My Dad died recently. I went to the registration office in the local town hall to officially register his death.

The registrar was polite, caring, and thoughtful.

They also said something that particularly struck home and made me think about the emotional weight of digital proofs. 

A typical registration office in the UK. Prompt: “an office within a UK town hall, the office contains a single desk, the town hall was built in the 19th century, the office has wood panelling, the desk has an old computer on it”, DALL-E 2

Death certificates are physical proofs

I live in the UK where you need a physical copy of a death certificate to do many of the necessary bits of administration, like closing bank accounts, canceling shop loyalty cards, transferring pensions, etcetera ectetera etcetera.

These physical copies are provided by the registrar as a proof of death. This proof gets mailed to organisations who need to be notified of the death.

Like many people my parents are disorganised. We did not know how many organisations would need to know.

So, as a family, we agreed to get lots of physical death certificates. We could then mail out the proofs as we discovered a need for them.

A proof of death can be upsetting, many years after the event

The registrar advised against this as some people had been upset by physical copies of death certificates. Not only in the period immediately after the death, but in the following months and years.

The physical copies of the death certificates are returned to people. They get put into boxes and piles of paperwork, alongside old school records, birth and marriage certificates. 

The registrar told me that some families said they could see or feel the presence of these death certificates.

They would come across them unexpectedly, or even just think about a box full of certificates, and get unhelpfully reminded of the complicated set of emotions that accompany any death. A larger number of copies increased the chance of this unhelpful reminder.

Ten pieces of paper may not weigh much physically, but they can carry a large emotional weight. 

Prompt: “a pile of paper, sitting in a loft, digital art”, Dall-E 2

More people and organisations are using digital proofs

Recently I wrapped up a bit of work with Projects by IF that included building digital proofs responsibly and by design.

A digital proof is an equivalent of a physical certificate. Rather than being physically shared a digital proof can be electronically shared between people and organisations.

Digital proofs can be designed so that both the proof and the act of sharing it are trustworthy. For example to verify that the certificate has not been altered, or that only the minimal amount of information is shared.

A well-known example of a digital proof is the proof of Covid vaccination that people who travelled internationally have needed to show for the last few years, but there are many others.

Some countries, issue digital proofs of immigration status, others have digital proofs of driving licences, and so on. These schemes say that they will modernise services and make it easier for people to get things done.

Many of these schemes have been controversial. For example, when the introduction of digital proofs is used to extend the number of services where people need to provide a proof before they can use it, or when the use of physical proofs is reduced in favour of digital proofs.

But it seems very likely they will become more common.

Digital proofs are now being built into smartphone operating systems – such as in Apple’s digital wallet. Lots of the initial focus is on credit cards, but both businesses and countries are exploring how to use them to share data and how to move a range of legal proofs into the digital world.

Apple Pay within Apple Wallet, Apple

What will the emotional weight of digital proofs be?

There are lots of long-term implications of building digital proofs.

From the controversies we see in the current implementations, issues of privacy and control, through to a growing reliance on weakly regulated digital infrastructure – like smartphone operating systems.

But what the registrar said about my dad’s death certificates made me think more about the emotional weight of those digital proofs. 

  • What will it feel like to carry a range of digital proofs with us? And into all of the places where we take our smartphones?
  • How will it vary by the type of digital proof? A school record or proof of age may feel quite different, to a vaccination record, an immigration status, or the proof of death of a relative.
  • Will the accumulation of proofs matter to people? To reduce the risk of unpleasant feelings will we need different places to store proofs that we need regularly, like a driving licence, to places where we store proofs that we rarely need?
  • How will the feelings and needs vary for different people and at different moments in their lives?

Some of these questions are things that will be researched and designed in particular services, others are ones that we can learn about from the people who already have to carry them, but some are questions that will only be answered in the aggregate, and over time.

As more digital proofs get created, as more people store them in their phones, and as our smartphones become an extension of that box in the loft containing information about ourselves and other family members.

Just like the paper-based death certificates I talked about with the registrar, digital proofs will not weigh much physically but their emotional weight could be much bigger.

prompt: a dusty box in a dusty loft, on top of the box is a smartphone, the smartphone is pristine and shiny, DALLE-2