The universe of industries that make money off dying in this country is extensive, and tech entrepreneurs have managed to insert themselves into various corners of it. See: digital estate planning. See also: tools that help you crowdfund funeral costs. There’s even a startup backed by Mark Cuban that promises to turn a loved one’s ashes or hair into a diamond.
That’s according to culture journalist Mihika Agarwal, who’s been reporting on the grief tech industry — including ghost bots, the chatbots that are supposed to help us process grief.
Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke to Agarwal about her reporting for Vox and how there’s a wide range of options gaining traction right now.
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Mihika Agarwal: On the milder side of the spectrum is apps like StoryFile and HereAfter AI that are essentially interactive memory apps. They allow you to record interviews, and then they introduce an AI-powered element to make those interactive. So, for instance, if I was planning my funeral and if I wanted my loved ones to have an experience where they could ask me questions about what my favorite food was, what was a memorable time in my life, I would be able to answer back. And then on the other side of the spectrum are apps like You, Only Virtual, which essentially aim to recreate the sense of the deceased. They’re much more intense. They don’t have any disclosures about the app being fictional, or how they use privacy data. And the founder basically says that grief shouldn’t exist as an emotion in a couple of years, because of where we’ve reached from a technological standpoint.
Lily Jamali: What are the ethical concerns that have been expressed about that view?
Agarwal: The ethics are really muddy around this, especially with the latter model, because vulnerable users most times aren’t trying to figure out how their data is being used. And these companies should be putting out a lot more active disclosures and privacy statements than they normally do. Also, the post-mortem consumer protection landscape is really sort of nascent in the United States. On a federal level, there is no post-mortem rights protocol. And on a state level, they vary really widely. I think New York and California are currently the only two states that do have some sort of post-mortem publicity rights, but even these extend only to celebrities, and they cater to the emerging trend of celebrity deepfakes that are being used to exploit and monetize celebrities without explicit consent. They do not extend to the average citizen. So, it’s a really nascent and muddy ground right now.
Jamali: I have a classmate who lost her mother a number of years ago and wrote about the experience of going through her mom’s laptop and trying to piece together her mom’s digital life. She actually got a lot of blowback for that, because it felt to some like an invasion of privacy. Is that an issue here?
Agarwal: For sure. So, there’s the question of whether the deceased was able to give consent before they died, which is a thing now, but for many people who have already died, it wasn’t a thing when they were around because it’s so new and fresh. The question of inheritance and ownership and who gets to decide how someone’s digital footprint is being used and repurposed, I think those are still very active and alive debates in the Silicon Valley and cybersecurity landscape. We’re still trying to figure it out.
Jamali: One of the phrases that you use in your writing is death technopreneurship. What does that phrase mean?
Agarwal: This phrase was actually coined by Tamara Kneese in her book “Death Glitch: How Techno-Solutionism Fails Us in This Life and Beyond.” She basically talks about this trend of death technopreneurship and how really around COVID, digital obsolescence really became a point of anxiety for many young people. And they started to figure out how their digital assets were going to be used, or their parents’ digital assets should used after their deaths, and that’s when Silicon Valley entrepreneurs really started to seek a piece of the pie. So, everything from digital estate planning startups to crowdfunding tools popped up, and grief tech kind of falls into that trend largely.
Jamali: As someone who has spent so much time reporting on this topic, what do you think of this “startup-ification” of grief? What does that say about how people in the U.S. process grief?
Agarwal: I’m an Indian journalist, and where I come from, we have really elaborate mourning rituals when someone dies. For 13 days the family and the friends of the deceased gather around food, and no one is expected to go to work. It’s a time when day to night, 9 to 5, everyone just is there, either in some religious capacity or whatever that form of community gathering looks like for your family and friends. But for 13 days, everyone sort of gathers to commemorate that person essentially. The United States is an exception where no federally mandated bereavement policy exists. Most companies give about three or five days to process the loss of a loved one, which is barely enough time to arrange a funeral, let alone grieve someone that was close to you. So, I just feel like culturally there’s a lack of mourning rituals, and there’s this tendency to distract and avoid grief rather than process it and integrate it into your life.
One thing especially struck me from this interview.
It was Mihika’s mention of the grief-tech CEO who said he hopes people will one day no longer have to feel grief at all. That CEO is Justin Harrison, who founded You, Only Virtual, one of the startups we talked about, that focuses on creating communication that seems real between a living person and their deceased loved one.
Harrison told a reporter at ABC News, “My mom could’ve hated the idea, but this is what I wanted and I’m alive.”
Not sure how I feel about outsourcing grief to so-called ghost bots. Grief takes different forms, but as Mihika notes, it does help people process death.
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