Notes | Ctrl+Alt+Delete: The changing landscape of the uncanny valley and the fear of second loss

Posted on Oct 28, 2022

Source:… | Author: Debra J Basset | Date: September 22, 2018


Basset uses qualitative methods to examine the impacts that posthumous digital persistence enabled through the internet has on participants. Her research focuses on the bereaved, a group she calls Digital Inheritors (DI), and the findings focus on the link between comfort and control, the changes occurring within the notions of the ‘uncanny valley’, and fears of ‘second loss.’


Given the nature of digital technology, the term digital immortality is misleading and the author argues the terms ‘digital endurance’ and ‘digital afterlife’ are more useful to the field of thanatechnology (814).

The newness of the field requires the author to create a taxonomy distinct areas for the types of participants. Categories are not mutually exclusive and Basset divides them into digital inheritors (DIs) and Digital Creators (DCs). DIs can create content from the the digital artifacts they inherit and becomes digital creators themselves (814).

Theme 1 Control

Participants who had access and control to the digital content from the deceased found comfort in the memories, while those that did not described feelings of grief (815).

Facebook has introduced the concept of posthumous stewardship to their platform by adding the option of adding a Legacy Contact – a person who handles the management of the account holder’s page upon their death.

Theme 2 The Uncanny Valley

The author found that the concept of the uncanny valley is flexible. The term, coined in 1970 by Japanese roboticist Mashahiro Mori, describes people’s reactions to robots that resemble humans too closely. Over time Mori found that increased human likeness correlated to a perception of increased creepiness (817).

In 2010, other researchers discovered that people were shocked at the appearance of the dead on social media sites (817). Other researchers a few years later though that ‘the dead leaking into everyday life might be problematic’ (817).

The author conducted a word frequency query over a multi-year period to determine perceptions of an online world interspersed with the departed. By year three of the study, no participants used the words she searched for to describe the experiences. The author infers that digital communications with the dead are being normalized and the concept of the uncanny valley shallowing (818).

Basset introduces the term ‘digital zombies’ to describe the concept of socially active dead. Specifically, doing things they did not do when they were alive. Examples of socially active dead are Tupac appearing at a concert, Audrey Hepburn being used in an advertisement, etc.

“These digital zombies still generate a feeling of unease and it may be be what Bollmer calls the ‘near full representation of the authentic identity of the human being’ that people find disturbing (Bollmer 2013)” (818).

The author found that DCs know there is still a line into the uncanny. One participant expressed that making a chatbot that represented his father that was too good would put him at unease. Basset notes that while notions of the uncanny have disappeared from discussions, this indicates that it’s possible that feelings of unease could return with the digitally animated dead (819).

Theme 3 Digital Death and ‘Second Loss’

In 2015, Patrick Stokes used the term ‘second death’ to discuss the deletion of digital remains. Basset highlights that this research has introduced a new fear: “fear of losing data created by-or commemorating-the deceased.” This fear is of ‘second loss’ creates a new form of anxiety for the bereaved (819).

This fear can come from hardware obsolescence, data corruption, and any other factors that would cause digital content to vanish – technology isn’t created with inheritance in mind (819).

Sources to Read

Bollmer, Grant David. “Millions Now Living Will Never Die: Cultural Anxieties About the Afterlife of Information.” The Information Society 29, no. 3 (May 2013): 142–51.…


Stokes, Patrick. “Deletion as Second Death: The Moral Status of Digital Remains.” Ethics and Information Technology 17, no. 4 (December 1, 2015): 237–48.…

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