Library@Kendriya Vidyalaya Pattom

Where Minds meet and Ideas pop up !

Digital legacy: The fate of your online soul

Live long (Image: Federico Morando/Getty)

We are the first people in history to create vast online records of our lives. How much of it will endure when we are gone?

NOT long before my wife died, she asked me to do something for her. "Make sure people remember me," she said. "Not the way I am now. The way I was." Having spent most of her life as an assertive, ambitious and beautiful woman, Kathryn didn’t want people’s memories to be dominated by her final year, in which the ravages of disease and continual chemotherapy had taken her spirit, vitality and looks.

To me, the internet seemed to offer an obvious way to fulfil Kathryn’s wish – certainly more so than a dramatic headstone or funerary monument. So I built a memorial website to celebrate her life through carefully selected pictures and text. The decision was unorthodox at the time, and I suspect that some in our circle thought it tasteless.

Six years on, things are very different. As the internet’s population has grown and got older, memorial pages and tribute sites have become commonplace. But when you and I shuffle off this mortal coil, formal remembrances won’t be the only way we are remembered. I manage myriad websites and blogs, both personal and professional, as well as profiles on Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and more. All of those will be left behind, and many other people will leave a similar legacy.

We are creating digital legacies for ourselves every day – even, increasingly, every minute. More than a quarter of a million Facebook users will die this year alone. The information about ourselves that we record online is the sum of our relationships, interests and beliefs. It’s who we are. Hans-Peter Brondmo, head of social software and services at Nokia in San Francisco, calls this collection of data our "digital soul".

Thanks to cheap storage and easy copying, our digital souls have the potential to be truly immortal. But do we really want everything we’ve done online – offhand comments, camera-phone snaps or embarrassing surfing habits – to be preserved for posterity? One school of thought, the "preservationists", believes we owe it to our descendants. Another, the "deletionists", think it’s vital the internet learns how to forget. These two groups are headed for a struggle over the future of the internet – and the fate of your digital soul is hanging in the balance.

As the internet has become seamlessly integrated with all our experiences, more and more of our everyday life is being documented online. Last year, two-thirds of all Americans stored personal data on a distant server in the cloud, while nearly half were active on social networks.

Today, that data is hoarded by internet companies. Google and Facebook are dedicated to storing as much of your data as possible for as long as possible. Even your "digital exhaust", such as search requests and browsing history, is often recorded by companies who want to target you with personalised advertising.

All this data will prove fascinating to sociologists, archaeologists and anthropologists studying the dawn of the digital age. For them, everyday life can be just as interesting as epoch-defining moments. Whereas researchers have hitherto had to rely on whatever physical documents happen to survive, our vast digital legacies mean their successors could be spoiled for choice.

Nothing is definite, though: it’s far from certain that this information will endure. "Digital records are more like an oral tradition than traditional documents," says Marc Weber of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. "If you don’t copy them regularly, they simply disappear." He is concerned that we are not doing enough. "If we’re not careful, our period could end up as a bit of a Dark Age. Everyone is putting material into digital formats, but not putting much effort into preserving it."

Amateur archivists

A movement is now emerging to make sure our legacies persist – with amateur enthusiasts in the vanguard. One of those is Jason Scott, a film-maker who recently staged an effort to save Geocities, a vast collection of personal websites dating back to 1994.

Geocities allowed anyone to create a home page of their own, usually usingcheesy clip art, excitable text effects and templates that look endearingly amateurish to modern eyes. Antique charm doesn’t count for much in the marketplace, and as slicker competitors emerged Geocities became deserted and spam-laden. After a decade’s forbearance (or neglect, some would say), the site’s owner, Yahoo, decided to pull the plug on the vast majority of pages in 2009.

The threat of the impending axe horrified Scott. He and his supporters hastily "scraped" as many Geocities pages as they could, creating a 641-gigabyte archive that initially circulated on file-sharing networks before being reposted at reocities.com.

