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By gnomon in Culture
Thu Mar 07, 2002 at 10:48:24 PM EST
Tags: Internet (all tags)

What do you want to have happen to your data when you die?

The Premise

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 Idea

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)

The Ramifications

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?

The Question

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).


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Cemetery.Org | 65 comments (62 topical, 3 editorial, 0 hidden)
Excellent Idea (4.00 / 5) (#3)
by CokeBear on Thu Mar 07, 2002 at 08:13:06 PM EST

I think its an excellent idea, with one exception: Instead of just shipping off my whole hard drive to get posted on the 'net, I'd like to be able to pick and choose what files I make available. I might keep a directory on my hard drive specifically for this purpose, occasionally updating it as I update my will.

I definitely don't think that software that I happen to be using, or my company's confidential files should be included.

Consequences of maintaining a "Cemetery" (none / 0) (#37)
by gnomon on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 12:49:19 PM EST

Ah, of course the topic of choice comes up, and that's actually a very significant factor. Which files would I consider to be appropriate for release? Does the concept of a cemetery.org-style posthumous archive necessitate a change in your current computing and file-organization habits (if you care about it, at least)?

Then there are the other questions that get brought up: if these files are suitable for release after my death, why are they not suitable for release beforehand? Why not just set up a webserver and make your "cemetery" archive world-readable? The obvious argument here is that some material is only appropriate for distribution after your death, but think about that for a second - what data do you have that would be more valuable to the people that it affects after rather than before your death?

It's an interesting question to ponder, at the very least. I don't have all the answers, of course, but I have been rolling this idea around for a while (and, in fact, I've written a couple of articles about the ramifications and consequences of this idea - I might even post them one of these days), and as a result I've placed a good many of my postings, articles, log updates and the like on a world-readable but relatively unknown webserver.

When you think about how long your data is liable to last (or not, as the case may be), you tend to view your files from a different perspective.

[ Parent ]
There are lots of things... (4.00 / 1) (#62)
by CokeBear on Sun Mar 10, 2002 at 04:21:39 PM EST

I can think of one example of something that I'd want released when I die, but not before:

The source code to all my non-GPL work. As long as I'm alive, I depend on that source code for my income, but the moment I'm dead, it is of no value to me, and I want the whole world to have it, to use it, to share it.

[ Parent ]

Eh, Not Really (3.20 / 5) (#4)
by CubistPoet on Thu Mar 07, 2002 at 08:32:54 PM EST

I just can't see anyone caring what random junk was scattered about my Hard Drive when I kicked the bucket.

I don't think that I personally would care about anyone else's unless it someone relatively famous that I admired (Douglas Addams or Kurt Vonnegut for example).

I can get behind the idea of keeping any kind of creative works that the person in question has actually produced in a similar manner though. Especially since people very often, in literature anyway, obtain higher status after their death than they ever reached in life. Having things like notes and personal correspondence available for potential later publishing would be pretty cool.

Does anyone know of any free services that act as wharehouses for literature? Something similar to mp3.com for writing?

--Cubist Poet--
Archiving creative works (5.00 / 1) (#39)
by gnomon on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 01:24:42 PM EST

Gosh, don't get me wrong - not everything produced has lasting value of any kind. My _vimrc file, for example, is quite a personal thing, but it certainly isn't worth keeping around. That's the entire point of the article, though: to try and establish a dialogue about what kinds of files are worth keeping, how that archiving should take place, whether or not any sort of preservation should happen at all, and the practicality of it all.

For example, a certain John Sundman ("johnny" around Kuro5hin) wrote a wicked book called "Acts of the Apostles" as well as a fantastic story called "Cheap Complex Devices". He also maintains a K5 diary and actively posts stories and replies.

Personally, I find it fascinating to read over the range of his formal and informal writing, since it casts a light of perspective and insight onto his larger works and stories. Because K5 has a searchable database backend, and because it allows me to read the comments that he has posted, I can do this. Also, he has a website over at http://www.wetmachine.com/ where he maintains various and sundry bits of information, all of which let me more thoroughly understand and appreciate not just his writing but the subtext therein.

I am not an author, although I dearly love the craft. Someday I may even put pen to paper and write a truly good story. For now, though, I tend to archive a lot of my writing on my personal site - even the comments that I post to Kuro5hin, Slashdot, unCultured and various other fora. I don't have an inflated ego or anything; I'm not trying to do a favour for future fans or anything silly like that. I do it because I find it interesting, in a very personal way, to be able to go back and see how my own writing style has developed. Even this very article is interesting to re-read, since I originally wrote it sometimes in August 2000, and my style has changed noticeably since then.

Well, the changes are noticable to me, at least.

The point is that because so much writing these days is digital, the large-scale storage and retrieval of text archives is becoming practical, even trivial. How difficult would it be to write a script that would recursively enumerate the files on your drive and drop them into a database back-end whence they could be retrieved chronologically, filtered based on filetype and directory structure and the like? How difficult would it then be to slap a web-based front end onto this database and drop it in an archive somewhere? The initial effort might be a little daunting, but it could scale so easily, powered by the rising tide of CPU power and storage space. In this article I'm trying to suppose that the practicalities of the scheme are already taken care of in an effort to focus instead on the ramifications of the idea.

Oh, and there are "literature warehouses" out there - in fact, a Kuro5hin user called delmoi ran one for a while called lit.hatori42.com, although it seems to have since fallen into disuse (the last post in Google's cache is dated Jan 20th, 2002). I suggest that you go talk with the author and see if he has ceased working on the project altogether or simply moved it somewhere, and whether he has heard about any similar sites out there.

[ Parent ]
Clarification (none / 0) (#59)
by CubistPoet on Sat Mar 09, 2002 at 02:03:35 PM EST

Personal diary entries and the like are valuable too. As is any sort of actually creative work whether its formal or informal, as you said, but the author of the original article seemed to be suggesting that random person X's collection of Buffy wallpapers, downloaded fan fic, and alternate mouse pointers are also worth preserving for the world to see.

That seems pretty silly to me.

If the deceased or his/her "estate" wanted it, I would be all for keeping things like K5 diaries/blogs/etc.

Regarding literature warehouses, I'm familiar with that site, but it doesn't really serve the function that I'm talking about, because of the "self-moderation" that comes with Scoop.

Ideally, a literature warehouse shouldn't have any moderation. Anyone could post anything they wanted (assuming that it wasn't just spam attempting to clog the database). I mean there would probably have to be a limit (so much space before you have to pay a small hosting fee), but otherwise, free for all.

Ideally, what I'd like to see is a site that has something equivalent to a Creative Writer's notebook on-line. Where you can store works in progress, fragments, story ideas, etc., all safe from the general public eye. Then you could make things publically viewable once you have a rough draft or some such up.

Perhaps you could set a story (or poem or play)'s status to "revising" and then people could come in and comment on it, and you could do some self-revision too. Ideally, there should be an actual interface in place for handling revision that allows you to easily do the equivalent of writing in the margins with regards to specific passages.

Once the work was actually considered finished, it might be put in a virtual gallery of some sort to hang for all eternity! :)

Do you know if anything like this exists anywhere?

--Cubist Poet--
[ Parent ]
Further Clarification about Context (none / 0) (#64)
by gnomon on Tue Mar 12, 2002 at 02:36:36 AM EST

This is where I can take advantage of the fact that I wrote the original article in order to clarify a point that I really ought to have taken care of during the editing process. I apologize for not having done so in the first place.

