Putting to Rest

Death-Proof Information Management

Susan’s dad John passed away when she was still very young. She and her sister Amy were the only two direct relatives, so they had to take care of everything. They had never had to deal with a death within such proximity. It was overwhelming to have to organize the funeral, go through all the bureaucratic processes, heritage and so on. After a couple of months, they managed to put his stuff more or less to rest. Finally they had a little time for grieving and mourning. This experience made her think about her possessions. She had some bank accounts spread across different countries where she had lived over the time. She was an active blogger, member of many online social networks and had many web-based accounts. She had an iPhone, several computers, hard drives, iPod, and so on. Susan cared a lot for her family and friends. She didn’t want anybody to go through all the painful situations that she encountered after her father’s death.

Leaving the Instructions

The importance of bequeathing our possessions is underlined by the effort people put into creating their personal collections of artifacts. Our physical possessions are treated by laws and social or religious customs and eventually get solved out. Some people even draft their wills in order to ensure continuation and success of the progeny and close people. Normally, if this activity happens at all, it takes place around middle age or when some other significant life events, such as the birth of a child or progression in career, prevail upon them. The importance to include planning for our digital legacy grows. We still lack legal and social customs to deal with it, since more and more of our meaningful information is stored in digital form across multiple disks, accounts and devices. The issues of mortality, however, are often confined and rarely addressed publicly.

Our digital legacy can be addressed both directly and indirectly. If we adopt sustainable behaviors towards our digital property, like coherent organizational schemes, comprehensible naming conventions and regular synchronization and backups, we can already be pretty much sure that our survivors won’t have major problems. Keeping our most important information in a separate and easy-to-discover file can help a lot, too.

The Last Post by Derek K. Miller is a good example of taking planning for digital legacy one step further. He passed away in May 2011, at the age of forty-one, after a long battle with cancer. He prepared a post for his blog, to be pushed by his wife after his death, where he would officially cease its activity. Derek was a well known person within technology circuits and his blog continues online. This blog post informs people in his online social network groups about his death. It is especially important since he might have never met some of them in his physical life and they wouldn’t have any other way to discover that he had passed away. However, Derek’s case also shows the other side of the coin. His last post was immediately shared on social networking websites and other online communication channels. The traffic of his blog raised significantly as people would come to read his post and the servers went down. A ghost of Derek appeared as the error page would suggest to contact him by email in case of experiencing problems.

Creating personal inventories may be a good approach to address the digital legacy for those of us who are especially concerned about what happens to their stuff after they die. They allow us to indicate the specific items and instructions for each of them, such as who their beneficiaries are and whether they should be preserved or deleted. We should make sure that our wishes are practicable and correspond to the current laws or to our legal will. We may as well create a small tutorial or a sort of readme file explaining how to navigate within our personal space of information and which regions or folders are worth paying a visit to. We may also appoint a digital executor who would be responsible for setting our plans to action.

In either case, we have to keep in mind that, similarly to our physical legacy, the will of our survivors may be in contrast to ours and our wishes may end up unfulfilled. If we have any specific intention with any of our personal information, we have to account for all the possibilities. We may consider password-protection or encryption of our digital files that we want to destroy or make inaccessible. Just remember of Franz Kafka, a German-Czech author, who appointed as his executor Max Brod and asked him to destroy his work upon his death. Instead, Brod decided to publish it. Later, in a postscript to the 1925 edition of The Trial, Brod wrote that if Kafka would have been so sure about his intentions, he would have appointed some other executor.