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Ethical Reflections on Handling Digital Remains: Computing Professionals Picking Up Bones

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We approach the subject of digital remains, understood as “online content of dead users,” from the perspective of computing professionals. Many scholars have argued for special ethical status of digital remains similar to the respect given to physical human remains. We propose a series of definitions including that of digital remains. These definitions emphasize the practical realities of managing computing systems. We posit that ideas of personhood and respect are both important when considering digital remains, but there are other concerns that challenge their special ethical status. We present three scenarios that illustrate important differences in how digital remains should be dealt with in different contexts. We conclude that due to environmental concerns, as well as practical and privacy considerations, absent any other overriding considerations, digital remains ought to be deleted. We also suggest that our notion of “abandoned digital artifacts” might provide a better conception of digital remains and be helpful in articulating accounts of personhood and personal identity.

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The authors would like to thank Dr. Alexis Elder for her insightful comments on personhood and to anonymous reviewers for their helpful critiques.

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Each author contributed equally to the development of the ideas present in the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Marty J. Wolf.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Wolf, M.J., Grodzinsky, F.S. & Miller, K.W. Ethical Reflections on Handling Digital Remains: Computing Professionals Picking Up Bones. DISO 1, 1 (2022).

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