Works created by an author are, of course, arguably the "most valuable" in terms of the priority that their conservation should be granted, but in fact I am stating that "random person X's collection of Buffy wallpapers, downloaded fan fic, and alternate mouse pointers" are worth preserving too. Bear with me for a moment as I explain my logic.

It's not so much the wallpapers, fan fiction stories and alternate mouse pointers themselves that are important, but rather the choices made by the person who collected them. It isn't the files themselves that are valuable, but rather the insight that can be gained from their presence and the meta-information associated with each file that makes their conservation worthwhile.

Much of writing, creative and otherwise, is inspired by, or contains information drawn from, external sources and influences. The availability of these tangentially relevant resources is important to the full comprehension and appreciation of the resultant work. When I read a book review, for example, the first two pieces of information that I look up are other reviews by that author and the book itself; when I read a Kuro5hin comment linked to from an external source, I inevitably look up the parent comment and the original article; when I read a research paper, depending on the ease of doing so, I'll usually peruse many of the references; when I read someone's web page, I'll usually follow all the links that appear in the text of the writing. Without the context established by these external sources, the text at hand is likely to lose most of its capability to carry information.

Unfortunately, the 'net is a transient thing. Projects like Publius and, to a certain extent, FreeNet attempt to extend the longevity of data by making sure that it is distributed among many servers instead of stored on a single computer which may or may not, according to the whims of the administrator and the financial fate of the entity paying the bills, be available at some indeterminate point in the future.

Case in point - in twenty years, I fully intend to have this particular document archived for perusal, but will the O'Reilly article, the Publius website and the FreeNet website still exist, and even if they do, will those links still be valid? The answer to both questions, according to the common wisdom of today, would probably be negative. Heck, a simple site redesign can break an entire class of hyperlinks that address that content.

My solution to this, illegal though it may (or may not) be under current copyright law, is to archive local backup copies of the documents to which I refer. My cache usually isn't that huge - some two hundred megabytes or so, although much of that is occupied by archived web comics (48.8MB) and the public-domain works of famous authors (45.8MB) - because I only save the most relevant information, but I would imagine that it would be illegal to redistribute. I can guarantee, though, that my links will stay valid as long as my own material is available, which is more than I can say for a collection of personal works that is not backed up by such a cache.

A weaker form of the same argument can be applied to files of lesser importance, such as bookmarks, browser history files and even, as you say, Buffy wallpapers, fan fiction stories and odd mouse pointers. The question to ask is "at what point does the storage cost (not to mention legal wrangling) outweigh the value of the archived files?", to which my admittedly cop-out answer was "avoid the question by simply archiving the entire hard drive". As in so many other cases, the difference is not a set of two mutually-exclusive options, but rather a scale of importance upon which one must position oneself according to ones values. I hope that my reason for making such a "pretty silly" statement is clearer now.

About literature warehouses, though, I have less to say. I don't actually know of any site that offers services like this, since I have never gone looking for any; if I found such a site, I would still archive my writing on my own site just in case (as I currently do, in fact), and since I run my own webserver I've never really felt compelled to search out such a site.

I like your idea of a publically-accessible long-term database with version control built in, but I keep on thinking that most of the functionality you describe is already available at SourceForge. What's wrong with storing HTML text in a concurrent versioning system of some kind? It would allow annotation (via comments in the source code, at the most primitive, and perhaps through meta-information which could also be archived in the versioning system. XPath, XPointer and XLink would probably be relevant technologies to investigate, too), public access and support for "draft versions" and the like. Also, it's a mature, well-understood and simple system with a mature web-based front-end.

No, I do not know of any such site, but if you happen to run across one, I would very much like to know about it!

[ Parent ]
Violating Copyright, and already done... (none / 0) (#6)
by claud9999 on Thu Mar 07, 2002 at 08:51:45 PM EST

Let's say you do post your archive of User Friendly, you'd be violating the copyright by redistributing without the author's permission...If you could not share with anyone except your benefactors, the legal issue becomes more blurry (you can certainly leave a book to your child...why not your data?) There are (were?) already Internet-based backup solutions (not having used any, I don't have any URL's handy...but I'm sure you can find 'em with Google or whatnot.) 'course, they're commercial solutions, and who knows if they dot.bomb or not...But that's true for just about everything (including [non]government organizations.)

Copyright and posthumous archives (none / 0) (#40)
by gnomon on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 01:42:21 PM EST

You mention that redistibuting the User Friendly archive would violate copyright laws, but that leaving your data to your family (or anyone else, for that matter) is a little "more blurry".

It's exactly that blurriness that I wish to explore, though: should you be allowed to pass on copyrighted data via your will? What about non-transferable licenses, how do they fit into all of this? What if I'm a digital artist (let's not get into the debate about whether or not such a thing is possible right now; let's just say that I'm very creative and choose to express myself via digital models instead of with a canvas and paint, and that these created works are appreciated by at least my immediate family) and have created a library of scenes?

Actually, let's make that last example very concrete. Imagine that during my living years, I was a big fan of a particular 3D game which had a rather restrictive license concerning modifications; I was allowed to create them but not distribute them without the explicit written permission of the publisher, since the file format necessarily contains at least some resources created by said company.

Is it legal for me to leave these files to members of my clan, for example (as bizarre as it would be to will created files to clan members, that is - I can just imagine the lawyer overseeing that)? Is this considered "distribution"? If so, why, and if not, why not? Can the nonexistant Cemetery.org legally archive that data in a publically-accessible fashion, since the primary purpose of the archive would not be "redistribution" but rather simply storage for the benefit of those in my will? Can I, for example, will the contents of my drive to those who visit my site, and does this count as "redistribution" and therefore copyright infringement, or is it simply transfer of ownership?

I have my own opinions on these subjects. I'd like to hear yours.

[ Parent ]
Not the whole hard drive (3.66 / 3) (#7)
by theR on Thu Mar 07, 2002 at 08:56:12 PM EST

I could honestly care less what happens to my whole hard drive, especially since I actually have at least three computers with a total of at least five hard drives at my home that get used. I think there is potential for something interesting here, but talking about saving people's whole hard drives is pretty useless.

What I have thought about, and even discussed the other day with my wife, is what happens to the really important stuff if I die? My wife is not technologically inclined at all. So what happens to our web page and mail server if I die unexpectedly? I alone maintain them. What happens to our domains? It is things like this that I am interested in.

I could certainly leave her all my passwords so she can check my email, log in to the web server and renew our domains, but she can't maintain them. Our web page has numerous pictures and captions, which I know she would like to keep maintained or even add to if I was gone. Our email server is obviously important if she and the rest of my family that uses it want to continue getting the mail sent to them at our domain. Am I to get a backup administrator for my home systems? I could try to count on a friend to do it, but that would be asking a lot and may even be beyond the abilities of friends that I consider close enough to trust with something like that.

As for the hard drive on my workstation, the majority of the data there is unimportant in the big scheme of things. Actually, the web page and mail are unimportant in the big scheme of things, too, but relatively speaking they are infinitely more important than all the crap I have on the hard drives of my "main" computer.

COULDN'T (5.00 / 4) (#25)
by gordonjcp on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 05:10:13 AM EST

I could honestly care less
It's *COULDN'T* care less!
What you wrote means that you care at least to some degree what happens to your hard drive.

Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he'll bore you rigid with fishing stories for the rest of your life.

[ Parent ]
OK (5.00 / 1) (#38)
by theR on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 01:15:50 PM EST


[ Parent ]
The problem (4.33 / 3) (#8)
by delmoi on Thu Mar 07, 2002 at 09:32:43 PM EST

Is that people don't live and die in internet time.

