“I think many family members and individuals would like to be able to get access to digital accounts easily and be able to remove them or modify them in whatever way they see fit. But the problem is that if you do not have the password information, you have to go through the bureaucracy of a particular company. …It’s upsetting in many ways to be dealing with the physical estate [of a deceased loved one], but…having to navigate each company’s inner bureaucracy and relying on them to meet your needs is a unique problem.”
“When you already exist in a space where you have not been permitted to make authoritative decisions about your own body and the trajectory of your own life, it’s that much more galling to have that extend into your death and afterlife experience. We’re seeing the ongoing commodification of Black people’s bodies — reanimating [them] for white audiences for commercial purposes. That’s not about memorialization, that’s about the almighty dollar.”
– Tamara Kneese and Tonia Sutherland
When people die, they leave behind not only physical belongings, but digital ones. While they might have had specific wishes for what happens to their online profiles and accounts after their deaths, preserving these digital remains is complex and requires specialized forms of care. Because digital remains are attached to corporate platforms — which have control over what online legacies look like and how long they continue — people’s digital afterlives are not necessarily the ones they would have chosen for themselves.
On November 16, Tamara Kneese and Tonia Sutherland came together for a conversation about their books, which both foreground death as a site for understanding the social values and power dynamics of our contemporary, platform-saturated world.
In Death Glitch: How Techno-Solutionism Fails Us in This Life and Beyond, Kneese argues that death reveals the collective labor behind digital production. No matter how technologists might try to preserve digital legacies, they are perpetually undermined by the ephemeral web. At the same time, she shows how grassroots organizing on the parts of users and workers have remade platforms as places for memorialization and resistance.
Sutherland’s book, Resurrecting the Black Body: Race and the Digital Afterlife, considers the politics of digital preservation through public accountings of Black death. She challenges readers to consider the consequences of “raising the dead” in the digital age, and to understand how digital afterlife practices intersect with histories of anti-Blackness. In doing so, Sutherland points to the possibility of new forms of remembrance in the digital age.
The conversation between these two authors was moderated by Tamara K. Nopper, senior researcher with Data & Society’s Labor Futures program. Together, they explored death as a site of contestation and transformation.