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.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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