Digital Data Funerals

Interview with Audrey Samson by Linda Kronman

LK: Your works (do not leave me) and Goodnight Sweetheart2 can both be seen as digital data funerals and artistic strategies to deal with the deletion of data. Yet in your research you talk about the difficulties of deleting data, specially in the case of Facebook, Google and Twitter. How hard or easy is it to erase data once uploaded in the circulation of social media?

AS: Yes, both works are about erasing data, but as you say it is rather impossible, so in the works the gesture is very symbolic. How difficult is it to erase data? I think it is nearly impossible, especially online. When one's data is uploaded to the cloud, we normally don't know where the server is, and the only real way to destroy data, is by physically destroying the hardware, by de-magnetizing it or smashing it. Obviously you can't march over to Google somewhere in California and say – I would like to smash my section. And even if you could, because of how things are copied and propagated through the network, deleting data is practically impossible.

LK: Another thing you have written about is issues of data ownership after a person's death. What are the current policies of the major social media platforms handling one's digital legacy after death?

AS: These policies change very quickly, so hopefully what I say is current, but it might be six months or a year old. For example Facebook recently implemented the 'Legacy Contact', which is not available in all countries yet, but definitely in the US and DK. If you have Facebook, in your profile settings you may designate the person who would be your legacy contact. This person may update your profile picture and add new friends, also download a copy of your Facebook data. You used to be able to choose whether your account should be deleted or memorialized (upon proof of death). But of course deleted is again a big word, because they don't really delete the data. Even if they delete your profile data, your ID still exists, and all your data still exist, shared through other peoples profiles.

LK: What happens in practice when the profile does not appear anymore? Will the persons be deleted from the friend lists etc.?

AS: This is very recent so there hasn't been much testing on it. So it should be that it takes you off all those lists. But in the past when profiles have been 'taken off', they have still appeared in e.g. birthday reminders. Or they have this new thing 'your memories', and this has been very troublesome for some people, because for example their dead brother appears in 'the memories' one morning, so there is this kind of ghost in the machine that lingers on.

With Google it is not really a death policy, they don't even use the word death, which is very interesting. It is the 'Inactive Account Manager'. So we get this idea that we never die online, we just go inactive. The 'Inactive Account Manager' is not for death per se, but it deals with inactivity, for example if you are in a state of health in which you can't deal with your accounts. So, you are able to determine what you do with all your Google things, such as Google Wallet, Gmail, Google Drive, and all the other million things we have there. But if you say you want to delete something, you are not erased from the server logs. You are supposed to be able to erase your search history, but actually you can't because it is saved in the server logs, so in that sense your history is just somewhere else.

Twitter does not really deal with death (apparently they would discontinue the account). Basically if you are dead, how would they find it out and how do they verify it? I am not sure how this works. There are so many services that will continue your twitter presence even after you die, so the whole idea of death does not seem to exist on Twitter.

LK: That is also interesting: how does a company really know a person is dead? They might just be inactive.

AS: On Facebook that was actually quite an issue. Because before the legacy contact one had to show proof that a person is dead, for example with a death certificate. But it appears that in practice this was not always verified. So it happened that someone said a person was dead and it was a prank, so the person's Facebook was de-activated, but the person was still alive. They then had to prove that they were still alive. So they got hacked in a way. This raises questions like: How do you prove that you are still alive, when there are so many modes of presence through bots and algorithms? What does it mean to be alive anymore?

LK: So in the end, if we want to erase our presence from Facebook, dead or alive, it is impossible?

AS: I think so, it is absolutely nearly impossible.

LK: In your work USB sticks with data are physically destroyed by using acid. And in Goodnight Sweetheart various storage mediums are embalmed in epoxy, totally blocking the access to the data they contain. What was the process to choose these strategies of deletion for your artworks?

AS: I was thinking of ways to destroy data so that it could not be accessible anymore. Another more visceral way than just smashing the hard-drive with a hammer. Then I met Jonathan Kemp, who was making gold cocktails from old hardware. You can strip the heavy metals by using a specific mix of acids called 'aqua regia' (HNO3+3 HCl). It is an old method to make gold soluble. I thought wow, gold cocktails, this is such a poetic drink. Learning about the process of the acid being able to dissolve the metal, that's when I thought – can we try this with the USB sticks? That is how the whole thing came about, through collaboration with him.

