Natalie Smithson - Digital Shadow

Your life is twice as complicated as you think it is and we need to address it​​​​​​​

In 2003, 38-year-old Londoner Joyce Vincent died and nobody noticed for three years. Not because she was unpopular or unloved. But because a disjointed lifestyle teamed up with other complexities made it possible for her to disappear. 

It’s more gruesome than that, too. When the remains of her body were found, her TV had been on for three years. Her heating didn’t fail once. Joyce had been sat on her sofa, wrapping Christmas presents that nobody would receive. People who had lost touch for one reason or another, or had presumed she didn’t want to hear from them. Mostly, they figured she was away doing more exciting things than hanging out with them, says Carol Morley, the filmmaker who documented Joyce’s story. 

Misrepresented by the bare, morbid facts of how she died, this young woman’s life and death is now an outright misery. 

Who would choose that for their own existence (or demise)?

Using technology, there must be another way for us to live.

Smart technology should appeal to our self-centred nature as human beings

As people, we are anything but straightforward. Entrenched in our own unpredictable behaviours and wayward thoughts, technology can’t serve us all at once. For as much as we can care for the wellbeing of others, both you and I are inherently wrapped up in the daily struggle of our own personal lives.

Right now, we’re busy building smart homes and connected cities around populations of people. But what about the individuals within those groups and our day-to-day encounters as human beings? In advance of smart homes, we need smart humans. A way to hold close a digital shadow that follows you wherever you go; intangible clothing that you wear like a digital cloak.

And I don’t mean a fake digital self you can portray on social media. Hauling around that lie already sits heavy on our collective conscience — we’re bored of airbrushing, and women, in particular, are campaigning for a more natural appearance without makeup and with unshaved armpits. Yet as much as our physical being matters, so does our ever-growing digital existence. 

Technology lends a way for us to control the trail of our actuality and preserve it beyond our death. But first, we have to figure out how to better align our online and offline worlds, instead of tripping ourselves up on inaccurate replicas of ourselves.

“We are all cyborgs now”

That’s the title of a 2010 TED talk by Cyborg Anthropologist, Amber Case, and it’s hard to deny. Alongside an online social identity, we have a growing collection of digital belongings that we can barely contain. Photos, messages, documents, and downloads litter our lives. A stream of information and entertainment comes at us at an alarming rate.

Instant messages.

Push notifications.


Scheduling reminders.

Texts and photos.

Sometimes, even phone calls…

We never switch off.

Digital Anthropologist, Brian Solis, calls us Generation C for being Connected — always. To our phones. To our online accounts. To our digital network.

We collect not just digitised odds and ends, but real-life assets too. A digital wallet collects currency and you can store title deeds for your house on the blockchain. Consider how much more digital junk you will have collected a decade from now as we continue to find new use cases for emerging technology. 

Over time, our digital estate becomes unmanageable. Like a virtual loft space that contributes to our existential clutter.

And what happens to it all when you die?

Ten years ago social media sites had drawn in only 7% of the US population. Now, it’s 65%. This dual online-offline existence isn’t limited to the minority any more. We all have to face up to the reality that we’re amassing a lot of digital belongings that become difficult to organise manually.

Wouldn’t it be far easier, more convenient, and less time-consuming to log our own humanity in real time?

Technology has the potential to support you through the entire span of your own lifetime

Nobody but us can recognise our feelings of mortality. The sensation of breath feeding in and out of your own lungs. The sadness that drowns you when someone you love is gone forever. 

Money becomes inconsequential when you start to question what really matters: A loving bond with family and friends… that call to check if you’re okay. All the time, we uncover new technological solutions for human problems and for every stage of our lives.

The Bluetooth baby thermometer invented by a Mum who knows what it is to have a sick child, desperate to keep a better track of temperature readings without disturbing the baby’s sleep. Now you can check it wirelessly.

The World Identity Network who want to store ID on the blockchain to help prevent child trafficking. “Nearly half of the world’s children under the age of five have no official proof of their identity”, which leaves them practically invisible and certainly vulnerable, they say.

There’s a 3D-printed smart pill that heals you when you’re sick, releasing medicine directly into your stomach. And AI therapy bots that are helping the men who struggle to talk to open up, simply by offering them a different way to do it.

Virtual Reality is relieving loneliness in old age, allowing our elders to replay their own happy memories via VR headsets. Who doesn’t want to remember the good times?

Even after a death, we continue to find ways to connect on a human level using technology. Take the Dadbot created by journalist, James Vlahos. He took digital recordings of his late father speaking and singing, then fed them into an AI bot. Now he can spark a conversation with his deceased Dad to hear his reply, albeit artificially.