The one question that gets asked most often, says Scott, is "Why bother to save this junk anyway?" His answer is that it’s not junk: it’s history. Geocities is a huge time capsule from the infancy of the World Wide Web. Its design values speak to the limitations of dial-up connections; its structure captures a time when no one had figured out how to navigate the web, where people built online homes in themed "neighbourhoods" called Hollywood or EnchantedForest. Its users’ interactions with each other – via email addresses and guestbooks published openly without fear of spam – offer valuable insights into the birth of online culture.

The fate of Geocities is relevant because the odds are that more sites will go the same way. History shows that even the most prominent technology companies can be rapidly overtaken by competitors or deserted by customers: think of IBM or Microsoft. Companies like Facebook provide you with free services and storage on their servers. In exchange, they track your online activities and sell advertising against the personal information you provide. But one day they may choose – or be forced – to look for new ways to make money. Those might not involve hosting pictures of your cat.

Last December, Yahoo announced plans to "sunset" more well-known services, including the pioneering social bookmarking service del.icio.us.Rumours soon began to circulate about an impending demise for its giant photo-sharing site Flickr. Yahoo has brushed aside suggestions that the site’s future is in question, but Flickr users remain concerned about what they see as a lack of commitment.

When such sites disappear, many users feel they are losing more than a photo album. Years of my personal photographs are stored on Flickr, and it is woven into Kathryn’s memorial site. I have backups, but the photos on Flickr are surrounded by a rich history of social interactions, from groups to which I belong to comments that friends have left about my photos. That feels just as much part of my digital soul as the images themselves. The same goes for anything we share on social networks: our friendships, likes and links are what’s really important.

Many preservationists feel that it is not safe to entrust information of sentimental value to companies with fickle agendas and fortunes, and are working on ways to give us greater control of our digital legacies. Over the past year, there has been a proliferation of tools that allow us to extract our data from the big social sites. There’s also a cottage industry that aims to ensure that our legacies are assembled and apportioned according to our wishes after we are gone. Many of those involved, including security specialists, virtual undertakers, data storage companies – and, inevitably,lawyers – will be meeting for a "Digital Death Day" in San Francisco in early May.

"Think about the appeal of family history," says Jeremy Leighton John, curator of e-manuscripts at the British Library in London. "The idea of creating a personal archive for your descendants is very evocative."

But assembling such a legacy is not simple. Facebook and its ilk put a lot of work into keeping your information neatly organised and readily accessible. That’s not something most of us are good at. John says around a third of us report having lost a digital file of personal value. "Imagine losing your memories of your children growing up," he says. You might not be doing much to mitigate that risk, he says, but it’s no doubt a concern for many people nowadays.

A new breed of social networking services might help us organise our data while also ensuring that we maintain control over it. Diaspora, based in San Francisco, is a fledgling social network which runs on servers maintained by its users. That’s in contrast to Facebook, which has its own servers and therefore controls everything on your profile. The downside with Diaspora and other "DIY" social networks is that you have to keep your server running; if you stop, your legacy could evaporate overnight.

Still, it might eventually be possible for us to assemble and bequeath our virtual estates with a few clicks – the internet equivalent of donating our personal letters and papers. The San Francisco-based Internet Archive, which has been curating a public collection of web pages and multimedia since 1996, hopes to accept such donations in the near future. Founder Brewster Kahle says he hopes it will inspire people to "endow a terabyte". If that happens, our digital legacies may be preserved for posterity after all.

Yet should we be so quick to give in to the urge to preserve? "Forgetting is built into the human brain," says Viktor Mayer-Schönberger of the Oxford Internet Institute in the UK, who studies internet governance and regulation. "So for thousands of years we’ve developed ways to preserve special memories." Today, though, it is quicker and easier to save every bit of our vast digital trails than it is to sort and discard what we don’t want. In other words, we might be producing more memories than we can cope with.

