Digital Death and Thanatechnology: New Ways of Thinking About Data (Im)Mortality and Digital Transformation

OMICS. 2021 Jun 25. doi: 10.1089/omi.2021.0096. Online ahead of print.


Digital technologies such as the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence are changing how we live and do research, for example, the ways in which patient-reported outcomes and phenomics big data are curated and analyzed. Digital transformation is everywhere and is reshaping data (im)mortality in a wide range of sectors in medicine, engineering, journalism, and beyond. In this context, thanatechnology is a term introduced by Carla Sofka over two decades ago, referring to "any kind of technology that can be used to deal with death, dying, grief, loss, and illness." The field of thanatechnology has become relevant in the digital age as social media is full of accounts from dead individuals, whereas digital media is often harnessed as a source of data and metadata, and in times of pandemics and normalcy. Emerging macroscale analyses forecast billions of social media user accounts from deceased persons in the current century. What happens to digital remains of persons once they cease to exist physically? Digital death, or its absence in the case of deceased individuals, becomes a challenge for both data availability and veracity, and confound research and public health services. Data (im)mortality and digital death are also relevant for research on past events of significance for public health, for example, to discern the history of pandemics and ecological threats. This article examines and calls for new ways of thinking about digital death and thanatechnology as integral dimensions of digital transformation in medicine, new media studies, and society in the 21st century.

Keywords: big data and society; digital death; digital transformation; digital zombies; new media studies; thanatechnology.