On March 4th 2020, Kiera Schuller, Research and Policy Analyst with ICTC, interviewed Carl Öhman about his doctoral work at the Oxford Internet Institute, which falls at the intersection between economic sociology and ethics. Specifically, Carl’s research looks at the ethical challenges regarding commercial management of ‘digital human remains,’ the term for data left by deceased users on the internet, which was the topic of his 2016 award-winning thesis at Oxford. In this interview, Kiera and Carl delve into the intersections of emerging technologies and ethics, and discuss personal data, the digital afterlife, and the management/ethics of digital remains.
What are some major ethical, legal, and human rights challenges regarding the commercial management of digital remains?
Although my research doesn’t take an explicitly human rights perspective, I focus on the concept of human dignity, which is a part of the ideology of human rights. A central argument I make is that ideas about human rights and morality should not only be applied to living humans; they are also relevant to the non-living, including the dead and the non-born. Indeed, if we claim to be humanists and care about humanity, we should acknowledge that humanity is not just a spatially dispersed project but a temporally extended project. Humanity includes also those who have lived and those who will live.
Of course, I don’t argue that everything that is bad for a living human is bad for someone who is dead — physical pain, for example, is only relevant for the living, because the dead cannot sense being harmed. But there are plenty of human rights that in fact do not require a physical living body. Dignity is one example: regardless of whether you experience being humiliated or wronged, it can still be considered an ethical harm. I consider this mainly from a societal point of view: specifically, with the emergence of the digital afterlife on the internet, the dead have now entered our sphere of moral consideration that they haven’t before. Scholars and historians of death — and the cultural role of death — often speak of modernity as ‘the era of hidden death’ (where most people don’t see death, people die in hospitals surrounded by professionals, and the dead are hidden from society). However, most researchers today argue that this era is coming to an end with digital technologies.
With digital remains and profiles of the dead remaining on social media, the dead are once again entering into public space in a way that they haven’t done yet in modernity — they’re constantly accessible from your phone, on the social networks you use, in the pictures and videos you keep on your device or in the cloud. It’s the end of the era of hidden death, and hence we must begin to consider the ethical significance of this new presence...Read more...