Digital ownership across lifespans

Moncur, W.; Prendergast, David and Garattini, Chiara, eds. (2015) Digital ownership across lifespans. In: Aging and the Digital Life Course. Life Course, Culture and Aging: Global Transformations, 3 (1). Berghahn Books, pp. 257-273. ISBN 9781782386919 (

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As technology adoption continues to increase across the lifespan, the question of what happens to the resulting digital content at the end of life is increasingly topical. We are embracing opportunities to create and share digital content that has personal significance: photos, emails, blogs, videos and more. This content is superseding the boxes of memory-laden letters and photos which were previously stored in our homes. Digital content has the advantage that it can be created, accessed and shared anywhere, at any time. However, unlike boxes of letters and photos, digital content cannot easily be inherited when its creator dies – especially if it is stored in online accounts. Facilities for users to nominate an inheritor for their digital content are largely absent, and (with few exceptions) lack support in law. Inheritors struggle to identify and access online accounts and their content. Internet Service Providers usually refuse to give inheritors access to the deceased’s account details, as terms of service commonly stipulate that accounts are non-transferrable. Processes of bequest and inheritance are further clouded because digital and physical death are very rarely simultaneous. Users may linger on in a virtual world indefinitely after physical death. If inheritors gain access to digital content, they are repurposing it. New levels of personalisation are being introduced into funerals and memorial services, as digital content is used to evoke the life of the deceased. Online memorial sites provide opportunities for shared grieving and the maintenance of continuing bonds with the dead. Yet if they lack appropriate moderation, these sites may generate further distress when insensitive posts cannot be removed by those most deeply affected by bereavement. This chapter explores the issues surrounding ownership of digital content across multiple lifespans, and the ways in which digital content lives on after its creator dies. We first consider what it means to exist in the digital age, before describing the digital assets which people may own, and the challenges which they face in bequeathing and inheriting them.