All the Ghosts in the Machine

By Elaine Kasket, published 25 April 2019 by Robinson

#digital-legacy, #wills, #executors, #end-of-life-planning, #memorials, #memories

This book is for you if …. you’ve got any online accounts at all, and even more if your whole life is online.
This book may not be for you if…  you don’t engage with online technology


Take a few moments to think about all the parts of our life that are now online, even if we don’t intend them to be. And now think about what happens to it all after you’ve gone.

Many people, especially older people, have a treasured box of letters somewhere. Kasket asks us to consider who, if anyone, we would want to read those letters after our death. And then consider the digital equivalent. Who will read emails, our browser history, our streaming history, every single photo on our phone and more. And now, (and this is the entire purpose of psychologist Elaine Kasket’s book), consider who will get the legal rights to everything after you die.

Perhaps your first instinct is to think ‘But I have everything password protected. I share ‘friend stuff’ with friends, and ‘family stuff’ with family. I have my privacy settings locked down!’ Or perhaps your gut reaction is a silent scream of sudden horror! Whatever your reaction, the sharing settings you have right now often mean nothing once you’ve died.

This book raises so many fascinating (and sometimes terrifying) questions. There are three main topics that Kasket explores.

Firstly, who gets to control your online information when you die? The reality is either:

  1. The person who you entrusted with your key passwords in the event of your death, or;
  2. Nobody, because you didn’t give the passwords to anyone and now everything is locked away forever.

One might have assumed, prior to reading this book, that like a phone account or physical property, getting ownership of or access to online content would be simple. You would contact the organisation in question, demonstrate the original owner was dead and you had the right to take control. However, Kasket uses multiple fascinating examples to show how that is absolutely not the case most of the time. 

Kasket also explores the way technology is being used to enhance or create digital legacies.  She looks at the ‘memorial’ function on Facebook and other social media sites (and you might be surprised to learn who has the right or no right to access these). It was particularly fascinating to learn of the rise in people sending personal updates and messages to the social media accounts of their friends or family members who have died and how that makes many people feel more connected.

She also investigates the rise of online memorial technology. This also includes companies providing QR codes and other technology on tombstones. Visitors can use these to find more information about the person who has died on a related website. Kasket looks at the motivating factors behind these technologies, and where the line is drawn between ‘community good’ and ‘new revenue opportunity’ lies.

And, of course, ‘ghosting’ can take on a whole new meaning when bots and bad players hijack the accounts of people who have died. These scams can result in great heartache when family and friends start getting ‘messages’ from their person who has died.

If, after reading most of the book, you’ve developed a quiet sense of dread about how unprepared you are for your own digital legacy, fear not! Kasket ends with an excellent section on how to prepare not just for your digital assets, but for all your end-of-life paperwork. Perhaps most importantly – who is your trusted password holder?

All the Ghosts in the Machine is an intriguing exploration of how IRL (that’s ‘In Real Life’ for those of us who don’t speak ‘online’) and the digital intersect. Kasket invites the reader to come with her on her own journey of discovery. She shares her findings with warmth, sensitivity and humour. This book is an unexpected treasure and something we all should be paying attention to.

All the Ghosts in the Machine is available to borrow from ACT Libraries.

Review by Catherine Prosser

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