Access to the Email Account Wanted

Frequently Bequeathed Digital Artifacts and Assets

Susan knew that physical possessions always get sorted out in one way or the other. She was curious about what actually happens to the digital stuff. She had a hard time because she couldn’t find much information and she felt like she was probably the only person who feels that this is important. However, in a short time this topic started to be discussed in newspapers and on many blogs. She found particularly striking that most of the web-based services don’t acknowledge for the possibility of the users’ death. She was baffled when she read a newspaper article about the case of a family who were suing ‘Yahoo!’ in order to get access to an email account of their son, who was a U. S. marine and died in Iraq. Susan became especially careful with keeping all her important information in a separate folder, so it could be accessible even after her death without having to go through court.

The Most Common Digital Artifacts: Digital Files

The most common digital artifacts are the files stored on our computers and other devices. As the storage capacity increases, we keep more information items and their amount may become overwhelming. Their management becomes more demanding and we often do it only when we are already losing the sense of having control over them. We should learn to act responsibly. William Jones notes in his book Keeping Found Things Found that, even though the storage capacity of our devices constantly increases, there is no evidence that our capacity to attend the information grows as well. Daniel Putterman, in his talk Your Data in the Cloud: Privacy, Ownership, Convenience at SXSW 2011 alerts that, despite the ability to store in the cloud literally as much data as we want, uploading 4T takes with the current technologies 2.6 years.

The story of Radislav Sutnar as described in the article A Father of Web Design, Kept Alive by His Son, by Stephen Heller, illustrates the efforts one has to put in the thanatosensitive information management of the dead. His father Ladislav Sutnar was a pioneer of information design with Czech origins. He produced an extensive amount of work, meaningful to be preserved for posterity. Radislav describes his troubles with the management of his dad’s information collections. These were distributed among several foundations and archives in order to be preserved. Even though all his information items would probably fit onto a single external hard drive, they were produced on physical support. It is good to realize that conserving this volume of work involves the effort of many people and institutions.

In our personal practices, we can’t count on the help of institutions, as our data may be relevant only to a small group of people. In order to act sustainably, we have to apply a meaningful organizational scheme, store our information items in a comprehensible structure with an easy-to-understand naming convention and care for their synchronization and backups. We should make sure that we manage only what is most relevant, keep always only one current version of each file, delete what we don’t need and store our items in a place where they are most likely going to be needed afterwards.

Confusing organizational schemes can cause frustration to the bereaved, who often have often difficulties in understanding what is the content of our information items kept within our personal information space and determining their value. The value is influenced by the relation we may have with the item itself or its owner (creator). The relationship reflects on all the engagement created with an item during its use, histories that document the memories related to an item and the augmentation regarding the situations in which an item was applied. The most important aspect for determining the value is the item’s durability, which is driven by its purpose, meaning and type.

The items can be precious and irreplaceable for any of the reasons mentioned above. For the bereaved, it may be anything that carries an imprint of the deceased, even though the information may be ordinary and exist in multiple exemplars. Items such as legal documents or documentation of completed projects can be extremely difficult to replace. We keep them even if they are seldom accessed, or available from the Web or other external resources. The cost of their maintenance is outweighed by the effort required to locate the information elsewhere as prompted, or the possibility of it to disappear from public stores. We often keep these documents in non-digital form, in order to preserve them for those who survive us. Also, the items can have little or no interest. They usually don’t involve much maintenance efforts, rather we need to get rid of them. These categories may overlap, as an information meaningful for someone might be useless for another.