The Problem With Digital Death, And The Future of Dying (Online)

The Problem With Digital Death, And The Future of Dying (Online)

Summary: A tech figure's final request is fulfilled when his wife publishes his post-mortem blog post - just days before the Digital Death unconference, provoking emotions and questions about death, mourning, data storage and fragility in the digital age.

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A tech figure's final request is fulfilled when his wife publishes his postmortem blog post - just days before the Digital Death unconference, provoking emotions and questions about death, mourning, data storage and fragility in the digital age.

When Derek K. Miller (Penmachine) died on Tuesday, his wife pushed “publish.” After a long battle with cancer, he’d prepared his final blog post with the knowledge that it would be the last thing he would say to his loved ones and the world.

The Last Post began,

Here it is. I'm dead, and this is my last post to my blog.

As his post climbed on social sharing sites, Penmachine.com was bombarded with traffic. It went down intermittently. There was no one to fix it.*

The error page on Penmachine suggested contacting Derek if problems continued.

It was upsetting to realize what was happening. This reminder of the transient nature of life, the Internet, and everything was difficult to cope with.

I met Derek briefly in August of last year. He attended Gnomedex 2010, as he had missed previous years while battling cancer. Derek did a spin onstage that had everyone laughing and even singing, and then came to sit with me after my talk.

My boyfriend said it was great to see him back, and Derek quietly told him that he was not “back” but was actually on his way out, for the final time. He’d wanted to spend some time with his extended tech family, dear friends like Chris Pirillo and the whole ragged lot of us.

What happened surrounding The Last Post brings up interesting questions about what will happen with our online belongings when we die.

It’s a strange coincidence that Digital Death Day 2011 is today, May 6, at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

Digital Death Day is an unconference on the social, cultural and practical implications of death in the digital age – it looks at “how death, mourning, memories and history are currently being augmented in our technologically mediated society.”

More and more bloggers are going to be doing what Derek has, the final resting post. We can perfect our last words. If you read Derek’s post, then you know the emotional immediacy of this is powerful.

His post ended by directly addressing his wife, saying,

Airdrie, you were my best friend and my closest connection. I don't know what we'd have been like without each other, but I think the world would be a poorer place. I loved you deeply, I loved you, I loved you, I loved you.

The recent - and beautiful - Google Chrome commercial "Dear Sophie" has everyone’s eyes teary and, for me, raises similar types of questions. In the video, a man sets up a Gmail account in his daughter’s name, and emails her throughout her young life, creating a book of memories a la digital message in a bottle.

It’s a nice (and hopeful) fantasy. But the problem is, we're still talking about the fragility of data storage, and companies.

And all companies get sold, or shut down; people leave, and companies change.

There is a site (among many others) I’m reminded of that claims they will maintain memorials for loved ones "forever." 1000Memories was widely featured in the news and was a Silicon Valley echo chamber darling around this time last year. Their tagline is, “Remember a loved one together. It’s free and forever.”

The site offers a variety of answers to tough questions, but my first question while looking at the site was, “How do you guarantee forever?”

I especially had this question in mind when I saw that Caterina Fake is one of the advisors to 1000Memories, a Y Combinator startup. She helped create Flickr, and then sold it to Yahoo! - where now longtime members face constant threat of removal with little or no recourse, on a site that has become notorious for unwarranted deletions and a graveyard for customer care.

Your memories are certainly not safe on Flickr.

Giving 1000Memories a chance, I found their page on social media and death to be helpful.

In the Tough Questions section, there is a subsection called “Close online accounts.”

They answer the following questions:

How do I manage social media when a loved one passes away?

What can I do with a loved one's Gmail after they pass away?

What can I do with a loved one's Hotmail after they pass away?

What is LinkedIn's policy on death?

What is Twitter's policy on death?

What is Facebook's policy on death?

But I still wanted to know why I should trust 1000 Memories, or any site like it. Everyone – everyone – knows there are massive risks, pitfalls and problems in the data storage industry. To pretend the opposite is irresponsible at the least.