Only a very, very, small persentage of people who have used the net have died at all, I would guess. In order for this thing to be usefull, you would need to keep a .org running for at least a hundred years. I don't think many people are going put much faith, or think about that stuff for a long time

I'm sure a solution will exist by the time most of us start dying. for now, you could probably just mention it in your will for people to update your websites or whatever.
"'argumentation' is not a word, idiot." -- thelizman
Keep it in the will? (none / 0) (#14)
by fluffy grue on Thu Mar 07, 2002 at 11:21:03 PM EST

That'd mean me putting my various passwords in my will! No way, man!
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.
I have a master's degree in science!

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]
[ Parent ]

One password to rule them all... (none / 0) (#47)
by Nick Ives on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 04:02:28 PM EST

How about if you generate a PGP key specially for the purpose of encrypting all your passwords in a plain text file and put the password to that key in your will? Keep both the key and the password file together in a secure location for safe retrieval.


[ Parent ]

I was thinking about that... (none / 0) (#51)
by fluffy grue on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 05:23:47 PM EST

But then define "secure." A safety deposit box? That means having a key, and/or social engineering to get the key (or just getting the lock drilled from the bank). I suppose something like, say, 3DES would be good - have three trusted people, each one getting a 56-bit key, and then when crap happens, they each give their part of the key to form the full key. You'd have to worry about them colluding, though, but at that point you've got bigger problems than them possibly getting your UNIX password before you die (since if you have such determined "friends" they could always just boot your machine with linux init=/bin/sh anyway).
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.
I have a master's degree in science!

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]
[ Parent ]

Not together! (none / 0) (#66)
by AndyL on Tue Apr 02, 2002 at 05:15:14 AM EST

If you put the two in the same place you're leaving yourself vulnerable. Keep the password file on your hard drive. (It's easier to update that way.) Keep the key file in a safety deposite box.

After you're dead who ever this is for should have access to both, right? But not likely before that.


[ Parent ]
Living and Dying in Internet Time (4.00 / 1) (#42)
by gnomon on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 02:09:55 PM EST

When you say that people don't "live and die in internet time", I take it that you mean that since the Internet hasn't been around for a long time, the vast majority of its users haven't passed away, and that death online hasn't become a common thing...

...yet, and that's my point. There have been some high-profile online deaths out there: Joel "Espy" Klecker, to whom the Debian 2.2 release was dedicated; W. Richard Stevens, whose books continue to be excellent manuals and whose website continues to be maintained; Mark Weiser, the (former) chief technologist Xerox PARC who evangelized the concept of ubiquitous computing, has left behind a website that contains a great deal of information about his personal and professional life. One day, even Donald Knuth and John McCarthy will no longer be with us (may that day be long delayed).

I think that it's important to think about these things before nasty things like what happened to Eric Weisstein's World of Mathematics take place without the author there to fight for what is right (or at least for what he or she wants).

As for the archive spanning at least a hundred years in order to be useful - I disagree. The archive wouldn't even have to be permanent; it would just have to stick around long enough for the news about the unfortunate event to propagate, and for interested parties to go create local mirrors or offline archives of the relevant material (or not, according to the will). Right now, unless someone has quite a high online profile, his or her works are liable to disappear quite quickly as accounts are cancelled and all of that, and as useful as archive.org and the Google cache are, it's difficult to try and reconstruct an entire site. This difficulty may be compounded by files that the deceased meant to post but had not yet gotten around to placing online.

Speaking of sites disappearing, delmoi, whatever happened to lit.hatori42.com? I mentioned it in a previous post and investigated it, but it doesn't seem to be around anymore. What happened to it? Has it ceased operations permanently, or is the current downtime temporary? I think I posted to it once or twice near the very beginning, but I've not been back in a while.

[ Parent ]
I've been thinking of this (4.50 / 6) (#9)
by vadim on Thu Mar 07, 2002 at 09:48:05 PM EST

I've first considered it when several people in the Creatures Community died. I started to think that those were well known people, and it was noticed very quicky. But the same wouldn't happen to me. All my friends are online, and nobody I know IRL knows what I do online, what sites I visit or who I talk to.

My parents have an approximate idea. They know I talk to many people who play the Creatures games, and know about one of my best friends online. But what if I got hit by a bus tomorrow? Will somebody, for example my brother try to tell them? I'm not sure.

He'd need to read my mail to find the address, and it's in Linux, with a good password. He doesn't know how to use Linux, so he'd need an "expert". I doubt he'd bother. And of course, my 'last wish' would be never made true. I don't keep a diary or anything, so he'd have to read my full email archive and Jabber logs to figure out what would I want. For example, I'd like somebody to get all the code I've written just in case somebody finds it useful. Or have it on some website.

I think it's just sad that I have almost all my life online. If I suddenly died now, I'd just disappear. And the few really good friends I have would be wondering for months, perhaps years what happened with me. Perhaps they'll never know.

So I think this idea is really good. There must be more people like I there :-) But you really can do it yourself, perhaps I will some day. The theory is simple:

Get a reliable host
A small gateway computer that's always on.
If I don't log in for several months into my Linux account, upload the "I'm dead" pages.

I wouldn't share all my drive. There's nothing interesting in it. A ton of programs you can get from the net, a standard Mandrake install and a ton of source code. I'd prefer an automatic system to notify friends, upload a few things I think are worth showing, and perhaps setting an automated email response. It's a bit creepy to be planning something like your own funeral, but I think it's an interesting idea.
<@chani> I *cannot* remember names. but I did memorize 214 digits of pi once.

If you're reading this, then I must be dead... (5.00 / 1) (#10)
by J'raxis on Thu Mar 07, 2002 at 10:54:07 PM EST

You could create some kind of script that runs every day and checks some file(s) of yours that you update frequently — maybe the modification date of a single file (for me, ~/.viminfo — it gets updated at least once a day), or of everything in your home directory if you want to be thorough. If the file(s) are older than a week or some other appropriate length of time, it sends an email to all your online friends informing them that you haven’t been around in a while, and to email someone you know in real life to find out what happened.

— The Cronned Raxis

[ J’raxis·Com | Liberty in your lifetime ]
[ Parent ]

Exactly (5.00 / 1) (#11)
by vadim on Thu Mar 07, 2002 at 11:02:29 PM EST

I'd also upload a few things to my website (that is down now, though). A system with several steps could be nicer. For example, after a week it'd say it's possible something happened to me, after two it'd repeat that I still have a connection but something is still wrong and after a few months that almost certainly I'm dead. Since I live with my parents and brother I doubt they'd stop using the computer, so this should work.

The only problem is testing the design. I could scare somebody a lot with this testing it improperly...
<@chani> I *cannot* remember names. but I did memorize 214 digits of pi once.
[ Parent ]

Testing method (5.00 / 1) (#13)
by J'raxis on Thu Mar 07, 2002 at 11:07:30 PM EST

Well, write the whole thing out with the messages, recipients, and times-to-run easily re-configurable. I’m thinking Perl or shell script, using separate files or here docs for the messages, and so on. Initially test it with some mundane message ("hi there. first run." ... "hi there. second run.") and some quick times, like 5 minutes apart. Once it’s working, just change the messages to whatever you want it to actually say, change the recipients, and change the times to something more appropriate, like a week, two weeks, month.

