NOT long before my wife died, she asked me to do something for her. “Make sure people remember me,” she said. “Not the way I am now. The way I was.” Having spent most of her life as an assertive, ambitious and beautiful woman, Kathryn didn’t want people’s memories to be dominated by her final year, in which the ravages of disease and continual chemotherapy had taken her spirit, vitality and looks.
To me, the internet seemed to offer an obvious way to fulfil Kathryn’s wish – certainly more so than a dramatic headstone or funerary monument. So I built a memorial website to celebrate her life through carefully selected pictures and text. The decision was unorthodox at the time, and I suspect that some in our circle thought it tasteless.
Six years on, things are very different. As the internet’s population has grown and got older, memorial pages and tribute sites have become commonplace. But when you and I shuffle off this mortal coil, formal remembrances won’t be the only way we are remembered. I manage myriad websites and blogs, both personal and professional, as well as profiles on Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and more. All of those will be left behind, and many other people will leave a similar legacy.
We are creating digital legacies for ourselves every day – even, increasingly, every minute. More than a quarter of a million Facebook users will die this year alone. The information about ourselves that we record online is the sum of our relationships, interests and beliefs. It’s who we are. Hans-Peter Brondmo, head of social software and services at Nokia in San Francisco, calls this collection of data our “digital soul”.
Thanks to cheap storage and easy copying, our digital souls have the potential to be truly immortal. But do we really want everything we’ve done online – offhand comments, camera-phone snaps or embarrassing surfing habits – to be preserved for posterity? One school of thought, the “preservationists”, believes we owe it to our descendants. Another, the “deletionists”, think it’s vital the internet learns how to forget. These two groups are headed for a struggle over the future of the internet – and the fate of your digital soul is hanging in the balance.
As the internet has become seamlessly integrated with all our experiences, more and more of our everyday life is being documented online. Last year, two-thirds of all Americans stored personal data on a distant server in the cloud, while nearly half were active on social networks.
Today, that data is hoarded by internet companies. Google and Facebook are dedicated to storing as much of your data as possible for as long as possible. Even your “digital exhaust”, such as search requests and browsing history, is often recorded by companies who want to target you with personalised advertising.
All this data will prove fascinating to sociologists, archaeologists and anthropologists studying the dawn of the digital age. For them, everyday life can be just as interesting as epoch-defining moments. Whereas researchers have hitherto had to rely on whatever physical documents happen to survive, our vast digital legacies mean their successors could be spoiled for choice.
Nothing is definite, though: it’s far from certain that this information will endure. “Digital records are more like an oral tradition than traditional documents,” says Marc Weber of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. “If you don’t copy them regularly, they simply disappear.” He is concerned that we are not doing enough. “If we’re not careful, our period could end up as a bit of a Dark Age. Everyone is putting material into digital formats, but not putting much effort into preserving it.”
About the Author
My name is Sumit Paul-Choudhury. I write for a living, specialising in science and technology, risk management, banking and insurance. I’ve previously held senior positions at Risk Magazine, ERisk and Risk Communications. I’m currently the editor of New Scientist and editor-in-chief of Arc.