How does a startup avoid death, exactly?

Clicking on the question “Why should I use 1000Memories.com?” and finding this blank, unfinished page didn’t help.

I’m reassured that Derek’s site, even if wobbly, is his own and left to his family.

I knew Derek for a split second. It’s beautiful to look at all the Last Post's comments (now that the site’s back up) and see how he touched so many with his last words; words that will live beyond him, for however long that may be.

Image by Kevin Dooley, under Creative Commons 2.0 Generic license, via Flickr.

* Update: It only appeared on the outside that there was no one to fix Derek's site when the heavy load hit. Alistair Calder was working diligently on it, but when sites like Hacker News (and individuals like myself) were struggling to save and share the content, the behind-the-scenes work was not readily apparent. Bravo to Calder for being amazing and solid behind the curtain during a crisis and unexpected magnitude of traffic. Many hearts are with you, and we thank you for being there.

Topics: Browser, Collaboration, Hardware

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26 comments
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  • RE: The Problem With Digital Death, And The Future of Dying (Online)

    Astoundingly moving, this article. I haven't got anything to add. But thank you for writing it.
    Imrhien
    • Me too....

      @Imrhien : my only brother-in-law died about 3 months ago. He was 51, died from a stroke. Reading Derek's post touched a nerve with me.<br><br>He mentions that there's no going to a "better or worse" world, just going out. I disagree. Maybe this memory is what makes us "live forever". Maybe humans live in the memories of the living.<br>
      cosuna
  • Balance Restored

    An atypical but thought provoking post ...

    ... indeed setting me thinking about so many things that I shall content myself for the present with saying 'Thanks'.

    :-( :-)
    jacksonjohn
  • Once dead...

    I don't think I will care much.
    NoAxToGrind
    • RE: The Problem With Digital Death, And The Future of Dying (Online)

      @NoAxToGrind But the question is "will those around you care?" That's really the crux of the issue here.
      ejhonda
      • RE: The Problem With Digital Death, And The Future of Dying (Online)

        @ejhonda
        I have to agree with that.... I had lost touch with an online friend I used to chat with frequently... knew he and his wife had moved to a city not too far away and thought I might finally catch up with him and my husband and I take him to lunch or something.... tried emailing, but no reply, so did an online search (starting to suspect the worst) and found his obituary just a couple months before. So - although I didn't know his wife.... I wish I had known sooner that he was gone.
        debidaugherty
      • RE: The Problem With Digital Death, And The Future of Dying (Online)

        @ejhonda

        Won't matter to me at all. Dead is dead.
        NoAxToGrind
  • RE: The Problem With Digital Death, And The Future of Dying (Online)

    Great post. I have also written about the problems of dealing with our online lives after death - e.g. the need for a digital executor. See my piece on Death 2.0 <a href="http://www.wpp.com/wpp/marketing/publicrelations/death-2.0.htm" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">http://www.wpp.com/wpp/marketing/publicrelations/death-2.0.htm</a>
    FUTURE Perspective
  • RE: The Problem With Digital Death, And The Future of Dying (Online)

    I find this a trifle disorienting, a la Alice in Wonderland. Originally, people were concerned with their mortality and the legacy they leave behind. Now, it seems, we'll also be concerned about what we can remove from the digital record as well as what we want to continue in perpetuity online. Not sure my brain can wrap itself around the concept. Ah well, guess I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.
    NCWeber
  • RE: The Problem With Digital Death, And The Future of Dying (Online)

    This means that all wills need to be updated to account for all the online accounts ever created, what to do with them, how to maintain sites after you are gone (and who maintains them and how to pay for them), "passing on" all the passwords and security info to next of kin to even do all this (who are often not tech oriented and thus really lost when they have lost you).
    Do you take all your digital posts ever done / web site and publish them into an e-book after you are gone and have THAT live on too?

    The more diverse the methods of communication the harder it is to manage while alive, then leaving it to your survivors after you are gone becomes another issue they have to deal with.