— The Raxis

[ J’raxis·Com | Liberty in your lifetime ]
[ Parent ]

I'm not dead! (3.00 / 1) (#12)
by sudasana on Thu Mar 07, 2002 at 11:05:26 PM EST

Of course, if you forget that sometimes that particular file is not updated for the specified amount of time, or you go on vacation, or your machine crashes and is effectively dead from the point of view of the script, you could have some very distraught friends on your hands. And convincing them that you're actually alive could be troublesome...

[ Parent ]
The subject was a joke (4.50 / 2) (#15)
by J'raxis on Thu Mar 07, 2002 at 11:29:12 PM EST

I thought of that. That’s why I said in the body of my comment (the subject was a joke on a common cliché) to have it email someone and ask them to email a real-life friend of yours to ask what happened.

From: mailer-daemon@iraxia.localdomain
To: foo@internet.org
Subject: Have you seen J'raxis?

Hello, this is a cron job running on J'raxis 270145's computer. My owner has not logged in within $DAYS days. Could you please email joe.bar@real-life.com and find out what happened to him? I am a helpless cron script and am quite worried he has abandoned me. Thank you.

-- Mailer-Daemon

Oh, yeah, and: instead of checking a file modification time, have it run `finger` and just look at the last logged-in time. Or /var/log/wtmp or something.

— The Raxis

[ J’raxis·Com | Liberty in your lifetime ]
[ Parent ]

You should check ~/.emacs (4.00 / 1) (#31)
by synaesthesia on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 09:10:03 AM EST

Lest you not die, but instead be born again ;)

Sausages or cheese?
[ Parent ]
this is actually a real issue ... (4.75 / 4) (#17)
by omegadan on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 12:02:41 AM EST

Ive been thinking about this alot for a couple weeks, because its *actually happened* to me recently. I have this friend named stephanie who lives in the next town over ... We've been talking online for years -- and every once in awhile we goto dennys or starbucks and chill
... long story short, shes manic depressive, has tried to commit suicide a bunch of times ... once she disapeared for 3 months because she was commited ...

The only way I have had to contact her is on aol ... about 3 weeks ago she disapeared :) and it dawns on me, if she did commit suicide finally, I'll never know ...

Religion is a gateway psychosis. - Dave Foley
[ Parent ]

what of the things we do is worthwhile? (4.00 / 1) (#16)
by inspire22 on Thu Mar 07, 2002 at 11:49:27 PM EST

Ultimately (yes I like to make things grandiose), one has to make the decision of sorting what is important from what is not. Is all the sappy poetry I wrote at 17 important? I think it helps you understand who I am, but I really don't think it'll have any large effect on the style of poetry in our age. If 10 people will appreciate it, is that worthwhile? Will our world be saturated with interesting things if everyone's life-work were published? Does everyone accomplish something worth saving? In the past countless people, who I'm sure were amazing to talk to and meet, have left nothing behind besides a tombstone, and perhaps some fuzzy memory in a grandchild. Also, those things that ARE important, should have been published while we were alive. I know we dont want to let go of the projects we never have time for, but perhaps when we die, thats the time to stop worrying about it :)

That which is worth remembering (5.00 / 1) (#45)
by gnomon on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 03:07:32 PM EST

That's an interesting statement - "those things that ARE important, should have been published while we were alive." They may well ought to have been published, but what if they never were? It's all too common for outstanding works, be they fictional, autobiographical or otherwise, to rack up dozens of rejections before receiving a single positive response from a traditional publisher.

"Will our world be saturated with interesting things if everyone's life-work were published", you ask? Look again: the world is already saturated with interesting things. Have you ever read over the history of your local town, for example? Do you know who the founding citizens were, and do you know anything about their stories? How about local newspaper archives - have you ever visited the local library and read some of the articles that date back ten, twenty, fifty, one hundred years? Is it more interesting to read them in order to find out about the people being written about, or is it more interesting to follow the articles of a single author in order to find out about his or her writing career? Have you ever read case law, wherein some judgements are occasionally comparable even to great literature? Have you ever perused archives of research papers, where purportedly dry academic text is sometimes woven through with the inspiring, childlike glee of pure discovery and invention?

The world already contains more information and knowledge than a person can possibly hope to absorb. There are more books out there than I will ever be able to know of - I won't even learn their titles, let alone have a chance to sit and ponder their contents. I will not learn all the languages of the world in my lifetime, and so entire classes of literature are completely closed to me. Should authors stop writing because everything has been said? Should the patent office close because everything has been invented?

I've previously quoted this passage, but I do so again here because it is so appropriate to your point:

"...Literature, from the very beginning, has had a single enemy, and that is the restriction of the expressed idea. It turns out, however, that freedom of expression sometimes presents a greater threat to an idea, because forbiddeen thoughts may circulate in secret, but what can be done when an important fact is lost in a flood of impostors, and the voice of truth becomes drowned out in an ungodly din? When that voice, though freely resounding, cannot be heard, because the technologies of information have led to a situation in which one can receive best the message of him who shouts the loudest, even when the most falsely?"

- "His Master's Voice", Stanislaw Lem (translated from the Polish by Michael Kandel), pp.22 par.2 (written in 1968, translated in 1983, reprinted in 1999)

As I often do, I have wandered far afield from the point I wished to make, which is simply this: your interests will follow their own path, regardless of the information available to you. There may be times when you choose to read whatever is at hand, but I would venture to claim that more often than not, you search out titles and topics because they intrigue you. There may have been times when your quest for knowledge or information has been frustrated because the relevant text was not available to you, such as when relevant sites disappear from their previous online location (as will undoubtedly happen in this very article: the links I have included will no doubt no longer be valid in ten, or five, or even one year).

Digital distribution of information makes it far easier to share information, since, as Thomas Jefferson said (coincidentally enough in a letter which was preserved and from which I can now draw this wisdom):

"If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me..."

Not everything is worth saving, of course, but when it is so easy to store and share vast quantities of digital information, why should we not seek to increase the body of information accessible to the world, and let History decide who will be remembered, rather than those who own the printing presses?

In time, all things fade - "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" - but then again, some things last longer than others. "Exegi monumentum aere perennius" ("I have built a monument more lasting than bronze"), quoth Horace, and Shakespeare spoke prophetically in sonnet #55 - "Not marble nor the gilded monuments / Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme" - since I still quote him today. I'm no Horace, and I'm no Shakespeare, but I write, and others read. So too for you.

(You think that you like to make things grandiose? I sympathize, I really do!)

[ Parent ]
What if Jefferson lived in the information age? (4.00 / 2) (#18)
by sandor on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 12:15:32 AM EST

I have often pondered this very question. Thomas Jefferson wrote over 70,000 letters and documents in his lifetime. There are great books and parts of national archives dedicated to preserving for all of us the treasures that these written items are. They are records from the begining of this grand experiment we call a democracy. Some are personal letters to friends and others letters of a president to his cabinet.

I find this an interesting bit of history two hundred years after most of the letters were written. The personal reward of being able to read them today offers great satisfaction to me on a lazy afternoon read. The problem I see is that the future may not hold these types of treasures for others to peruse.

Yes, the uber important/famous etc. will have records of their lives and writings most likely preserved on a variety of media. There are lots of hidden treasures found every year in the strangest of places that I fear won't be found generations from now. For example; letters from husbands to wives written in the trenches of the civil war capture the emotion of the day and bring alive parts of our language no longer used. To you and I a 150 year old letter may be of minimal interest. To those who are descendants of the authors the are priceless pieces of family history.

So, if Jefferson's time were in the information age how much of all these treasures could we enjoy today? If he had email would we be able to read his lettters to the Marquis de Lafayette? Would we have Notes on Virginia?

