Book Excerpt: Your Digital Afterlife

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What happens after you die? It's a seemingly innocuous question that's been asked by curious five-year-olds and questioning believers for centuries. But that relatively new invention we know as the Internet has really messed things up. We all know someone -- or know someone who knows someone -- who has died after creating a Facebook page and building an online identity. That page, inaccessible without the users login and password, often turns into a memorial where friends and family grieve together. This was rare enough -- until Facebook and other social networks exploded in recent years.

Rob Walker, a contributor to The Atlantic and the New York Times Magazine's Consumed columnist, recently wrote a story concerning digital estates left behind by the recently deceased. We've discussed Walker's piece in a few posts on this site, but also wanted to share an excerpt from Your Digital Afterlife, a new book that Walker's mentioned in his story. There, he called it a "tips-and-planning book" from Evan Carroll and John Romano, interaction-design experts who run TheDigitalBeyond.com.

More on Rob Walker's "Cyberspace When You're Dead:"

Read more Atlantic Technology Channel Book Excerpts.


DigitalAfterlife-Post.jpgCreating and leaving behind things for future generations can be a way to preserve a person's identity. The desire for immortality, or at least remembrance, is a persistent human trait. To see a master of immortality at work, look no further than Pharaoh Khufu or Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Over 4,500 years ago, Khufu built the Great Pyramid of Giza in order to leave behind the most spectacular tomb in history. And 2,300 years later, the first emperor of China's Qin Dynasty, Qin Shi Huang, took his shot at immortality when he commissioned the largest tomb ever built and a terracotta army -- an array of over 8,000 unique clay soldiers and chariots that he would be able to command after his death. These were huge endeavors to show the world how important they were and to ensure that the world would never forget them. Their plans seem to be working marvelously.

Of course when we see these marvels we have to understand that these great men built them on the backs of their workers. Khufu spent hundreds of millions of manhours constructing his monument. Qin Shi Huang employed hundreds of thousands of men. These anonymous workers died with little or no fanfare and are forgotten as individuals.

Now, most people don't get to build a 450-foot-high monument, mostly because they don't have hundreds of thousands of minions at their command. For the rest of us, a modest headstone or nameplate is the extent of our monument. But, make no mistake. These are identity objects just the same, meant to provide a meaningful, long-lasting memorial to one's life.

Wilber Hewett, Evan's grandfather, has a headstone that provides rudimentary information: his name, the dates of his birth and death, his spouse's and children's names, and his army service. He is buried in a sealed vault, in a sealed casket that contains a sealed tube with similar information in case the casket has to be moved.

While incredibly meaningful to the people who knew Wilber, his grave is one of many in the cemetery. Grave markers tend to look alike, and visitors get only the most basic information about the person buried there. But monuments are just one of many ways that we use to preserve our identities. If we want to be remembered as more than a stone in the field, we should consider taking a page out of Qin Shi Huang's playbook and take an active role in shaping our legacies before we die.

This broader approach enables us to leave behind a more personal legacy. The general process most people use is to accentuate aspects of our personal history that we think are admirable and commendable, and downplay or ignore what we don't want remembered. We then collect and create meaningful objects that we pass on along as a way to reinforce that legacy.

There are many ways to do this:

  1. Transfer your treasured possessions, along with their stories and meaning, to your heirs.
  2. Write your memoirs to tell your story the way you want it remembered. Granted, a memoir can totally whitewash undesirable aspects of your life.
  3. Create an ethical will to preserve your identity. The idea of this document, although not legally binding, is to communicate to your heirs your ethical and spiritual values, life lessons, and family history.

But even with these efforts, in the past it has been true that the deceased's identity inevitably became scattered. Without you there, your identity will slowly dissolve. Each asset becomes part of each heir's identity. In this way, your content makes it to the next generation and if it has meaning and value to the recipient, it stands a chance of being passed along into the future.

As you can imagine, identity preservation has a digital equivalent as well. Here we use digital objects in the same way we use physical objects. We attach stories and meaning to objects and pass them on. We can write memoirs and ethical wills as digital documents and pass them on. We can also add new types of content such as archives of our social accounts and conversations.

But in the new medium of digital communication, there is a greater opportunity to preserve identity -- something that has heretofore been available only to kings, pharaohs, and emperors.

THE BIRTH OF THE DIGITAL LEGACY

Your data is going to outlive you. The question is in what form and for how long.

In its simplest form, a digital legacy is a summation of the digital assets you leave behind for others. As the shift to digital continues, the digital assets left behind will become a greater part of your overall legacy.

These assets, to one degree or another, can be distributed in much the same way that physical assets are, meaning each one can be bequeathed to one or many heirs.

Assigning digital assets in this way is an important step because, as we have seen, most people aren't even doing this now. But if that's all we do, we've only dealt with our digital assets in the same way that we've dealt with our physical ones. At that point all we have is a digital equivalent of the physical world.

If your digital assets, like your physical assets, are simply passed on, they get incorporated into an heir's identity. This process still relies on another person to value them, take care of them, and pass them on in turn. But let's be honest about the effectiveness of this method: People may manage to get their digital assets passed to their children or loved ones, but this is no guarantee that those assets will live any farther into the future. The things you value may simply not be valuable to your heirs.

