The death switch

If you die, how will your online friends know?

Many of you have “the envelope” tucked away in a desk somewhere. Scrawled on the front is something like, “do not open this until I’m dead.” Maybe inside you’ve got the important stuff — insurance papers or the locations of key documents. More often than not, the first time a family knows the envelope exists, is when they stumble across it years later while looking for a paper clip.

With more of our lives being spent online, who will know when you’re gone? What will happen to all that stuff locked behind passwords only you know? What if there’s stuff online that your survivors need to know that you never got around to telling them?

Baylor College of Medicine neuroscientist David Eagleman has set up the online version of the envelope called Deathswitch.

Here’s how it works: You sign up for this and configure it the way you want. It sends you an e-mail however often you want to be “pinged,” so that the Deathswitch can make sure you’re still kicking. If you don’t respond, it goes into “worry mode,” and eventually, if you don’t respond, it announces to the online world that, yes, you’ve gone toes up.

Here’s an extended version of the Future Tense interview I did with Dr. Eagleman, who, incidentally, is also a writer of fiction. His first book is “Sum: Forty tales from the afterlife.”

  • Lindsey

    Wow. This is weird in a strangely fascinating way.

  • Anna

    This is one of those things that I have wondered about – who do I need to contact online in the event of my husband’s passing?…Would he know who to send email to for me? Where in his stacks of papers could I find needed passwords? And, oy, I think I’d spend a day just unsubscribing his account from groups and news feeds…my grandmother sent suits to the second hand store. I will be cleaning up e-detritus.

  • Al

    I’m with Lindsey. Wow!

    It seems to me with e-mail accounts and subscriptions you just kind of fade away like if you have to abandon an address because the spam gets too bad.

    For the important financial online accounts and e-mails, I keep a well-hidden list of them that my wife knows about. That reminds me, time to re-check that list. Now if we be meet an untimely demise together…