All of this data that many of us have developed and accumulated may end up as fragmented bits on an unusable hard drive destined to decay into nothingness. Will any of it be here 200 years from now for others?

How many emails will be deleted in our lives that may have been an interesting idea inked to paper only years ago and filed haplessly in a garage to be found tomorrow. These days, after we lose intrest in the topic, the delete button takes away the possibility of it being history. All of our web logs, newsgroups, emails, documents and online books of this era may never even see permanent media and written to the history of our time.

We live in a period of time where documentation and electronic forms of communication are at a level never seen before in history and none of it seems to have any permanence to it. No paper, no scrolls or tablets filled with our cultures. Just bits... Am I alone in thinking this?

my rambling thoughts (3.66 / 6) (#20)
by jh on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 01:12:43 AM EST

This hits on so many things I've thought about over the past several years.
The ephimerality of digital information, and the chance that future
historians will have access to very little of the information and thought
of these times is something that actually manages to keep me up nights. Are
we living in a dark age, all unknowing?

There is a project whose name I can't for the life of me remember right now
that interested in computer systems that continually record all of a
person's data, so it can be examined later. Something to look at if anyone
can help me remember what it is.

On a more personal level, sure I want my data to live on after I die. If I
die while I am still an active programmer, there is a very good chance that
my code will live on for 5 to 20 years, which isn't much, but I suppose
it's more than some can expect. As to the rest -- my email, writings, and
so on, I do archive all of it (actually, I keep it all in cvs, since I am
also interested in preserving the past history of all my data, not just its
current state). When I get a will written (which, as a twenty-something, I
have not bothered to do yet), I do plan to try to include some provisions
in the will for making sure that a current snapshot of all of that is
dumped out to CDs and given to my family, to be put in the attic, and
probably forogtten for 50 years. Maybe then someone will find some little
bit of it interesting. If there was a cemetary.org and I could trust it, it
might be a viable alternative.

There is also the issue of the unix server I have run on the net for the
past $LONG_TIME. In my will I have always planned to try to keep that
system operational for as long as possible, probably by giving it and some
budget and the root password to a computer-savvy friend. That would keep my
web site and other services available to people on the net (and the other
users of the machine) for long enough, in internet time, for anything worth
salvaging to be salvaged.

The way someone you know only online can just leave a senseless hole when
they die is scary. A friend in one project I work on died two years ago,
and it was traumatic for all of us. It helped that his family figured out
how to get in touch with us, and let us know, and that we could send
messages to them telling them about this wonderful young person we'd known.
It also helpd that his machine is still running to this day, and, strangly,
it helps that his IRC client still pops into the channel from time to time,
as close to a ghost as you can get on the net.

Eep, my battery is about to die, not I. Please excuse my rambling, I hope
there's something of value here, to be archived or not on k5hin, for who
knows how long.

sorry about the double post (none / 0) (#21)
by jh on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 01:14:17 AM EST


[ Parent ]
Others have trod this path (5.00 / 1) (#46)
by gnomon on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 03:37:59 PM EST

jh, you're right on the money when you talk about being kept up at night by the thought of leaving nothing behind for the next generation. The existence of such endeavours as the Dead Media Project and the large list of now-inaccessible media that it documents, and the fact that more and more systems will inevitably fall into this category as the market marches forth, is a little spooky at times. Everything fades, but sometimes I get the nervous feeling that we're writing on the beach and that the tide is rolling in.

When you speak of a system that automatically categorizes and archives the documents that a person has worked on, the technique that most quickly comes to mind is one called "Lifestreams" (about which there is a relevant Citeseer entry), although ReiserFS aims towards a similar goal, as was stated in a Byte article entitled "The Future Of The File System", which appeared on May 31st, 2001. Mind you, when there is so much information available to draw upon, automated help in the form of a Remembrance Agent of some kind starts to look rather attractive.

You mention that you keep all your documents in CVS; this is a very interesting idea, and one that I think I'll have to look into. I'm slightly worried about that approach relying on a program instead of a flat data file, since it is usually far easier to port the latter between systems than it is to port the former - English suffers from far less bit rot than code (compiled or source), it seems, and character sets tend to stick around for a while. That's why I keep most of my data as flat HTML files (spiced up with a very little CSS) in a hierarchy which I hope will last me for some time.

jh, when you speak of a friend of yours that died two years ago, do you perhaps mean Joel "Espy" Klecker (whom I mentioned in a previous post)? I ask because of your "joeyh@debian.org" e-mail address. I knew that his IRC client idled online for some time after his departure, but I never knew that it continues to do so from time to time. Somehow that's oddly moving.

[ Parent ]
They do not store the data (2.30 / 10) (#22)
by President Steve Elvis America on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 01:50:55 AM EST

I went to www.cemetary.org and it is a site for netfinders.com. I think it is being squatted on by them so somebody can buy it. You should buy it then talk about your idea here. It might be good but it was too long so I didn't read all of it.


Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America

Email from beyond the grave (4.00 / 3) (#23)
by Skwirl on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 02:49:08 AM EST

If you really need a way to contact your online buddies from the afterlife, there's Loving Pup, Inc's Timeless Mail. They hold on to your posthumous emails until your Social Security Number is released. Heck, send one to Rusty containing your K5 obit and watch from above while people "0: I don't care" it out of the queue. ;)

"Nothing in the world is more distasteful to a man than to take the path that leads to himself." -- Herman Hesse
Potential market (none / 0) (#24)
by QuickFox on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 03:54:55 AM EST

This might become a big hit in Sweden.

Give a man a fish and he eats for one day. Teach him how to fish, and though he'll eat for a lifetime, he'll call you a miser for not giving him your fish.

Terrorists can't threaten a country's freedom and democracy. Only lawmakers and voters can do that.

Some people might like their data legacy erased (4.75 / 4) (#26)
by PhadeRunner on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 05:23:53 AM EST

On the other side of this story are the people who would like a service that erased all their data if they died.

Imagine the situation where data was preserved after someone's death, on their PC for example. Maybe the deceased would not want their family and friends to find their stack of kiddie pr0n or that they were the website maintainer for www.assbandits.com.

I for one would like my data legacy to be maintained but surely some people would like a clause in their will saying "Securely wipe my computer hard-disk drives to NSA standards."

You could have a master wipe account set up that, when logged into, would initiate an uninterruptible disk wipe. Then all you need do is give the account details on your will and ask a trusted person to log into your machines with it. Of course you would give it an innocent name and not "wipe".

Maybe hosting companies could offer a secure deletion service as part of their contracts and companies could offer a data wiping service for PCs.

Its worth considering that some peoples' data legacy could cause more harm than good. What would happen if you died and someone went trawling through YOUR hard-drive?

Disclaimer: I do not have a stack of kiddie pr0n nor am I the maintainer of www.assbandits.com, these were constructed situations to be used as examples only...

So what are you hiding? (1.00 / 5) (#27)
by LQ on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 06:26:52 AM EST

What have you got on your drive that you don't want your survivors to see?

[ Parent ]
Nothing... (4.50 / 2) (#28)
by PhadeRunner on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 06:38:59 AM EST

I don't have anything on my computers that I consider hurtful or damaging to my friends or family.

I think that as we are discussing saving data after someone's death we should also discuss the opposite. Its definetly relevant.

Consider me playing Devil's Advocate.