In the second iteration it became apparent that using the acid was kind of a cremation of the data. I don't know if you know someone who has been cremated? When you receive the ashes afterwards – it is very strange material thing to receive. It became clear that the remnants I would send back in the post, were like remnants from a cremation.

In the second project I thought what if we could embalm the data, make a relic out of it, in the way people embalm animals or humans at the funeral before burying them. The choice of the material came about for practical reasons; what can dry in such a way, in a certain time, that is transparent and that can have the embalming features. It ended up with resin for the devices and epoxy for the USB sticks.

LK: Both of your projects are also participatory. The data was chosen and given to you by the participants. Have you collected any statements of how they felt about the final erasure of the data?

AS: I have a little bit, and I must say that it is rather incidental in the sense that I never intended to ask people afterwards about the data. It was always supposed to be an anonymous thing. I never look at the data, I just either embalm or cremate it and send it back to them. Interestingly I have been reproached for this, apparently it is my duty to collect metadata about what I erase, people cannot let go. But I did end up doing interviews about the project, incidentally with people that had done it, so I do have those statements. And interestingly enough most of the people I spoke to had sent data relating to a past relationship. Not necessarily someone who died, usually a past boyfriend or girlfriend. So, for example you have old pictures in your pictures folders and every time you go looking for an image you might see an old photo of that boyfriend. These people would say that this gave them the opportunity to organize it in a way, to decide what to keep and what to delete, or just to erase everything, to get closure from that relationship. That was the story I encountered most often.

LK: The biological human memory needs to forget: How important do you think it is that in the digital realm there is a right to be forgotten as well? On the other hand when someone dies we want to remember them by creating monuments; how does this translate to the digital?

AS: That is a tough question. I think it is very important to be able to forget. Both in the human brain, if we can make such a separation anymore, and online. To be able to erase is definitely crucial to the eventual function of our collective memory. But that is not to say – erase everything; rather – how do we then think about archiving in general? Archiving is always a power structure, so whoever gets to decide what we erase, is also the one who has the power to decide such things. I was thinking recently about how it could be in the future, that you might have to pay to have things erased. The people in control of the servers would have the ability to erase data and it would be a very high-cost service. So the rich people would be able to delete their data and the poor people would not.

LK: This is very interesting, because today one is ready to pay for recovering lost data, so why not pay for deleting data? It sounds like a very evil business model!

AS: It does, but I think it is not such a far-fetched idea. It started a long time ago, that when we get free services, all of what we do online is tracked, even when we pay it is tracked. All this information we give involuntarily to the company. Now there are services that will specifically ask you for more personal information, for example tracking your heartbeat, and then you get the service for free. We are already starting to see the digital divide between people that have no money at all, that will just give away whatever information asked to obtain a service. I can see this building towards the point where there is all this evidence that can be used against you, as we know, and you should pay a big price to get it erased.

LK: As a last question, do you think there can be artistic strategies to deal with this?

AS: I think that artists working with strategies of deletion or erasure are addressing the issues. Thinking about networked data as part of our selves, and therefore treating it in a different way, as a material thing with consequences, that will help us to deal with these issues. Artists that work with erasure of data emphasize materiality of data, and this is very relevant. Demystifying the ephemeral cloud network fallacy will already change how we address these issues.

Audrey Samson (CA) is an artist-researcher currently completing a PhD at the School of Creative Media in Hong Kong. Her performative installations explore how memory and technical objects are iteratively reconfigured and entangled in the context of networked data archiving. Her artistic approach, informed by the cultural context of technology, is ethnographical and rooted in software studies. Samson's work has been presented at festivals and galleries throughout the Asia Pacific, Europe, and Canada.

Stefan Tiefengraber: Technology-based Art and Destruction
  1. is a ritual of erasure, a symbolic attempt to escape datafication. The starting point of the project is a public installation that offers USB keys and a set of instructions in a pre-addressed envelope. The audience that engages with the piece sends their data in the post to the artist. In a biochemistry lab a digital data funeral is then performed. The keys are immersed in a mix of acids called Aqua Regia, used to dissolve noble metals. After digestion, the remains are are sent back to the owner by post in a small jewelry box.
  2. Goodnight Sweetheart is a funeral for digital footprints and identities. In this artwork USB keys and other storage devices are collected from participants and embalmed in resin, forever sealing the data.