We are often ill-equipped to deal with the consequences of total recall. For example, Facebook has been sporadically testing a "memorable stories" feature: every now and again, it will show old status updates written by you or a friend. The general reaction has been bafflement, with users unsure what to make of these blasts from the past. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what the vintage update is actually referring to; at others it’s unwanted, like a reminder of a bad break-up.

Forgetting gracefully

Occasionally, the resurgence of memories from long ago can be devastating. "A woman called in to a radio programme to tell me that her long-spent criminal conviction had been inadvertently revealed online," says Mayer-Schönberger. "It had instantly destroyed her standing in the small community where she lived, the fresh start she had worked for years to achieve. This wasn’t even something she had posted: it was someone else." It’s hard to forgive and forget if you can no longer forget.

There’s another persuasive reason why we might want to embrace online forgetfulness. If personal internet sites really did last forever, the web would start to fill up with "dead data" – a reflection of the truism that the dead outnumber the living. My memorial site for Kathryn is currently Google’s first result for her name. I’m not sure how her living namesakes feel about that.

In his 2009 book Delete, Mayer-Schönberger proposed that we should buildtechnology that forgets gracefully. Files might come with expiry dates, he suggests, so that they simply vanish after a certain point. Or they might "digitally rust", gradually becoming less faithful unless we make a concerted effort to preserve them. Perhaps files could become less accessible over time – like consigning old photos to a shoebox in the attic rather than displaying them on the wall.

A few firms have put these ideas into practice. In January, a German start-up called X-Pire launched software that lets you add digital expiry dates to images uploaded to sites like Facebook. After a certain date the images become invisible, so your friends will be able to check out your debauched photos on the morning after the night before, but you won’t have to worry about them appearing when a potential employer looks you up a few years later.

The problem with such schemes is that if something can be seen on the web it can also be copied, albeit with a bit of effort. Human nature being what it is, that’s most likely to happen to something really exceptional. If we’re lucky, our finest achievements will be replicated; if we’re not, it will be our epic failures that become immortal. Another difficulty is that the providers of "forgetting" services are minnows in a very big pond. How likely is it that a plucky start-up will be able to pry your entire legacy from Google and Facebook?

Even if we can’t erase data, we might be able to hide it. This February, after a number of individuals complained to the country’s data protection agency, a Spanish court ordered Google to remove nearly 100 links from its database because they contained out-of-date information about these people. The links were mostly to newspaper articles and public records, and Google refused to comply, but with the "right to be forgotten" enshrined as a key objective of the European Union’s 2011 data protection strategy, more and bigger cases are likely to follow. The EU has a track record of changing the way that the internet is used: forgetfulness may be the next big frontier.

Right now, though, we are living through a truly unique period in human history. We have learned how to create vast digital legacies but we don’t yet know how to tidy them up for our successors. The generations that went before us left no digital trace, and the ones that go after might leave nothing but sanitised "authorised biographies". We will be defined through piecemeal and haphazard collections of our finest and foulest moments.

The memories we are leaving behind now, in all their riotous glory – drunken tweets, ranting blog posts, bad-hair-day pictures and much more – may become a unique trove to be studied by historians for centuries to come. In fact, today’s web may offer the most truthful and comprehensive snapshot of the human race that will ever exist.

And perhaps, deep within that record, those historians will find an online memorial built by a grieving widower to a woman who died too young, at the dawn of the digital age.

 

By

Sumit Paul-Choudhury is the editor of newscientist.com. He is happily remarried.

Read more: "Forever online: Your digital legacy"

Courtesy: http://www.newscientist.com

Filed under: Article of the Week,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Live updates

Library@KV Pattom

Dear Visitor,

This is the official Blog of Library @ Kendriya Vidyalaya Pattom, launched in September 2007. Explore the site, you will get a complete picture of all offline and online resources available and services provided by the Library. Here is a friend, who will help you to find, evaluate and use the right information at right time.

