A Millennial Contemplates the Digital Life

In my efforts to trim down all of the “digital detritus” in my life this past year, I realized something: I don’t know what to do with all of the remaining digital stuff when I die. Which means I’m making it someone else’s problem.

[S]ocial media accounts can linger like ghosts, showing up as suggested friends or as people to follow, which can further stoke the grief of friends and family.

Your digital self will outlive you by Amanda Hoover

I’m not a fan of that plan.

This gets a bit deep.

What I mean by Digital Life

I’m aware of having a lot of digital accounts for things. Maybe dozens of accounts that are critical and I couldn’t do without, and hundreds that would be inconvenient and somewhat costly to lose. This seems pretty normal for modern times.

The less separation there is between the physical realm and the digital one, the more our online footprints, and what happens to them, will matter.

Your digital self will outlive you by Amanda Hoover

By and large, none of these systems care that it’s me specifically accessing them. Access is granted to anyone with the correct credentials and tokens. My focus has been on security and recoverability, but with one main assumption: I am the one doing the tasks. It wasn’t until I read Your digital self will outlive you by Amanda Hoover that it clicked for me. During my time in this world, I will have amassed decades of emails, photos, and other services under my name.

  • Where does it all go?
  • What do I want people to read or have?
  • What do I just want deleted?

Consider Circles, an album released under Mac Miller’s name. It was released posthumously. Someone had to go through all of his music and notes to derive what could be from what was. They went through his Digital Life. And now we sort of have an album he kinda made, but kinda didn’t.

If a person reads the texts or emails of the dead instead of deleting them, there’s no wall to stop them. The gray legal issue is one that will linger in estate planning, and it’s made more complicated as artificial intelligence advances are made.

Your digital self will outlive you by Amanda Hoover

We all swirl into the whirlpool of massive algorithms as just another historical blip on a massive database. There is so much persistent data on all of us that simply did not exist in the past.

Consider this blog, for example

I plan to keep writing on this blog until I’m no longer able. It’s content that I own and it doesn’t cost me much to keep it online. The database is backed up every day and sent to a cloudy retirement home.

Beyond that, I have no idea how to place a value on my blog. I think the domain may be worth something to spammers, since it’s 14 years old and still owned by the original buyer, but that’s it. I would imagine future storage technologies would compress the entire site down to some trivial size, but someone still has to do the leg work.

Let’s just peg the value at “zero” and move on. The problem is that I’m not sure what to do with the blog when I’m not around.

  • Is it worth keeping the content online?
  • Should I convert it into something read-only for historical value?
  • Is this all me being vain about establishing a historical legacy?
  • What about all the draft posts that no one has ever read?
  • Am I adding a financial or operational burden to someone I love?

Without a plan, it’s impossible to predict the afterlife of a digital self; a voice recording could be used to recreate an email never read aloud or a digital representation could appear as a hologram.

Your digital self will outlive you by Amanda Hoover

Fortunately, I have a document vault that contains information on shared household services. I can easily start adding information on how to get to my blog and other things while keeping the credentials safe elsewhere. And then it becomes more about what others want to do with my digital stuff rather than not having any choice at all.

But this is a hack job in which I have to re-build the wheel every time something changes, which means my investment will be somewhat infrequent.

The future is 3rd party services

Anytime technology makes a mess, technology also sells you a solution for that mess. So convenient. 😉

I’m an old Millennial barely even meeting the definition. So these things are on my mind now. But, mark my words, this is the tip of the spear. As my generation ages, so will the need to figure out how to handle the transfer of account credentials and ownership from one person to the next, such as the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA).

Look at services like Clocr and their Digital Legacy plan. I’m not a customer, but this sort of service looks promising. And it helps to remember the context, too; you’re having to deal with someone’s accounts after they have passed. It is not easy.

I’m also anticipating that, in the future, we’ll have more of these sorts of questions baked into the online services available. Once the problem of “what do we do with dead people’s data” becomes expensive enough, it’ll get solved.

And not until then.