This sounds like a bit of a strange question, I suppose, but one that begins to take on a certain gravity when you think about it. Many of us have suffered through the anguish of realizing that our hard drive has given up the ghost with nary a backup in sight. It is at those times that you realize how valuable you consider some of your data to be. Maybe you are an author, and you have your corpus archived off in a corner of your disc that you had almost forgotten about; maybe you are a prolific programmer with a large body of elegant and clever work of which you are understandably proud; maybe you are an RPG gamer with a few characters that you have put a lot of time into; maybe you have kept a diary, a weblog, a story collection, a photo archive, e-mail correspondence, chat logs or other files that are important to you. These kinds of things are important background information for your electronic persona, exemplifying characteristics that your online friends recognize as yours. Of course you would want to back up this kind of information - after all, it's important stuff.
When I die, I would like some of that to stick around. I do not want my death to appear to my online friends and acquaintances as my disappearance from the net. In meatspace, when I kick off, I hope that there will be some finality to it: a ceremony (burial or cremation - in my case probably the latter, but that's a personal choice), a gathering of friends and family, maybe a wake or a memorial service of some kind. My friends or family will let acquaintances and the like know that I am not around anymore, a process that normally takes a year or two.
To my online friends, though, it will appear as though I have simply evaporated for some mysterious reason. My system will probably be passed on to someone else, my web site will slowly start rotting and my presence will gradually be forgotten. If I publish anything online, it may sit in an archive somewhere for a time, but eventually it too will vanish as it gets pushed off the bottom of the archive queue or the site closes.
This particular eventuality does not appeal to me in the least.
The data that a person stores and produces is an extremely small slice of a personality, of course, but an important one nonetheless, especially for those who spend a lot of time with their computers. I personally do not want that kind of data to just vanish - I have some pretty unique stuff, some of it my own work, and the thought of it just vanishing into digital ephemera is just a little chilling. What I would really like to see is some kind of online database to which I can will my data for long-term archival.
Ideally, I would be able to just submit my hard drive and my CD burns (which consist mostly of backups and large media files or large collections of files - the entire User Friendly and Sluggy Freelance series to date, for example, as well as my collection of PC and Amiga demos, tracked music in various formats, the original QTest1 from id, Doom pre-beta bootlegs, the QuakeTalk archives by Joost Schur, a whole whack of PDFs and documentation about the Bitboys Oy, the Pyramid3D and the Glaze3D, etc.) to the database - call it cemetery.org for convenience - and have it placed online for public access. It would serve a dual purpose: firstly, it would be a reference for those who knew me and wanted to remember me or continue my projects or benefit from my resources; secondly, it would be a kind of a virtual tombstone, a marker for the space that I once occupied (and, if linked to a government database containing death certificates, assuming such a thing exists, my archive node could serve as authoratative proof of my deceased status, eliminating the possibility of my online death being hoaxed by nefarious nogoodniks).
At the risk of being accused of intellectual laziness, I am not going to formally argue in favour of this proposal - instead I am going to take it as a given that the preceding idea is a good one, and move on to raise issues about implementation. Please feel free to attack or defend this idea in a more rigorous manner than I have used, but don't expect a terrifically huge reply for a while. Blame Diablo 2. (N.B.: this article was written some time ago, but not submitted. Diablo 2 no longer holds any sway over me)
Assume that cemetery.org exists and that it hosts a few dozen nodes to begin with. What potential problems exist with this scheme? Well, for starters, there is a purely economical problem - who pays for bandwidth, electricity and storage space? Actually, the latter might be more easily resolvable - the deceased could will the actual physical drive to cemetery.org and then necessary storage would be for backup purposes only. This is definitely a non-trivial problem, since the archive could grow to be tremendously large quite quickly (assume that it takes two years from present day to catch on, at which time your average drive size is about 70 gigs, not to mention backups and offline storage - that is quite a bit of data), with commensurate bandwidth requirements.
Let us assume that these problems can and will be solved - say, for example, that the deceased is expected to set aside a sum to cover the insertion of his or her data into the archive and that the family of the deceased pays a certain amount per year, akin to tending the plot in a physical graveyard. Then there is the problem of censorship - if every file on the persons drive is readable over the net, what is to prevent some disrespectful punk from scamming licensed software from the archive? Also, some data could potentially be sensitive - say the deceased was working on the sales reports for a major company, or the budget allocation, or research documents or the like. Perhaps the sensitivity is a little less business-oriented: suppose that an acquaintance of the deceased is engaged in a divorce involving a custody battle and that the other party retrieves a chat log or a Quake demo that puts the acquaintance in a less than positive light or implies ill things about his or her character (during a deathmatch, I am sure that we have all said things that we would never, ever repeat elsewhere (see the Embarassment Spotlight at the very bottom)), what then? (note that I am not arguing that this evidence should be admissible in court - I'm not a lawyer, but I do not think it would be. My point is that the data of the deceased could be put to unsavoury use). Who has the right to say which documents should be public and which should not? (well, the deceased, of course, but he or she would not be around to argue the case for the access rights of each file)
Assuming that the preceding issues can be resolved, what kind of organization should take responsibility for cemetery.org? Would you trust a commercial entity, or should it be non-profit? Should it be based on volunteer effort? Should it be a government project akin to maintaining birth and death records (sorry, I am Canadian; just about everything is part of the government up here), or should it be as borderless as the net? To what kind of organization would you entrust your data after your death?
Would you, personally, even want to do such a thing (submitting your data to cemetery.org, that is)? Why or why not? I would be very interested in hearing serious thoughts about this idea. If you take the time to write something up, please send it to Kilbert (Nolan Eakins, who originally came up with the notion) or me, Gnomon (who didn't do much more than type this up).