On second thoughts you might think that the emails from your Mother on my hard drive would be damaging to your friends and family if they turned up on a public website after I died. j/k

[ Parent ]
Enough Mp3's to give me the death penalty :) (4.00 / 1) (#33)
by Prophet themusicgod1 on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 10:16:37 AM EST

"I suspect the best way to deal with procrastination is to put off the procrastination itself until later. I've been meaning to try this, but haven't gotten around to it yet."swr
[ Parent ]
delusions of grandeur (4.50 / 4) (#29)
by Hakamadare on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 08:46:17 AM EST

in my experience, most people have an inflated perception of the value of their own creations. i'd like to see cemetary.org exist, but in order for it not to collapse under the masses of crap that people will send it, there would need to be some policies concerning what sort of data could be submitted:
  1. all data sent to cemetary.org will be publicly visible.
    if you've got something personal that's only intended for your family and close friends, then send it to your family and close friends. otherwise, it's a waste of public resources.
  2. all data sent to cemetary.org must have been created (at least in significant part) by the deceased.
    if Pete Abrams wants the archives of Sluggy to live on after his death, he can submit them to cemetary.org; it's not your job to do so, or that of any other sluggy fan. and for god's sake, keep any works to which you do not own the copyright OFF the site. the last thing we need is j. random user surfing through cemetary.org looking for pr0n and wAr3z. (of course, soon somebody would write a search engine for cemetary.org to make life easier, and soon after that, a p2p filesharing system, Corpsester! Plotster? Stiffster? hmmm...)
    this second provision would need to have teeth. cemetary.org should permanently take down the archive of any decedent upon receiving complaints (and proof) that the archive contains copyrighted material, and send it to the decedent's family or heirs. perhaps the site could even offer a pre-submission screening of data (paid for by the deceased's estate), to try to avoid this situation.
    as for the "at least in significant part", well, that's open to some interpretation. it should be fine to submit an irc log in which the deceased was one of the participants (provided it didn't violate one of the other rules), but there's no reason the deceased should be able to submit their favorite Quake map if all they did was play on it. repetition of submissions is to be avoided, or away goes all the storage space and bandwidth.
i like the idea of funding the site by requesting donations from surviving relatives. perhaps the site could get started with a posthumous donation of money, servers, and bandwidth from some prominent techie?

Schopenhauer is not featuring heavily on the "Review Hidden Comments" page at the moment. - Herring

Free at last (none / 0) (#30)
by schrotie on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 09:04:06 AM EST

From a pratical viewpoint it would be nice to let the online friens know when one dies. If one really cares about this issue, it should be possible to arrange for that without much ado.

As for the data monument proposed ... well ...
How about living life now, doing what one believes in and leaving it it to posterity if one is worth remembering?

I have some of my sent mail archived, but I don't believe it's a good idea to let everybody read everything one wrote to anybody. Phew bad semantics here. You know, Charly can be a selfish bitch at times, and she'd probably be hurt if she read this. Even though I've told her in RL. Even though I love her beyond any of her minor flaws. She probably could not help feeling hurt. This article is not written for her and she should not read it.
I do have a complete archive of mails I received through the past decade however. Those mails were all sent to me. I think most people maintain such an archive. They can always read the mails persons they care for sent to them. I do not maintain a complete archive of snail mail I receive and probably there were other people like me in history. So even Jefferson's letters (see other comment regarding Jefferson in this discussion) only got safed by people who cared about him or who were compulsive treasurers. That way things that people care about will hopefully pass the test of time even in digital age.

But what about my k5 (and similar) postings? Much of what happens on the net actually does get archived. As long as rusty feels inclined and we buy enough adds, an archive of all my k5 articles will be available online. And I don't think rusty will throw it all away even if he has/wants to shut down k5.
Google assembles a tremendous archive of the net and there other non profit efforts to archive that away.
And then the net only is what it is, because we have this strange kind of anonymity. Things vanish - great. A lot of bullshit I left lying somewhere on the net will vanish. I do appreceate this. Many things would not be on the net if the authors anticipated it'd be peserved and associated to them. This strange way of being - being an avatar, an online creature - is full of chances and possibilities. Why carry our old ways over into the net?

As for my stolen mp3s or my (now probably deceased) summoner: I don't think my diablo 2 peers could value him as a tombstone. Somebody might play him in a melancholy mood. But really, even more complex RPGs yield so little of the person behind, it's hardly worth preserving. How about preserving every hand one ever played? If the game was bridge (or similarly complex) that might hold more information than an RPG character. I think your friends will remember you. Regardless if they knew you playing brigde or diablo 2.

A final word: If you are so anxious about being forgotten, that's not a technically problem cemetar.org can solve. It's a spiritual problem.

Never free from our past (5.00 / 1) (#52)
by gnomon on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 05:34:53 PM EST

schrotie, as you may have guessed, this is an issue about which I care a great deal. I think that I may have read a little too far into the whole Free Software (and Open Source) philosophy in that I want to sit down and create, as Olin Shivers said in the preamble to his his paper "The SRE regular-expression notation, a 100% solution instead of an 80% solution. I'm more interested in creating an infrastructure and an attitude towards this eventuality than I am in creating a set of tools. Let me put it this way: sure, I could write a deadman-switch program that would alert people of my (potential) passing; sure, I could set up a webserver that archives the data that I consider to be important; sure, I could write this up in my will, find a willing system-administrator friend of mine and maintain my own little corner of the web long after I'm pushing up daisies.

I'm much more interested in making this a common practice than I am in assuring myself of some odd form of digital immortality (or, as is more realistic, some form of digital short- to medium-term posthumous web presence). As others have said, when I pass on, what do I care? I'll be dead! I am, however, interested in helping to cultivate the idea that allowing others to access your data after your passing is a good idea, and one which should be seriously considered - perhaps even planned.

My motivation (with this article, at least) isn't to achieve some form of immortality through literature, or to create a "living monument" or anything silly like that. No, I'm being quite prosaic: I just don't want to the people with whom I enjoy talking (or trading e-mails) and the sites that I enjoy reading to disappear mysteriously some day because of the fickle nature of that Final End, leaving my puzzled and slightly disturbed.

I agree with part of your assertion that it's not a good idea to let everybody read anything you have written: such openness can definitely lead to potential problems, and it can be difficult, too (at least while you're still alive). I would go a bit further, though, by claiming that I would be much less worried about someone misinterpreting what I have said about him or her as long as all my writing is available for perusal. Every piece of information is inextricably tied to its context (in fact, without context one must adopt a strict information-theoretic view of communication) and can be most readily understood by considering the context of that information at the moment of its original transmission from thought to bits (or to paper, as the case may be).

Consider this: if I excerpted the part of your post where you say "Charly can be a selfish bitch at times", and she read only that excerpt, then yes, she would probably be hurt. On the other hand, if she read the rest of the sentence, she could place it within an accurate context and understand that the first impression she got from the text was not what you meant to communicate. Or maybe a single sentence wouldn't be enough to truly establish context? Maybe she would be better-served by reading the entire paragraph? This entire discussion thread? The original article as well?

Therein lies my point: where do you draw the boundary at which it is safe to stop establishing context? My proposal is that every small piece of information set down by the deceased sheds additional light on, and reveals additional perspective within, every other piece of writing (or creation of whatever sort).

As you say, things vanish - but they do so in an unpredictable fashion. What you write on Kuro5hin might end up surviving thirty, forty, fifty or more years on a backup CD, in my own personal cache of the response thread to this article, or on Kuro5hin itself, if it lasts that long; on the other hand, a system crash tomorrow or some catastrophe could wipe out all records of your writing. Things do vanish, but you can't count on them doing so, and really, is it a good thing that they do?

