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Your Digital Inheritance

Published on October 27, 2011 by in Columns

In this space, we have discussed the future of the Internet as it relates to “The Cloud.”  We’ve discussed the future of digital media—and how, one day, your entire collection of music, books, magazines, and movies might be stored on a portable, handheld device.  (Taking that a step further, they may reside on the Internet, not even in your “possession,” technically speaking.)

As it stands, so many of the things to which we have sentimental attachment—photos, e-mails, social network posts—live on the web.  In fact, 250,000,000 new photos are uploaded to Facebook every single day.  So what will happen to all of that when you die?

Digital Inheritance

A recent survey revealed that 11% of Brits have included their Internet passwords in their wills, or intend to do so.

A recent British survey, conducted by Goldsmiths University and commissioned by Rackspace, a cloud computing company, revealed that 11% of Brits have included their Internet passwords in their wills, or intend to do so.  Think of it as a way of passing along your “digital inheritance.”  Of those surveyed, 53% said that they had “treasured possessions” housed on online services.  25% claimed to have “special photos” stored online.  And about 10% of respondents said they had cherished videos and sentimental e-mails from loved ones that they’d like to pass on when they’re gone.

This is the beginning of a unique shift in the way we pass along our valued possessions—and really brings to focus the way that cloud-computing can and will impact our life.  The very nature of photographs alone has changed profoundly.  With the advent of digital cameras, and the comparatively high cost of printing photos—even at home—many of our memories are never committed to paper.  I would guess that 90% of my photos exist solely in digital form, having never been “processed,” or printed.  Some are uploaded to the Internet, sites like Facebook or online-albums like Picasa; others are strewn across the web, housed on external hard-drives, or still remain in my camera.

Will And Testament

The times are changing. That much is clear. But the changing times require that we adapt with them.

One of Facebook’s little-known and seldom-used features is the ability to download a .zip file of one’s complete Facebook profile—all of your photos and posts and activity, dating back to the creation of your page.  It would make a nice keepsake for your loved ones, would include all of the photos you felt were worth sharing (if not worth printing), and would leave behind a lasting chronicle of your life, as you shared it with your Facebook friends.  Of course, they’d need to be able to log in to your account to download it, which is why you’d want to be sure to bequeath to them your password.

The same British survey interviewed several pre-teens, who will be teenagers in 2020.  They are defined as “digital natives,” and have never known a world in which our cultural artifacts did NOT include those in digital form—a “world where physical artifacts are stored and valued.”  Yet, intuitively, they can understand the importance of being able to pass along their digital treasures.  One 9-year-old told the researchers that, if he no longer had access to his computer or online services, he’d like to keep “special pictures… like my little brother when he was a baby and my little sister when she was first born.  [Even] pictures of me at home in my school clothes, getting ready for my first day at Peckham Park.  Those pictures are really special.”The times are changing.  That much is clear.  But the changing times require that we adapt with them.  It’s time that we change the way we think about our “possessions,” and reevaluate the types of things we’d like to “leave behind.”  And this should probably include our so-called digital footprint, which doesn’t die with us.If you do decide to bequeath your passwords, however, you’ll need to remember to update your will each time you change your passwords.

Originally printed in “Pulse,” 10/27/2011.
© Damien Willis, 2011.  All rights reserved.

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