Digital Inheritance: preserve, profit or delete?

When you die, who gets your Facebook?

This may seem a silly, or meaningless, question, but it is starting to take on a deep significance. There has been an increasing number of reports over the past couple of years of bereaved relatives facing real difficulty trying to get access to the social media accounts of the deceased, or of trying to inherit their digital collections of books, photographs, and music. Even if passwords are available, there may not be full control over accounts and materials. And, there are even new questions of etiquette: if a deceased friend’s social media presence remains after they are gone, at what point is it acceptable to unfriend them? There is no doubt that ‘digital hauntings’ – continuing appearances on an individual’s profile in digital media long after their demise – can be source of genuine distress to the bereaved.

These points were discussed in an article on the technology section of the BBC news website [ Plea for people to create ‘digital legacy’ letter], which reported suggestions that people should be encouraged to leave a sealed ‘digital legacy’ letter, including the passwords giving access to all their digital services, and instructions for what should be done with the material in them. The article was prompted by research carried out for the Cooperative Funeralcare organisation, which showed that many people had encountered difficulties in dealing with the digital affairs of a deceased relative.

Suggestions along the same lines have been made in the past year by a number of organisations, from Saga to the Law Society. We have even seen the emergence of companies, such as Planned Departure in the UK, whose whole business is providing advice on the creation of such documents.

There are essentially two issues. First, the need of bereaved relatives to have access to, or to be able to delete, the personal memories instantiated in social media. Second, the desire of surviving relatives to inherit digital books, music, games, etc. which may have a considerable monetary value. There may also be financial value in ‘digital property’ such as domain names registered to an individual, and this financial element will increase greatly if digital currencies such as Bitcoin get greater usage.

The law, unfortunately, is far from clear on these matters. Individual social media accounts are generally regarded as personal by the providers, who mostly choose not to give access to anyone other than their deceased owner. If you have a collection of paper diaries, printed photographs, printed books or CDs, it is clear what happens to them on your death. Not so if your personal accounts, photos, books and music are kept in digital form in a service such as Facebook or iTunes. Living purchasers of Amazon e-books found this out when the company removed books from their Kindles without notice. And Apple, for one, has maintained that its iTunes accounts are personal to an individual and cannot be inherited.

The desire to allow ones’ digital presence to live on, transferred to others, is an interesting counterpoint of the idea of ‘digital suicide’, the ability to delete entirely one’s digital footprint. Both seem equally difficult to arrange, and – along with perennial concerns about privacy – indications of the difficulty of establishing control over personal presence in the digital world.

The technology companies are, perhaps rather belatedly coming to terms with this issue, with Google and Facebook, among others, both now offering users a degree of control; stipulating, for example, whether an account should be deleted on their death, or some degree of control passed to a named person. However, without some consistency between services, things will remain difficult for the bereaved. Another issue is the sheer number of online sites and services; how many of us keep track of our digital footprint? As a number of commentators on the BBC news site suggested, it may be more important to worry about the inability of companies to deal with things like electricity bills when a customer dies, before we get concerned about digital legacy. But as our lives are lived more and more online, this problem is only going to become more urgent and far-reaching.

Videogames as Cultural Heritage

videogamesAn engaging seminar at the Daiwa Foundation on 3/6/14, allowed games experts and enthusiasts James Newman and Iain Simons to treat us to an entertaining and thought provoking romp through the history of videogames. Their relaxed style kept our attention for around 90 minutes, which still wasn’t really enough time to cover all aspects of the questions ‘are videogames a part of cultural heritage, and if so, should they be preserved?’

The intuitive answer would seem to be ‘yes, of course’, but it is interesting to consider some of the evidence for why. A slide of Super Mario (1985) and Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) instantly transported many of the audience back in time; game imagery has the ability to evoke strong memories of place, music and feelings, perhaps akin to the power of smell. We could then, consider the preservation of out-dated games purely for nostalgia, but historic games also offer us a record of technology at a given point in time, an insight into what was considered a ‘game’ from a socio-cultural perspective, and material from which to predict future trends.

Irrespective of the reasons for preserving the games, there are problems with this. There is no legal deposit in the UK for videogames, and thus no systematic policy or funding (one consideration is that an archiving initiative should come from the industry rather than the state). Games archives require space for the accompanying technological platforms, which demand an increasing amount of conservation to combat the unavoidable decay (bitrot), as plastics become brittle and powdery, and circuit boards return, like all of us, to dust. Rewriting games into the current age so that they function on modern technology is a plausible solution, but not one appreciated by either games lovers or historians, as the authenticity experience of playing the game is lost.

Our speakers were both involved in setting up the National Videogame Archive, within the National Media Museum at Bradford.

A comparison of the videogames industry in the UK with that in Japan, showed us that serious game playing is very serious in Japan. Here, even the range of literature found in bookstores is wider than that found in the UK. Pictures from a six storey games emporium in Tokyo convinced us that historic games are fantastically popular, although interestingly, the players of archaic games were from the same youngish demographic as those of up-to-the-minute productions. The profitability of this type of venture clearly works out despite the outlay for space and maintenance.