    Really no solution.
    TAPhilo
    • RE: The Problem With Digital Death, And The Future of Dying (Online)

      @TAPhilo But I still wanted to know why I should trust 1000 Memories, or any site like it. Everyone everyone knows there are massive risks, pitfalls and problems in the data storage industry. To pretend the opposite is irresponsible at the least.<br><a href="http://www.thesanfranciscomovers.com">San francisco movers</a><br><a href="http://www.thesanfranciscolocksmith.com">san francisco Locksmith</a>
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      samjenko
  • Ozymandias in the 21st Century...

    In the end, it is not the tech, but the human element, those people that we loved and help, that define our legacy. As Percy Bysshe Shelley once wrote:

    'I met a traveller from an antique land
    Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
    And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    `My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
    Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
    The lone and level sands stretch far away".'
    Matthew A. Sawtell
  • the problems with digital death ...

    Here's one ... what do you do with all the stuff on the computer the person has left behind? I've 45 gig's of photos I've taken (over 12k images) sure many are worthless but even going through them for an outsider ... time was you would have prints made, and store the really special ones... now you don't even have to do that..

    perhaps you keep a "playlist" of images ... or a collection of "this is meaningful" to me folders, and only put a copy of those special memories there?

    and for the whole of it .. how long will archive.org be around and how well indexed to be allow us to dig up some website on the corner of the internet world in only a few seconds rather than a "we'll dig for this and let you know when we've found it" page....

    Personally ... I've kept my fathers' email address alive on the off chance that any other family or friends send email to him.. not having had touch with him recently enough to know he's no longer here.. so how long do I keep that hope alive?
    TG2
  • RE: The Problem With Digital Death, And The Future of Dying (Online)

    So moving. I am crying now. I have lost two wives to death.
    charleyj98
  • RE: The Problem With Digital Death, And The Future of Dying (Online)

    Wow... great article. I'm still haunted by the occasional autoComplete that Outlook gives me and the LinkedIn connection I have w/ a co-worker that was murdered last summer. I really wish there was something I could do.
    bc3tech
    • RE: The Problem With Digital Death, And The Future of Dying (Online)

      @bc3tech I lost a co-worker last year, she was murdered as well. I contacted LinkedIn and was able to fill out a form to have her LinkedIn profile removed for her.
      JB2317
    • RE: The Problem With Digital Death, And The Future of Dying (Online)

      @bc3tech - the autocomplete in outlook is a .nk2 file located in c:\Documents and Settings\user name\Application Data\Microsoft\Outlook. If you don't mind losing all the addresses, you can simply delete it.

      I have not been able to delete my sisters e-mail address, or the last few e-mails she sent me.

      Ludo
      Ludovit
  • When I read his post the other day...

    I wondered why he said "I loved you" instead of "I love you." I mean I know he probably did it because he is no longer with her, but it felt to me that "I love you" shows that his love will somehow transcend his death.

    Regardless, his post was incredibly moving and incredibly sad.
    dforbes99
  • Interesting to see

    I had a couple people I knew from HS who died in the last couple years (and I've only been out of HS for 3 years) and their facebooks, lived on for a while (not sure if they are still up). People would write on them in memory of the person.
    Jimster480
  • RE: The Problem With Digital Death, And The Future of Dying (Online)

    When God created Adam, and later Eve, the only mention of death was by disobedience.(Gen 2:17) Had Adam not violated God's command regarding the seemingly simple act of not a eating a piece of fruit that belonged to God, but remained faithful to his Creator, Adamic death would have never existed, and hence all of his offspring would of had the opportunity to live forever on a paradise earth. Sadly, however, Adamic death is here, with many billions having died over the course of mankind's history, but Adamic death is to be permanently removed at the end of Jesus Millennium reign, so that obedient mankind will never be under it's rule anymore by means of a resurrection from the dead.(Rev 20:14) These then have the hope of living forever on the earth as "meek" ones in the "abundance of peace."(Ps 37:11, 29; Matt 5:5)
    jaareshiah