Selina Ellis Gray
Digital Designer & PhD Candidate

Lancaster University, England

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Living with Data and Digital Remains

I am a PhD researcher interested in the data that remains after us. Particularly asking: What happens if we think about our data and digital legacies, not as a static collection of data that we abandon in death, but as a mass of remains that 'live on' without us across a wide range of digital networks?

It is through following the lives of our data legacies after people's demise, that provides an insight into a diverse and complex set of contemporary mourning practices online.

Throughout my PhD thesis I critically document this interaction between the bereaved, post-mortem data legacies and the ghostly social presence of the dead.

Thesis forthcoming Summer 2015


PhD Outline

This interdisciplinary PhD study is centred on how people’s physical demise can be followed by the slow decay of a massive body of data which ‘Remains in the System’. Alongside the clothes, photo albums and jewellery, the bereaved can now find laptops, mobile telephones, back up hard drives, games consoles, music players, Flash drives and tablets. People’s devices have become entwined with digital assets, such as music files, purchased movies, TV Series, games, e-books and virtual forms of currency. Then there are dead data remnants to consider, banking logins, the files stored in the cloud, the last emails, logins, search histories, blogs posts, status updates and broader ghostly traces of people’s engagement online. All of the above can futher entwined with the tracking data kept about us, the cookies, Global Positioning System locations, device sensors (i.e. accelerometers, magnetometers, etc.), Internet Protocol addresses and server logs.

My thesis connects this data to the richer historical phenomena of people's material remains and legacies. In particular, how material remains are entangled within practices of loss and co-constituted through our relationships to technologies that date back into human prehistory.

The work draws upon an interdisciplinary framework from Material Culture Studies, STS, Sociology of Death, Death Studies, Design Studies and Media Theory to approach and make sense of empirical accounts of data practices amongst remains.

Why Death?

Through the increasing prevalence of smart and internet enabled devices, internet access and ‘free’ online services, data centric technologies are becoming interwoven into the fabric of our everyday lives. The underpinning thread that weaves through my research and design practice is inherently tied to the notion of sensitive research, in particular the sensitive research contexts that are emerging out of the everydayness of data centric technologies in western societies.

As a researcher I have observed this extensions of data centric technologies into contexts online where we confront issues that are traditionally considered taboo or difficult, for example political instabilities, regimes, war, death, suicide, dying, chronic illness, sexual abuse, rape, violence, drug use, homelessness, prostitution and murder (Lee, 2000; Liamputtong, 2007; Dickson-Swift, 2008). Technologies are enabling people to create and share content that intersects with the more difficult aspects of humanity, uploading images and video that contain racist, sexist, homophobic messages, physical violence, rape, beheadings, suicide bombings, animal torture, suicide and even murder.

The presence of this content is so prevalent that in 2014 an estimated 100,000 ‘content moderators’ – twice the headcount of Google – were thought to be at work on monitoring and regulating online services and social media platforms (Chen, 2014).

This sensitive research agenda reflects my ongoing concerns with methodical innovation, ethical sensitivities, managing emotional risks, anonymity, responsibility, reciprocity and the actual pragmatics of engaging in design which ultimately opens opportunities for positive support, interventions and impact into people’s everyday lives.



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HighWire Lab
Lancaster University