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Time Capsule: Curating Your Digital Trace

Our generation will leave behind tremendous amounts of data: selfies, emails, texts, and search histories; how can we shape our legacies?

Photo of Olivia Kang
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Who is your idea designed for and how does it reimagine the end-of-life experience?

When our generation passes, we will leave an overwhelming legacy. While diaries, letters, and photographs have always acted as powerful links to the past, we will add to these a veritable mountain of data detailing the minutiae of our every day. Our search histories, selfies, texts, transactions, wish lists, emails, tweets, the celebrities we follow, the people we swiped on.. how much of this should we open to public consumption when we are gone? How can we shape how we are remembered?

Today, handwritten letters, diaries, and vintage photographs present rare opportunities for discovery: the opportunity to time travel and gain a glimpse into the lives of our grandparents, great-grandparents, and other figures throughout history.

The rarity of these finds makes every shopping list, snapshot, and diary entry precious, but our generation will leave behind something quite different. A digital footprint the size of a life. Who we chose to follow on Instagram, what we search for, what we watch, our tweets and posts, the files we store in the Cloud, activity on online dating sites, all this and more can be combined not just to leave behind a memory but a day-by-day reconstruction of a life.

What happens to this mountain of data when we die? 

Our digital afterlife is not something most of us think about, and there is sure to be much controversy about whether this data should be discoverable, readable, inheritable, or salable when we pass on. 

Surely there are gems to be found in this datastack — inside jokes with friends, photographs from treasured times, moments of heroism and joy and silliness that we (and our loved ones) would be happy to find, relive, and learn. But these are likely to be buried in a sea of things with no meaning or mixed with items never meant for public consumption. I’ve had conversations with friends about how little I feel a “biological clock”, even as I see friends around me get married and have their first, second child — if I were to have children, would I want them to know my apathy? Should partners be able to see messages sent in past relationships? How can we take ownership of the content that reveals us? 

I suggest a service that allows people to take ownership over what aspects of their digital identities get preserved or expunged from the record. This would allow the user to find the true bits that embody who they are as a person, what they believed, what they loved, and leave these for their friends, family, and future generations to find. Digital minutiae could be discarded, sensitive information protected, beautiful moments savored. This would allow us to create a kind of time capsule containing the essence of who we are and how we want to leave the world -- memorializing both the big events in our lives and the little moments we too often forget -- and to share this with those we leave behind. 

What early, lightweight experiment might you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

To gauge initial value and demand, I would ask people about their thoughts on privacy in the digital world. How valuable do they find the things that link them to their past, and how open they are with their own information? What is the meaning of "privacy" after death, and what (if any) content should remain private? Are these easily categorized? How much of a duty do we have to preserve information, and does this change if we are political figures, celebrities, famous in our own right?

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

Is there a line between protecting privacy and getting to rewrite your own history? Is that a right or is it a disservice? How could such a process be streamlined and easy (hopefully even fun)?

Tell us about your work experience:

I'm a social cognitive psychologist with no formal design training, but I am an avid people-watcher, the child of designers, and create research every day to explore human empathy and connection.

This idea emerged from

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Photo of Bahenda Joseph

Hello Olivia Kang,
You just asked a question of great importance that certainly needs a response. Furthermore you are not the only one to have raised this concern.:

Photo of Olivia Kang

Thank you for this link Bahenda. This article really highlights how much of a grey area there is right now. If you have any thoughts on how this "digital curation" could be implemented (or anything else related to this) please let me know!

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