? Report 

How? 
Write his name in Facebook: Oron Shaul. 
You will come up with search results of pages. 
Once inside a page, there are three dots on the right hand side. Click on them and several options will present themselves. One of them will be "Report": 


After choosing "Report", a new window will come up. Choose one of the available reasons, then click "Continue": 



May his family get out of the hell of uncertainty regarding his fate as soon as possible. 


A sad update: Oron Shaul has been declared as "a soldier killed in action whose burial site is unknown". The pages are still online. Keep reporting, they are being removed.