You are the Visitor, Number

  • 5,093,565

5 Million Hits and counting..

Thank you all for making this blog a great success.

Upcoming Events

No upcoming events

KVS Innovations and Experimentations Award 2010

"Library Junction" won the KVS Innovations and Experimentation Award 2010.

All India Competition on Innovative Practices and Experiments in Education for Schools and Teacher Education Institutions 2010-’11

Library Junction won the "All India Competition on Innovative Practices and Experiments in Education for Schools and Teacher Education Institutions 2010-'11" conducted by NCERT.

Visit your Library

Browse Books and Periodicals. Read Newspapers. Pick a New Book from the 'New Arrivals' rack. Search the Internet and the OPAC. Refer for assignments and projects. Suggest a book. Ask a question.Write your comments. And more...Visit the Library Today itself. You are most welcome.

Telephone Reference

+91 9447699724 (Librarian)

E-mail Reference

mail your reference questions to librarykvpattom@gmail.com

Ask the Librarian

“Billion beats:the pulse of India”

The fortnightly e-paper uplinked to www.abdulkalam.com. To visit click the link "E-paper" on Web directory

Website of the Week

http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/

Archives

RSS This day in History

  • Pompey defeated by Julius Caesar at the Battle of Pharsalus: 9 August 48 - This Day in History
    During the Roman Civil War of 49–45 , Julius Caesar's troops on this day in 48 decisively defeated the army of Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus, causing Pompey to flee to Egypt, where he was subsequently murdered.More Events on this day:1945: The second atomic bomb dropped on Japan by the United States in World War II struck the city of Nagasaki.1 […]
  • Amedeo Avogadro: Biography of the Day
    Amedeo AvogadroBorn this day in 1776, Amedeo Avogadro of Italy showed that, under controlled conditions of temperature and pressure, equal volumes of gases contain an equal number of molecules—what became known as Avogadro's law.
  • Concise Encyclopedia Book and CD-ROM: Special Price from The Britannica Store
    For RSS subscribers The Britannica Store presents a special 20% discount on the Concise Encyclopedia and free CD-ROM. This thoroughly revised and expanded edition of Britannica's most popular publication worldwide is a one-volume encyclopedia containing 28,000 articles accompanied by colorful photographs, diagrams, maps, and flags. The Britannica Concis […]

Recommendations

Library Bookmark

Be a Fan of Library on Facebook

e-reading hub @ Your Library

Face a Book Challenge

RSS KV News Digest

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.

Reader of the Month (September 2016)

Sruthi S., VII A

Learn anything freely with Khan Academy Library of Content

A free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.

Interactive challenges, assessments, and videos, on any topic of your interest.

It’s My Library: Share your Bookfies, Libfies and all Library Stories

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 5,661 other followers

Face a Book: The Reading Challenge

InfoLit India: Information Literacy Project for Young Learners

Subscribe SMS updates

Send: ON Library_KVPattom to 9870807070

‘School Libraries Rocks’ ; International Bookmark Exchange Programme 2015, with Croatia

Twitter Updates

CBSE Toll Free Tele/Online Helpline

Students can call 1800-11-7002 from any part of the country. The operators will answer general queries and also connect them to the counselors for psychological counseling. On-line counseling on: director.edusat@rediffmail.com, mcsharma2007@rediffmail.com

Child Line (1098)

CHILDLINE 1098 service is a 24 hour free emergency phone outreach service for children in need of care and protection.

Population Stabilization in India Toll Free Helpline

Dial 1800-11-6555 for expert advice on reproductive, maternal and child health; adolescent and sexual health; and family planning.

Quick Answers

CONTACT

S.L.Faisal, Librarian, Kendriya Vidyalaya (Shift-I) Pattom, Thiruvananthapuram-695 004, Kerala, India. Mail: librarykvpattom at gmail.com
%d bloggers like this: