One of my relatives recently passed away. He was 96 years old. In his lifetime, he was born, raised and fully lived his life in the non-digital realm, meaning that he read physical newspapers, wrote notes on paper, saved letters from his spouse, wrote letters to his spouse, others, etc.

His home office I would say reminds me of the “Western Wall” in Jerusalem. Aged notes and pieces of paper wedged tightly between pages of books, between books and taped to the desk, or fax machine, or lamp. He saved everything! To an archeologist who wishes to learn about who he was, what his life was like, what he did, etc., this is a treasure trove!

Going Digital

But now we are in a very modern period. Greeting Cards no longer take up 6 aisles of your local drug store. Newspapers are cutting circulation or going out of business, and many have moved exclusively online. Local community newspapers have also gone digital. It’s inevitable. Moving into the digital realm allows us to do things easier and faster. The world is at our fingertips! Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms are the norm for where we post announcements of marriage, baptisms, graduations, photos of our pets, family and places we visited. It’s also where we talk and share things we love, discuss our beliefs, and our dislikes.

Today, we all live with our smartphones, tablets, and notebooks. From 2000 onwards, 51% of the U.S. population owned a personal computer. From 2010, that number jumped to 77%! [1, Statista] That’s a significant increase in just 10 years. From 2007, with the introduction of the iPhone, many people started owning a smartphone, and today about 77% [2, Pew Research].

So what implications do we face, now that everyone has moved so fast into the digital age?

Imagine that my relative who recently passed was born TODAY. And let’s fast-forward 96 years to when he passes. His office wouldn’t be the office I remember. It would be a room with a notebook computer that has a biometric or other type of futuristic lock on it that wouldn’t allow access to anyone but the owner.

To an archeologist, this would be like finding a puzzle, and it would be one that would be nearly impossible to open. We don’t have to fast-forward 96 years for this problem to occur. It’s already happening to us now.

Back in 2005 when I lost another relative, I was able to gain access to their computer to recover any memories, documents, photos, etc. that I could in order to preserve their memory. As a technical self-proclaimed guru, I was not able to gain access to their online social media accounts, or their online photo accounts in order to download and save what I could. What I was left with was a digital lock. There were gaps in this person’s life that were TOTALLY DIGITAL, and I was not able to get into them.

How can I allow my digital memories to be preserved after I die? Or not?

Before you can even go about accessing and downloading someone else’s digital data, you first need to have that legal right. Even though you may be next of kin or a spouse, or significant other, many digital services will not allow you to have access to anything without a legal document. Putting the necessary protections to your digital data (as long as you own them) into your will can help ensure that specified loved ones can gain access to your data after you have gone from this life.

However, you could even choose to keep your digital data private, and just let it die with you. It won’t necessarily die, as nothing in the digital realm dies, but if you have the right protections and safeguards in place to your online accounts, they will be difficult for others to access. The only way to kill off your digital services so that no one can access them after you’ve died is to have the foresight to delete them in advance or to provision it in your will that an executor or someone else should do so.

Coming back to my 96 year old relative, I’m quite happy that he didn’t have such a heavy digital life, because there’s something unique and tangible about seeing his handwriting on a piece of paper, or noticing how he wedged notes between pages of books, or the books themselves. It’s these little things that a digital life would not have shared with me, and for that I’m thankful he was “old school” 🙂

Footnotes
1. https://www.statista.com/statistics/184685/percentage-of-households-with-computer-in-the-united-states-since-1984/
2. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/09/28/internet-social-media-use-and-device-ownership-in-u-s-have-plateaued-after-years-of-growth/