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.