Unless technology can truly reflect humanity it’s a mere gadget or convenience

Your body is becoming more important to your technological experience with the advancement of emerging tech like Augmented Reality. The combination can tell the story about the truth of your existence, but it has to be more than a futuristic fantasy. Any tech we introduce has to be simple enough to integrate into everyday life, like carrying your keys or your phone.

“It’s not that machines are taking over”, says Amber Case in her TED talk. “It’s that they’re helping us to be more human, helping us to connect with each other. The most successful technology gets out of the way and helps us live our lives. And really, it ends up being more human than technology, because we’re co-creating each other all the time”.

It should be effortless, secure, and—above all—a comfort. More an expression of how we show up in life and in death. A way to track that you are here at all because that’s what matters the most. The problem arises when the technology is abused.

The crew at Cambridge Analytica would have been sweating over their mousepads to get their hands on information like this. Rather than fumble around in people’s social media profiles and sneak out their data, a digital cloak would provide them instead with a fully-formed encyclopaedia of the living.

So how do we assert control over our digital soul? 

Regulation can’t keep up with technology but we also can’t decide if we should have it at all

“I believe that the boldest new technologies can help us flourish as human beings. Or destroy the very thing that makes us human. It’s our choice.” ~ Caterina Fake, producer of the tech podcast Should This Exist

When the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport proposes “an independent watchdog that will write a ‘code of practice’ for tech companies”, there are challenges made to their ideas.

Matthew Lesh of the neoliberal Adam Smith Institute said: “The government should be ashamed of themselves for leading the western world in internet censorship”. And Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group said it would “create state regulation of the speech of millions of British citizens”.

Dr Wendy Moncur of the University of Dundee and the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath highlights another issue with our attempts to legislate: Laws change between countries.

If you marry in the UK and are a homosexual couple, your husband or wife is your next of kin. They can inherit your digital estate. In a country where gay marriage is illegal, this next of kin policy is automatically redundant.

When the inventor of our World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, suggests that we introduce a contract to facilitate “our journey from digital adolescence to a more mature, responsible and inclusive future”, he’s knocked back too: 

“This isn’t about the companies themselves. It’s about the people running those companies. Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, Theranos—those are all broken entities because the people running them are ethically broken”, said Michael Girdley, MD of tech venture capital firm Geekdom Fund.

Then there are Stanford Professors Fei-Fei Li and John Etchemendy who in March 2019 opened a new centre for “Human-Centered AI” (HAI). Their launch video confirms the goal: to “represent humanity” with “policy” and “best practice” in AI. In real terms, they say this means looking at how we use AI to “make a writer be a better writer, or an artist be a more creative artist, or make a teacher be a more empathetic and understanding teacher”. 

This approach might be the best we can hope for right now, but the technology itself has to play its part too. We need to be able to trust our devices. In our physical lives, we talk about airborne diseases like Chickenpox. In our digital lives, it’s BlueBorne, a flaw that lets hackers get into your devices via Bluetooth.

  • You might not choose to track your every living breath, but will the threat of an infection stop those who want to be connected?
  • Will the threat of having our digital lives being broken into stop people from simply living a life that’s as secure as it can be?
  • And will we continue to use the trusty old light switch because it’s too much of a risk to pull the cord on a brighter idea? 

Well, we’re individuals and we’ll each do what suits us best.   

Having a digital shadow could allow all of us to show our true human self

Trusting someone else with your digital shadow feels like a vulnerability, even if you assign a digital executor. Because when would this mechanism kick in? For Joyce Vincent, a representative failed to appear. Nobody even knew that her pulse had stopped thumping. A heart rate monitor might have known. And could a device like that not automatically raise the alarm?

The filmmaker who etched Joyce Vincent’s name into our brains so we don’t forget her describes horrific cases of assumption. People who didn’t know Joyce suggested that she “must have been a right miserable cow” and somehow “deserved” any misfortune she suffered before her death.

Perhaps if they had heard her laughter or known how often she danced it would be a more powerful reminder of her humanity. Rather than interviews in a studio with people who knew her once. More moving even than the bewitching recreation of her existence for the Dreams of a Life documentary.

If Joyce had been found sooner, along with a collection of data that could have told us what to do with her body and her belongings, her existence might have been less mysterious.

If only somebody — anybody — had known her whereabouts or could see reports about her health in the days, hours, and minutes before she took her final breath.

Maybe then we’d have a better understanding of who Joyce was. We’d know the real Joyce, whoever she was, that she herself would have wanted us to see.

Can’t we all hope for that?

Main image credit: Free-Photos on Pixabay

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