Mathematician, logician, and writer Douglas Hofstadter published his autobiography a few years ago, titled I Am a Strange Loop, in which he reminisces about his experiences after his wife’s death. Continuing a mathematical theme that he has explored with over the years, he talks about how his wife’s memory lived on in his own consciousness in a way that was more than being merely a collection of thoughts about her. In some way, the person that Hofstadter’s wife was, her perspectives and viewpoints, was embedded in Hofstadter’s consciousness, allowing us to get a glimpse, however clouded, into his wife’s “self.”
Online technologies now offer us the possibility of creating a far more focused picture of who a person is, for many years after they have “shuffled off this mortal coil,” as the immortal Bard put it. As Hofstadter notes, a person’s identity is bound in the thoughts and ideas they have left behind for the rest of us to remember.
Someone’s legacy is nowhere more evident than in their writings—their correspondence, journal entries, recipes, wishes sent to friends and family, papers submitted in school, etc. Some of us leave behind other material that embodies our creative side—photographs, drawings, home movies, and so on.
Now all these materials have found a natural home online, thanks to the tools, applications, and devices that computer technology has made available us in the last 10 years. People write blog posts, create profiles for themselves on a myriad of sites, and upload photographs of all their activities. File sharing sites allow people to easily tag their photos and other content with information about it, such as where they were when they wrote something, who are the people in a photograph, and so on, creating a much richer portrait of themselves than was possible with old-school techniques for journaling and documenting one’s life.
The Library of Congress recently announced that it would store every single message that had been, and will be, broadcast via Twitter. With this simple decision, the Library of Congress has placed us all permanently in posterity’s record. How will the sociologists, anthropologists, and historians of 100 years hence react when they pore over this gigantic stream of our present-day consciousness? Until today, the Library of Congress has curated with some care the literature it collects; now everyone’s abbreviated opinion of the latest Beyoncé music video will stand alongside the works of Mark Twain and the memoirs of Abraham Lincoln.
I, too, am a creator of works of amateur art, many of which I upload and publish to various websites. I have Facebook and Twitter accounts, where I have already expressed my opinions on everything from my favorite cereal to my funniest dreams. A backup of every email I have written as an adult is available to anyone who has access to my email accounts on Gmail and Hotmail. After I have journeyed to the Great Beyond, I can imagine someone piecing me together, like a detective retracing the actions of a suspect from numerous clues, but I doubt they would come up with a picture anywhere close to the real “me.”
Today, the obituaries of most people are sparse, because people leave few legacies that are easy to discover or are of public note. In the always-online world, by contrast, the skillful and determined relative or friend can fashion a deep narrative of the departed individual, as long as they have access to their online profiles or blogs. My professional and academic achievements are listed on LinkedIn. Everywhere that I travel, I track myself instantaneously via a GPS-enabled phone. What a rich and fascinating story can emerge from a summary of these multifarious activities!
Others will see patterns in these incidental adventures of mine that may not be obvious to me in the present, as if a distant therapist was examining my life and reactions and coming up with a diagnosis. One chronicler can describe me as “a man who was fearless in his opinions, and worked passionately to find a common thread between different fields of technology,” while someone less charitable might sneer, “He wandered aimlessly from one technical area to another, and many thought he was opinionated.”
This poses the next logical question—whose version of my life would take priority? As far as I know, no acquaintance of mine has access to everything I’ve done, said, or written. Should my family have the right to prohibit my friends from publishing an edited list of my emails to them as a biography? I would hope that those near and dear to me can reach some accommodation to decide how to select and edit my ramblings into an e-memoir. I’d recommend someone start building a “Facebook app” right away that will allow one’s friends to collaborate on creating elegies and other posthumous homages. Not to be too morbid, but with Baby Boomers fast populating the millions of online profiles, this “killer app” might not come a moment too soon.How can we manage all this information? With each new format for storing information, we have the responsibility of figuring out how that format can be preserved for generations to come. With electronic documents, the danger of losing information to mold and insects might be less likely, but there is always the possibility that the intricacies of a specific electronic format will be lost to future generations. Already, for example, it is a challenge to convert music from the format of vinyl records to more modern, digital, formats.
Online services add another wrinkle to the format problem—that of deciphering passwords. The most intimate of thoughts are sometimes written in emails that are not available to anyone but the sender and recipient of those emails. How can their loved ones access this information were the password information to be lost to memory? Retrieving the thoughts of someone who has passed away seems as supernatural as reaching out to the afterlife would be.
Many services have appeared to fill this void. For example, the email service Hotmail lets users order a CD of all the emails from a deceased person’s account. Facebook allows a person’s profile to be taken down upon their death or to be converted to a “memorial state.” Companies like Legacy Locker, BCelebrated, and MyWebWill have sprung up, helping you let others access your “online assets.”
While one’s email and social networking profiles might seem like frivolous activities to pass on to future generations, many of us store far more precious information, like bank accounts and monetary investments, online. The value of the online properties that people possess is fast becoming comparable to their “real world” assets. People may have their entire collection of music online, and some build virtual worlds while playing online games that are worth thousands in real-world currency.
To future generations, I wager, this will make us all more mysterious than less. When we allow our memories of the past to be dimmed by the distance of time, we are forced to simplify it and recast it, to fill in the holes ourselves. With the technical advances we are seeing now, soon no element of the past, of an individual and of a community at large, will be unverifiable. We will gain the power of perfect recall but lose the magic of story-telling our pasts.
The author is a software consultant in the United States.
Websites Offering Legacy Services