Digital Afterlives and Genealogy Industries

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This event is curated by Dr Silke Arnold-de Simine and Professor Julia Creet (York University Toronto) as part of the Data Materiality initiative

It is held as part of Arts Week 2019

21 May 2019 | Birkbeck Cinema, School of Arts Birkbeck, 43 Gordon Square, London, WC1H 0PD | 18:00-21:00

Should we be archiving our DNA? Join us for a screening of Data Mining the Deceased: Ancestry and the Business of Family (2016) to explore the popularity of genetic testing for ancestral heritage. What kind of pasts are we archiving for families of the future and why?

Social networking has created a vast set of data that will need to be managed and we need to think about the ethics of digital afterlives. There is a new booming industry which specialises on storing, advancing, digitising and personalising our own digital legacy before we die: from avatars to holograms, androids and algorithms which can tweet on our behalf from beyond the grave.

ScreeningData Mining The Deceased: Ancestry And The Business Of Family (Julia Creet, 2016. Canada. 56mins), with an introduction from Prof. Creet.

More than half of North Americans are fascinated by genealogy. Some gain a sense of identity by uncovering their ancestors, their culture, and their country of origin. Others find it disorienting when they discover that their history differs from what they have always believed. But there is another side to the rise in genealogy that goes beyond human interest. It is arguably the largest historical enterprise in the world, and one of the largest data mining operations, driven by big religion, big business and big technology. Data Mining the Deceased is a doc that takes a wry but accepting look at individual and industry stakes in the phenomenon of family history.

Following the film there will be a panel discussion exploring the technologies by which we extend ourselves into the past and into the future, and the issues that arise in their wake around commercialisation, privacy and ownership. We are particularly interested in the psychology of the disavowal of death that seems to permeate the anxieties about being remembered in digital afterlives. How can we understand memory practices that are distributed between digital platforms and human agents (e.g. the ethical challenges of outsourcing memory functions to prosthetic digital infrastructures)? How do these services facilitate, address and manage the affect of loss? What are the ethical implications and challenges?

Exploring these questions are:

     chaired by Dr. Silke Arnold-de Simine (Reader in Memory, Media and Cultural Studies, Birkbeck)

Podcast of the after-screening discussion on the digital afterlife and genealogy industries is available here.

Following this event, the panel were interviewed by Julia Creet, as a way to extend further the discussion about digital afterlives and the genealogy industies specifically in relation to their own research. 

Silke Arnold-de Simine talks about her research into digital afterlives and memory studies, and in particular how technologies are extending our agency into the future, after we’re gone, and connects with future generations, within the context of trauma and the Holocaust. This project extends to her past research into the interface between memory studies and museum studies in Mediating Memory in the Museum: Trauma, empathy and nostalgia (Palgrave, 2013).

(Interviewed by Dr. Arnold-de Simine) Julia Creet reflects on her film, Data Mining the Decreased, and offers further thoughts on her research into the genealogy industry and in particular the databases which collect genealogical information. 

Elaine Kasket discusses her latest book  about what happens to our digital data after we die and the ethical and technological issues which arise as a consequence. 

Carl Öhman speaks about his research based in the Digital Ethics Lab at the Oxford Internet Institute focused on the ethical and political challenges of digital technologies and especially understanding the accumulation of data and the access and control over it. 

Stacey Pitsillides discusses her research into what happens to our digital footprint after we die and how the digital can construct understanding of who a person used to be.