Ponder that for another few moments before responding immediately. Run two thought experiments: what if everything ever spoken or written by anyone could be accessed at any point in history thereafter (and posit some form of searchability or relevance indicators to counteract the vast, overwhelming range of information that would then be the background for everything written or spoken afterwards)? Conversely, what if we had no way of making information last beyond the span of memory? In which reality would you prefer to live? Now scale it back a little, since both of these cases are unrealistic extremes: how about if information could only be preserved for five hundred years? A hundred? Fifty? Ten? Five? One? None? These are two opposite ends of a scale, and betwixt the two lies a mysterious span which you and I are exploring at this very moment.

I am not anxious about being forgotten, schrotie (and I have deliberately left spirituality out of this discussion - believe me, I've pondered that as well). I am anxious about forgetting.

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time... like tears... in rain."

[ Parent ]
Are we ... (4.00 / 1) (#54)
by schrotie on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 09:15:11 PM EST

... never free from the past? I hope death will free me.

First an apology is in place: I did not ponder for any moments before answering as you suggested. Forgive me ;-)
The reason for my fractiousness is that I actually do agree with you and see your point. I think there should be a way to remove redundant information like executables and the like (thus 99.9% of the data) and only preserve the personal stuff, but you do indeed have a valid point. The reason for my posting was that nobody else wrote along the lines of my comment and the whole discussion was rather boring. And yes, I certainly do believe that what I wrote has some point too. I don't usually post utter bullshit (I hope).

Another apology in advance. I'll go completely off topic with the following.
Your thought experiment has occupied me very much throughout the past couple of months. We do have the technology to implement the first scenario (preserve everything anybody has ever said or written and make it publicly accessible). At least we could do it for a limited group of people, e.g. one of the rich nations of the northern hemisphere. We could implement an Orwellian society, Big Brother on steroids. Only there does not have to be a big brother. If everybody is always accountable and if we find effective breaks for power mongering ... what would that be like? I pondered it quite a lot. I think it could work. Couldn't it?

[ Parent ]

If I got knocked off today... (none / 0) (#32)
by haflinger on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 10:04:39 AM EST

There'd still be stuff about me. The machine I'm typing this on is a webserver (among other things).

It would be weird though. But my LAN has operated unattended for several weeks before without suffering any harm. I wonder. Would pornspammers still send me ICQs? :)

Did people from the future send George Carlin back in time to save rusty and K5? - leviramsey

Oh the possibilities ... (4.60 / 5) (#34)
by devon on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 11:47:09 AM EST

While I think this is actually an interesting idea and one worth exploring, my mind couldn't help wander to the more humorous possibilities of such a site.

Imagine the front page:

  • a 'Featured Coffin of the Week'
  • a 'Most Active Coffins' list
  • a large, but tasteful, front page advertisement enouraging you to sign up for a Gold Mastercard at a low introductory rate. Something like:
    "Funeral expenses can add up quick. Don't let your departed loved ones down, let Mastercard help."
  • a google search with a defualt 'site:cemetery.org' constraint.
Picture the tombstone at your coffin.
Here lies John Doe,
aka AIM: rAtMaN17435,
aka ICQ: CampusDewd43732,
aka k5: gimerific,
aka /.: JoeSchmoe21
April 21, 1967 - October 3, 2008
[Click Image to see back side]

A loving husband and father.
We will miss him dearly.
[Click here to see the widow's profile.]

Below the tombstone would be:

  • coffin reviews
  • a 'Mourners who have visited this coffin have also visted:' list.
  • 'email a friend about this coffin' link
  • 'bookmark this coffin' link
  • 'leave virtual flowers' link
  • oh, lets not forget the link to the dead person's data
A few questions:
Would hacking the site be desecration?
How would the coffin rating system work?

And, the most important question : What do I get when I subscribe?

Call yourself a computer professional? Congratulations. You are responsible for the imminent collapse of civilization.

I don't care. (4.50 / 2) (#35)
by ucblockhead on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 11:51:28 AM EST

I'll be dead. What do I care!?

The human need for legacy has always amazed me.
This is k5. We're all tools - duxup

What about the people who care about you? (1.00 / 1) (#44)
by vadim on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 02:51:53 PM EST

The reason I'm interested in this is not because I think I'm so cool the world needs to remember me. I couldn't care less about that.

The reason are my friends. Not long ago some people asked me if I've seen somebody nobody has heard from for about 3 years. His site is abandoned, and nobody knows what happened with him. I don't want my friends to see me disappear suddenly and never come back.
<@chani> I *cannot* remember names. but I did memorize 214 digits of pi once.
[ Parent ]

When I'm gone (3.00 / 1) (#36)
by Snowman on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 12:29:28 PM EST

The least appropriate legacy I could possibly think of leaving would be the multiple gb's of work, apps, data, and digital debris currently on any of my machines. I'd like to think I'll leave enough of an impression that friends will note my passing, but when I'm gone, that's it. maybe a service (I won't notice, it's up to those who know me to decide if they want to bother). Burned or buried, it makes little difference to me. Short version: I hope people notice, then forget and move on. Keeping my stuff kicking around the internet for no reason other than preserving it isn't a help, it's a waste of media. If it's useful, someone (me?) will have found a use for it and a way to publish it before I check out. if not, rm -rf it along with what's left of me :P

I've just thought... (4.00 / 1) (#41)
by vadim on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 01:43:29 PM EST

Suppose this becomes popular. Couldn't this become an interesting way of fighting for freedom? Or be used for vengeance?

For example, suppose that somebody writes something like DeCSS while having a terminal illness and makes his/her computer publish the information on websites, Freenet, and perhaps even submit it to weblogs? It's a pretty cool way because you can't judge somebody who is already dead.

But what about the evil use? It may not even be intentional. Suppose I write a script that gzips my "Projects" folder where I keep all my source code and uploads it to my website. What if I died and it published the source for a commercial program of a company I was working for? Or if I used this as vengeance and published sensitive information like a company's database with credit card numbers?
<@chani> I *cannot* remember names. but I did memorize 214 digits of pi once.

The other side of the coin (none / 0) (#43)
by joshpurinton on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 02:16:13 PM EST

Then there are those who don't intend to die. The people signing up for cryonics and the ones who intend to upload themselves into computers and live forever.

Website decay? (none / 0) (#48)
by LilDebbie on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 04:45:13 PM EST

I don't know about you but the embarassing website I made as a teenager at the infamous geocities and foolishly forgot the password to stayed up for quite a long time. Needless to say, it was a merry day for me when that piece of personal history finally disappeared, only to have a friend of mine dig it up on webarchive.

I suppose if you're doing your own hosting it's just a matter of waiting for your server to crash with no one around to boot it up again. My point is merely not to underestimate the sturdy nature of data on a global network.

My name is LilDebbie and I have a garden.
- hugin -

similar experience (none / 0) (#50)
by pbryson on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 05:06:17 PM EST

A few nights before my last night of employment at a medium sized ISP, I snuck a few account names into the database. Yes, I'm going to hell. So I put a webpage up on one of them, Peggy Snowden was the name. It was there for three friggin years, two years after they'd been bought by some big corporation.

- - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - -

[ Parent ]
What as the URL ? (none / 0) (#55)
by omegadan on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 09:48:23 PM EST

What was the url of said website? :)

Religion is a gateway psychosis. - Dave Foley
[ Parent ]

friends (4.00 / 1) (#49)
by nutate on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 04:58:05 PM EST

In the end, no matter what we wish might happen after we die, we seemingly will never know. Some artists (for example Lydia Lunch in an interview) prefer the idea of themselves being undiscovered. She has published work that will be around for a while, and feels that no great artists are respected in their time... (don't argue with her about this... she'd probably bite your head off :). But I'd have to say, if all you've done is software, it is unlikely it will survive beyond you without you publishing it. The author's concept of saving collections of things, doesn't make any sense to me. Those things are already collected by the authors.

Bottom line for me is, if you really think your work is worth something, make a hardcopy of it and have some good friends and/or offspring to take care of it in your absence.

As far as the other interesting concept of notification of online communities/acquantainces, I still think that is best done by people that know you and care about you. There is a "Dead Man's Switch" program out there for windows that will email people/post to web sites/etc. if it doesn't get reset in a certain amount of time it will do things for you. The things are described on the site for it: http://daisyman.arsware.org/dms/ (note, this is for Win32). Once again, I can't see why anyone would want this, especially given the implications. I hope at the very least we all have at least one friend who could do this for us. One cannot replace true friendship with computer automation. In fact, the idea to me seems like a frightening glimpse into the depths of loneliness.


Continuations (4.50 / 2) (#53)
by gnomon on Fri Mar 08, 2002 at 06:49:45 PM EST

Actually, software has an uncomfortable habit of either disappearing more quickly than you anticipated (may a thousand curses be heaped upon the phenomenon of bit rot) or hanging around much longer than you ever expected it to (Y2K hype, bank systems that still rely on code written in 1980 or 1970, air-traffic controllers that are using software written years ago, Tandy model 100 systems that are still in use - the list goes on). Then there are those legendary programs that simply refuse to die - Gates and Allen's BASIC (the annotated disassembly of which seems to have gone missing, except, ironically enough, at archive.org), for example, and Mel's blackjack program.

As for my "concept of saving collections of things" not making any sense, let me explain myself. I believe that keeping an archive of your past creations is useful to the author, because it allows him or her to look back on previous work and grow from the mistakes made (during the lifetime of that author, of course). It is useful for others to be able to gain a similar sense of perspective on the publically-distributed (or, perhaps more appropriately, the "advertised") works of the author, thereby gaining a certain insight into the "why" of the work instead of just the "what" and the "how" of it (during and after that lifetime). Potentially, it could also be useful if the archive persists after the death of the author in order to gain insight and keep alive the memory of a friend or an acquaintance, similar to keeping letters received from friends who have passed away, and occasionally re-reading them - just for the memories.

Maybe I am misunderstanding your statement on this issue. If I've missed the point, please let me know how I managed to do so.

You've also asserted that "if [I] think [my] work is worth something", I should make an offline copy and have friends or family take care of it. That's missing my point, although I admit that I could have been more clear: the purpose of the archive is not for the benefit of the deceased (who, having given up the habit of breathing, is unlikely to extract much usefulness out of anything at all that is done for him or her), but rather for the benefit of those who may think that my work is worth something.

If I die and my data sticks around, people may or may not choose to peruse, enjoy, analyze or learn from my work; if I die and my data disappears, no one will have the opportunity to make this choice.

I would like to know how you extrapolated that maintaining an archive of this type implies that true friendship is being replaced by automation - was I terrifically ambiguous in some portion of my article? I thought I was speaking from exactly the opposite point of view, implying that friends (offline or otherwise) and family might want to take the time to read those writings which they never bothered to look at before instead of just letting them all fade away.

I know that there are friends of mine who have written stories, articles and even letters that I have not really sat down and read through yet. I would feel a great loss if those writings just disappeared one day. Of course this loss would be overshadowed by the loss of my friend (I'm reminded of American Beauty, where Carolyn Burnham grasps at and collapses into Lester Burnham's clothes instead of grasping at the man himself; this disturbed me a little), but being able to read what would otherwise vanish into the aether would at least allow me a small sense of closure.

The point of the archive is to serve the living, not the dead.

[ Parent ]
Continuation (none / 0) (#63)
by nutate on Mon Mar 11, 2002 at 05:21:16 PM EST

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.
I believe that keeping an archive of your past creations is useful to the author, because it allows him or her to look back on previous work and grow from the mistakes made

I was assuming that you hadn't worked on any of the items mentioned in that list. Perhaps the tracked music and demos were your own creations? I was just thinking that, if anyone really cared to get in touch with me, and hence really cared whether or not I was alive, they would find out one way or another. I'm not that anonymous online. :)

Overall though, a collection of one's own work seems natural and necessary. As far as commenting on the real idea of a cemetery.org... I don't think it would fly. But feel free to prove me wrong.


[ Parent ]

Dead programmers (none / 0) (#56)
by Republican327 on Sat Mar 09, 2002 at 01:18:07 AM EST

Quite a few of the comments have been from programmers. I was wondering if any liscense exsists so that if a programmer dies, their work becomes open source. Or set up the dead macro to FTP your source code to an open source site.

But that would... (none / 0) (#61)
by carbon on Sat Mar 09, 2002 at 11:41:45 PM EST

Hmm, that could work. But then we have sort of a 'kill them for the insurance' problem.

Imagine : Want Half-Life OSS? Shoot the creator! Alright, maybe that's a little extreme (If the creator's dead, no sequel anyways) but it _could_ happen. Yeah, alright, so it wouldn't happen. So sue me.

Wasn't Dr. Claus the bad guy on Inspector Gadget? - dirvish
[ Parent ]
No it wouldn't... (none / 0) (#65)
by Republican327 on Sat Mar 16, 2002 at 03:56:10 AM EST

Good point; I guess a programmer would have to add a natural death clause to his will saying that if he were murdered, the software wouldn't be uploaded.

[ Parent ]
Many poorly constructed tangents (none / 0) (#57)
by Republican327 on Sat Mar 09, 2002 at 02:10:36 AM EST

Personally, if I converse with someone online, I keep them far away from my real life and if they disapeer, they may or may not be dead in real life. On the internet, what is life? A person can be alive and well in real life but dead to a former internet friend. Also, how could your family convince your friends that you were really dead? Time and time again, people have managed to log on to peoples E-Mail accounts and wreck havoc; how do you make people beleive that you are really dead? The quest for immortality and denial of God by the same people is an odd paradox that I've never understood. In order to keep this topical, the idea of a cemetary.org would be interesting if it were a database of peoples' lives' work. Limited entries would be permitted, just that which you are more proud of than anything else. The site would be a memorial and a treatise on the kinds of things that people devote their lives to. Refering back to the first post, simply adding another person's hard drive ad infinitum to the server would not work. I know the post is poorly constructed and rambling, but it is 2 a.m. after all!

Where's the paradox? (5.00 / 1) (#60)
by Tatarigami on Sat Mar 09, 2002 at 04:46:19 PM EST

The quest for immortality and denial of God by the same people is an odd paradox that I've never understood.

They could easily be accused of arrogance, but I don't see anything paradoxical in denying God and desiring immortality. Seems like a pretty straightforward idea -- if you don't believe you can depend on the Almighty to preserve you, doesn't it make sense to look for other means?

[ Parent ]
First thing that came to mind (none / 0) (#58)
by mumble on Sat Mar 09, 2002 at 03:11:15 AM EST

The first thing that came to mind when I read your idea is the Eternity Service. Take a look at some of the google results. In particular read Ross J. Andersons paper, which was the first on the subject, and where it got its name from.

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"They must know I'm here. The half and half jug is missing" - MDC.
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Cemetery.Org | 65 comments (62 topical, 3 editorial, 0 hidden)
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