This post is (at least partially) a response to Chuck Grimmett's post How can we keep domains working long after our death?
“We all have to die at least once. Making that death useful would be winning for me. ”— Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light and Other Essays
I really wanted to make some kind of group/non-profit along the lines of Chuck's post for a while, a few years back. I would have called it “after life digital” or something similar. It would have the option of some kind of “dead man's switch” that would kick in after a predetermined amount of lack of contact from the user of the service.
I was envisioning being able to keep someone's entire fleet of social media and other “outward-facing” internet domains online after they had died, even suddenly. I think the flip-side of this, that I also hoped to cover with after life, was the guaranteed destruction or removal of certain domains and online materials if people asked for that too.
I wasn't sure if it was possible or plausible to get buy-in from platforms like Instagram or Twitter. I didn't think I could guarantee that domains would stay online for the foreseeable future as promised, given the limitations on domain name registration given in the blog post. I wasn't sure about the optics of deleting archival material or uncomfortable posts, as I would also be entrusted to do. I worried about the spiralling costs, as funds would necessarily dwindle over time. I thought a lot and concluded eventually that this should be some kind of public service.
I have wrestled again and again with the facts of endings, impermanence, and death in life in general, and it of course spills over into this discussion. Is trying to preserve things like social media and my personal URLs another way of trying to avoid the feeling of mortality?
It's not as if I feel like archives and libraries are pointless, but it feels like someone else deciding that your words or works are worth preserving is part of the point. I know that these sorts of institutions have biases, gaps in understanding and of course overlook things by mistake too. It sort of feels like cheating to force a long term backup of your own materials.
I've long felt that the permanence of an action is part of what makes your efforts worth it. Having a legacy, making an impact, making permanent or at least long-lasting change means it was worth it, if it what you did was good.
I'm tempted to view these questions through a technological lens. Is every obsolete format a failure or a triumph? Does deprecation mean we lost our way, again and again, and have to struggle back to something relevant, or does it just mean we are outgrowing our former, discarded skins?
Should we strive to make ourselves obsolete, unnecessary in the grand new worlds of tomorrow, or indispensable parts of the now? Are those two ends of the spectrum even necessarily in tension, or does immersing yourself in now mean you will always be irrelevant at some point?
I often wonder why Big Tech has a particular interest in the very distant future (for example Effective Altruists on the dark side, The Long Now on neutral, the Internet Archive representing for good!). Whilst I think it's partially that you can justify a lot of very evil things with a long enough timescale, part of it is definitely wanting to feel relevant. Powerful. Part of it is convincing other people that you are those things.
I think there are good ways to consider the future; I googled “the seventh generation principle” and am unsure which of the links are true, so we're going with Wikipedia. Wikipedia attributes it, without a citation, to the Iroquois, an Indigenous people of Northern America. Whilst googling that made me doubt its provenance — and I'd love to be corrected — I think that considering what people in the future might want of us now is useful. An end of year planning worksheet I do as a tradition started asking at the end how we can plan for the next ten years. It emphasises whilst we may not know what our future self will want for sure, we do know they will want options and resources.
The unknowableness of the future is part of both the allure and fear. We hope that sending these small parts of ourselves there will somehow help the inhabitants of the future, and justify our own lives.
This piece is part of my attempt at Alphabet Superset, a 6-month creative challenge. Other posts so far: abolition, bump, boost, culture, discussion, english, formulaic, gone and home.