Posts Tagged mortality internet

Digital Leavings of the Dearly Departed

29 April 2007

One of the untidy realities of life is that when we finally shift off this mortal coil, we leave behind us a chain of lose ends, of uncompleted tasks, bills unpaid, rooms uncleaned, and the collective activities of a life in the process of being lived. In previous eras, most of what was left behind were tangibles — immediate objects left to be sorted and collected, mostly easily found or easily accessed; furniture, clothing, jewelry, etc. Those things not immediately tangible were of the fiscal entity sort, bills, stocks, bonds, insurance policies, etc. All of which items are easily accounted for and dealt with by accountants and attorneys.
Things have shifted in the age of the internet. Now, with our involvement in electronic communication and commerce, publication through blogs and web sites, there are a whole new classification of intangible assets that need to be tracked and accounted for in the end of our days, and that in most people’s lives the access to those assets are kept a secret. Secure passwords are those not written down, and not guessable by anyone. For those who have the fortunate misfortune to know they are about to pass on might have the prescience to write down all the passwords to all of their accounts, for the overwhelming majority, death comes suddenly and unexpected. Of course, for the most obvious assets, those known about by loved-ones, it’s probable that those left behind can contact the ISPs of those assets and obtain access, but in many cases there are items not known about, and of strange status; from the experimental blog held on free services, to flickr photos, assets and ephemera held in the distributed web in online applications with blurry lines on ownership. What is a blog comment, or a usenet post? An amazon wish list or membership in online communities, MySpace pages, Friendster accounts, Second Life homes and owned objects… There’s an entire world of leavings and trails, footprints and imprints of our existence that like photographs or scrap book memories survive us, granting their own form of immortality to our lives, but of course that immortality is often a sham, with silver nitrate fading over time, age and weather laying claim to paper and fabric, until all that is left is dust and a footnote in a history book, if you’re lucky…
…or has the internet changed this too? The cost of duplication of data is for all practical purposes free, and the internet way-back machine makes it so you don’t even need to worry about performing the act yourself — in fact, you can’t get rid of the evidence if you tried. Once you step into the world of internet participation, and leave your fingerprint, it is indelibly and forever marked on the DNA of the beast. As long as the machine keeps doing what it’s doing, we’re here forever, and with more participation and proliferation, twitter and webcams, we’e making ourselves more and more part of the fabric of internet reality. Eventually programs will be written that will ingest all of this data and do something new and completely cool with it all, and our psychic selves will again be food for the beast.
So what, you’d expect me to say ‘be careful what you say, because it’s there forever’, but I’m not going to. I think it’s just the next step in our natural social evolution. We have to let go of our fiction of privacy and private property, and realize we’re all tools in the new reality, and we are being used by the machine. I’m okay with that, because the trade-off is immortality, and in three thousand years my progeny will be able to call up my face, my words, this post in fact, and have a better idea of where they came from. Imagine what that would be like for us, to see our own faces and thoughts mirrored in ancestors from thousands of years ago. All of a sudden, the mad rush to make our mark on the world, to be remembered for something is absolved. We’re there, we’ve made it. Just participating is enough. The important project for us is to get as many people involved as we can, so they aren’t left out of the great migration. The internet is the new family tree in the back of the bible. Good thing too, since so many of us no longer possess one. Paper fades and pages crumble, but information liberated from its medium is forever. Our ideas will outlive our bodies, and that should be at least a little cold comfort in the face of the grim reaper.