I was left with the thought that games *are* part of our cultural heritage, and something very much worth preserving. From the perspective of library and information science, games can be regarded as documents; they can be studied from a variety of angles, in the same way books can within the context of ‘book history’.

Worth further thought is whether we are preserving the physical game alone, so that future players can have a go in a different time, or whether we are including the preservation of the experience of a player at a given moment. Watching a video clip of expert players in Japan, it was evident that understanding how it feels to play is a compelling quest, likewise we could explore the symbiotic movements of two or more people playing the same game. There is though, the question of how to record the feelings of the players, and what sort of measures we use to interpret any meaning to the record.

If we consider that future documents will embrace immersive, multisensory and participative experiences, then videogames are undoubtedly of concern to those of us within LIS. Serious leisure people, it has to be done.

The virtue of forgetting…

Forgetting things is annoying isn’t it? Anniversaries, names of places and people, poems, formulae, book titles, the postcode, the name of the singer and where you left the keys. Names are a nightmare. In the midst of an intellectual exposition I can recall the faces, the clothes and when/where we last met but the white bubble above the head where the name should be remains tauntingly blank, the contents sneaking back at some later point in time – if I’m lucky there will be time to reassure my audience that the memory was not a fantasy, but often the forgotten monikers return hours later, when I am trying to remember something else. A better memory would save so much time – no need to re-read prose on which I have already spent hours, or to go through every CD until I find the title of the song I just can’t remember. Top of the annoying list has to be forgetting the perfect wording which drifted effortlessly into my mind an hour or so ago .. and yes, my pile of notebooks (write it down when you think of it) is now so unwieldy that I need to index them. Ha!.

But help is at hand in our information society, where we co-exist alongside our digitized books, music, photos, videos, diaries, lists, contacts and ideas. Once uploaded into cyberspace all the stuff we need to remember is permanently recorded for us – just waiting to be plucked out of the ether by the right keyword. Free text indexing gives us endless points of access, a name, a place, a date or subject, can produce our media like magic. Remembered or forgotten, it is all still there, just waiting patiently. The electronic box in the attic. Even things we gave away and forgot about for decades can be retrieved from services such as Ebay, Abe Books and Amazon. The antidote to regret.

And in our work, preservation of material is often our main focus. We professionalize the art of selecting what to remember and the best way to remember it – in archives and records management, and even in libraries. The challenges of digitizing and preserving material in a society where yesterday’s format is something you were using this morning, are things we thrive on. We are keeping the past alive for the future.

And yet … something about this permanent, digital shoebox has troubled me for about a year now – since I began uploading myself into the ether, in fact; I mean – how long does this digital shadow trail after us? Well forever duh…. even when we die. Not a new worry, and of course, not a new answer, but I am prompted to write after listening to Vicktor Mayer-Schonberger talking about his book “Delete – the virtue of forgetting in the digital age“, in which he raises the question of whether there are some cases in which forgetting is better than remembering. As an aside, the book is a good read, and I recommend it to anyone taking our LAPIS (INM380) module next semester.

Returning to my concerns, I think there are two facets to the wonder memory of cloud computing and USBs. The good bit is that public domain data can be preserved for everyone – the bad bit is that so can personal data. And whilst I accept that it is often hard to define what is public and what is personal (personal letters found in an attic and published after the authors death ..?) it is clear by now that much of what we hope will remain personal, is is fact, horribly public.

I have often read of how you can never delete a Facebook profile – you merely deactivate it. Is this the same for other social networking sites? A permanent record of the person you were when you were 11 ( or 35 …) – sitting there waiting to be hacked in the present or pillaged in the future?

What happens to all those primary school friends to whom you bestow complete access to what’s on your mind and in your photographs – do you starkly unfriend them (no quotes – this is a real word now) as you evolve, or do they slither after you years into another life. Remember anyone from primary school ? High school ? Are they still part of your life? (ok – with three exceptions I can say no. The thing is that it is hard to move on when our digital shadow bites at our heels even in the dark.

Viktor raised issues of ‘amusing’ photos being retrieved to ruin someone’s career, and of seemingly buried, throwaway admissions being retrieved 40 years later to serve as a reason for being refused entry to the US. Others quickly furnished the event with perhaps more chilling examples – ever posted your undying love for someone on your social networking site ? Ever cried over the keyboard as you ‘delete’ your entire profile and start again using your middle name?

Ever conducted an affair by email ? Did it end badly ? Did you use del *.* ? Did he? It’s all still on a server somewhere isn’t it ? Maybe copied to someone’s USB. Waiting.

And to add to our woes Google keeps details of every search undertaken, and results clicked on for 9 months (this was reported at the event and I have not checked this definitively) – all linked to a specific IP address. Do you keep clicking on his website ? Sad. Worse – everyone at Google knows.

After 9 months the Google data is anonymized. But how hard is it to pinpoint someone from anonymized data if you are determined ? Hmmm.

So what’s the answer? How can we publish our fabulous lifestyles to our cohorts without risking future ridicule or consequences? How can we ensure that the contents of the box in the attic remain something poignant yet personal? Do we have to self-censor all the time? Viktor Mayer-Schonberger suggests the use of ‘expiry dates’ on electronic media, so that our past does not have to haunt us. In the meantime, dear reader, do not marry into royalty, or enter politics.