From Public Books:
On May 8, 2023, a Twitter user expressed sadness over the loss of a dead loved one’s Twitter account: “My sister died 10 years ago, and her Twitter hasn’t been touched since then. It’s now gone because of Elon Musk’s newest farce of a policy. Fuck you @elonmusk, your nonsense has taken away a monument to my sister’s mark on this earth.”
Soon after Twitter’s new deletion policy took hold, Google made an announcement of its own. A May 16, 2023, blog post stated that Google would start deleting inactive personal accounts: “if a Google Account has not been used or signed into for at least 2 years, we may delete the account and its contents.” Much like Twitter, Google blamed security issues as the company’s main concern. (Long-inactive accounts are less likely than regularly accessed ones to have two-factor authentication and may become compromised, spewing spam or other unpleasant content out into the world.) However, this policy change invalidates Google’s earlier promise to store your data forever for free. For example, Google Photos claimed in 2015:
Google Photos gives you a single, private place to keep a lifetime of memories, and access them from any device. They’re automatically backed up and synced, so you can have peace of mind that your photos are safe, available across all your devices.
And when we say a lifetime of memories, we really mean it. With Google Photos, you can now backup and store unlimited, high-quality photos and videos, for free.
Google Photos ended its free unlimited storage in 2021.
Tech titans gained power and wealth from the accumulation of data, but that doesn’t mean they are equipped to be long-term stewards of personal and collective memories. Even the longest-lived social media platforms have undergone tremendous changes, and some, like Twitter (now X), teeter on the precipice of oblivion. And many companies, it seems, would rather eschew their responsibilities as digital caregivers. They gobbled up massive amounts of user data for model building and to attract advertisers, and they can just as easily decide to free themselves of their obligations to preserve such data.
For ordinary users, personal data may seem permanent, something that can follow them across the life cycle. Yet such permanence doesn’t always align with corporate interests in and interpretations of data. Today, Big Tech companies are no longer willing to maintain data in perpetuity. We are perhaps reaching the limits of what the cloud can afford.
Tech companies, whether fledgling digital estate-planning startups or massive multinational corporations, are ill equipped to broker the intergenerational transfer of digital remains because of their short attention spans. Moreover, corporations often propose the deactivation or deletion of dormant accounts to avoid liability for any security issues that might arise from keeping them online. Twitter has repeatedly planned to deactivate such accounts, but up until this latest policy shift, user pushback and press attention prevented it from becoming a reality. Under Elon Musk’s chaotic ownership, this time the plan was carried out, at least in part. One petty billionaire had the power to delete long-standing memorials to the dead. Such deletions can also carry their own political implications, such as freeing up handles for right-wing politicians, one possible incentive for Musk’s decision, although simultaneously upsetting the loved ones of dead users.
Despite Big Tech’s tendency to ignore the dead, however, death seems to haunt data infrastructures. In my book, Death Glitch: How Techno-Solutionism Fails Us in This Life and Beyond, I discuss the thorny problem of maintaining the data of the dead, which requires enacting care both at scale and over time.
Here I explore the politics and ethics of endless posthumous data storage, especially at a time when the climate impact of the proverbial cloud is a pressing concern amid the rise of generative AI and other high-energy workloads.
Over the decades, platforms have grappled with the problem of retaining and caring for the data of the dead. Digital remains are complex inheritances, because they depend on the longevity and commercial viability of corporate platforms and proprietary systems. Consider how the remains of the dead might well encompass everything from email, blog, and social media accounts to the ambient forms of metadata that track individuals and their networks. All this—when users die or platform infrastructures break down—becomes digital remains.
Commercial platforms can provide the scaffolding for sacred communion with the dead. But such relationships depend on the whims of platform owners and the design decisions of technologists.
Link to the rest at Public Books