This brings us to a more arresting idea: Your digital identity could have a different fate. Maybe the identity you create over your lifetime can maintain cohesion after your death. Maybe the connection between the creator and creations (complete with the original meaning) can be preserved, maintaining the gestalt. In other words, your digital identity may have the opportunity to become a lasting, maybe even immortal, digital legacy -- an expression and reflection of you that will survive far into the future.

This possibility represents an opportunity that has never before existed for ordinary people. Imagine a way that your intentions, accomplishments, values, and actions could be preserved for all time. You may not be as famous as Khufu or Qin Shi Huang, but your legacy could be just as accessible.

But How Could This Work?

There are many possible solutions, but the basic idea is to replace the live person curating an online identity with some kind of permanent digital record. This record would allow all the disparate assets on the Internet to point back to a source that would maintain your identity after your death.

There could even be connections back to real world memorials. We've already seen digital headstones for sale that have a chip that allows users to access information about the deceased on the Web. The result would be a richer physical and digital experience of the deceased.

IMMORTAL ISSUES

It's true that we don't yet have a framework to maintain a cohesive posthumous identity. There are many other aspects to consider before we can truly suggest a permanent digital legacy.

Identification

The fact is we still don't have a unified way to manage and verify people on the Internet. But as the Internet evolves, solidifying an identity is becoming important. In 2007, the OpenID Foundation launched an effort to solidify identity on the Web. Then, in June 2010, the U.S. government drafted the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC) to "develop a comprehensive Identity Ecosystem Framework."

One problem with most of the identity work so far is that it fails to consider the effects of death on identity. But this is something that many people (including the authors of this book) are looking to rectify.

Active of Passive Collection

There are two views of what a digital legacy is made of. The first is an active, managed legacy that contains only what the person wants as a part of it. It's human nature to want to forget the bad and mundane things and concentrate on the good and noteworthy. It's true that this kind of whitewashing may be disingenuous to one degree or another, but no more so than a photo album that only shows the good times. This kind of legacy might be appropriate for relatives and friends who want to reminisce or for a child to get to know a grandparent who died before his or her birth.

The other is a passive view of legacy, which would include everything you do online -- every comment, email, tweet, video, and post. Everything added up equals your legacy. Whie this may be more accurate, it doesn't take into account importance or focus. Every piece of data is equal to the next. While the possibilities of a massive data store are intriguing, this could be overwhelming to a person in a raw form since it is a lot more data than you might think. Thankfully computers don't mind data quantity, and parsing the data could provide unique insights into a person's life.

Data Myning

But the reality is that all these assets are far more disconnected than you may think. There is currently no definite way to pull them all together. Think for a moment about how many people share your name. We have a friend names Paul Smith. Do you have any idea how many Paul Smiths there are? Well, a lot. Disambiguation is harder than you think. The Sociable Media Group at MIT's Media Lab recently created a project called Personas to demonstrate just that. They ask individuals to put their name into an interactive exhibit and it returns with a view of how the Internet sees you. If you ask it to process Paul Smith, you'll find a rather generic profile, as it chronicles all of the Paul Smiths in the world, not just our dear friend.

A new trend is "data myning," a term coined by TrendWatching.com, in which a person points to assets on the Web and says "this is mine, and this is not mine." The OpenID provider called ClaimID allows you to do just this. Perhaps it will help Paul Smith disambiguate himself from the fashion designer; the hotelier and namesake and Paul Smith's College; and countless others.

THE BURDEN OF DATA AND EMOTIONAL ECONOMICS

One thing to consider as you begin to think about your digital legacy is the fact that your digital content may be a burden to your heirs. You may have an overwhelming amount of data by the end of your life. You may have assets that are too messy and unorganized. You may have a lot of data that your heirs just don't really care about. It's sad but often true.

Consider a situation in which a photo collection is handed down from a parent to a child. The parent may want the child to have some photos to remember him or her by. The child may want photos from this parent's collection to remember his parent by. But it does no one any good to lob 10,000 photos at the child. The reality is that a behemoth collection will not be valuable to him or her. The photos might be kept out of a sense of guilt. But with all those photos, the chances of the child actually connecting with an individual photo is lessened because he or she would have to wade through 10,000 to get at the one.

This is a concept that we like to call emotional economics. The laws of supply and demand apply to emotional value just as they apply to markets. When supply is high, demand is low. If John has 10,000 photos of his beloved grandfather, chances are that none of them will be highly valued. There are just too many. It's the same feeling you get when your neighbors show you 300 photos from their vacation. By the end you just don't care anymore.

Do your heirs a favor and think ahead during your life and tend to your data. Curate and weed your collections. Consider tagging your favorites, deleting the duplicates, editing them, and tagging them. Got fifty of your birthday? Narrow it down to five or fewer. You could certainly keep all of your photos, but be sure that your favorite are kept separately. Not only will this make inheriting those photos better, but it will make your life better as well, because chances are you will connect with those remaining photos in a much deeper way when there are fewer of them.

We hope this gives you an understanding of the possibilities that await us in the future. But before we marvel at our technological beauty and start planning our immortal legacy, we need to understand a sobering fact: All the digital content you have on the Internet is at risk, and if you don't do something about it, your content may be lost, left behind, or simply deleted.

Excerpted from Evan Carroll's and John Romano's Your Digital Afterlife: When Facebook, Flickr and Twitter Are Your Estate, What's Your Legacy?.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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