Although this is a post about digital death, it is not meant to be morose or anything. I just occasionally think of this problem, and while discussing it privately with Jim Groom (co-founder of Reclaim Hosting) recently, I thought it might be worth asking other academics what they are thinking of doing about this. My two questions are:
- What happens to a person’s website on their own domain when they die? (currently – it basically dies)
- What happens to a person’s digital purchases (Kindle, Audible, iTunes, etc) when they die? (currently, they go back to Amazon/Apple)
The first question might seem an arrogant one to ask – how important is my blog anyway? But I also think about a lot of other academics whose blogs I value, and whose blogs I occasionally cite in peer-reviewed articles of mine. If their blog or website is on, say, wordpress.com, their website will live on as long as wordpress.com exists; if they write in a journal/magazine, their content will probably outlive them; however, if it is on their own domain, this means their website/blog will only live as long as they keep renewing the hosting and domain name. This could end within their lifetime (e.g. not being able to use a credit card for some reason), but will almost definitely happen after they die. At the moment, this is something some of us are thinking about, but I have not yet heard a solution to it. What could one do? Leave a small fund for our heirs to pay to renew the hosting? Pay someone like Reclaim Hosting in advance for a few years? Convert our website into a PDF and pay to host it somewhere safe? Like maybe our university’s repository (if they value our blogging as much as our peer-reviewed writing)? What about non-academics? And no, the Way Back Machine is not really a full solution to this problem, because, as I understand it, it saves webpages not entire websites.
The second question is probably one that more people should be concerned about. I have books that my grandfather had left my father. My child currently reads books that were mine as a child. What happens to all my Kindle books after I’m gone? I pay so much money for Kindle books, and yet the only obvious way to pass those on to someone else is to either give them my phone/iPad (already logged onto Kindle and has access to the cloud) or give them my Amazon.com password – but those don’t seem like good solutions – hardware has a limited lifespan, and the password solution? Imagine accumulating all those passwords from generations of relatives. And what about if I wanted to give my academic books to a colleague and the children’s books to my child? I’m also thinking about my iTunes library. I lived through the time of seeing my parents’ vinyl records (useless by the time I was born), audio and video cassettes (nearly useless by the time I finished college) and CDs/DVDs (still in use, but much less so than downloadable purchases). I recognize that media and hardware change constantly and that even if we pass music/video onto future generations, formats may become obsolete. The paper on physical books becomes yellow and fragile but you can take care of books and we know they can last. Cassettes or such can be digitized. But DRM material? At the moment, there is no easy legal way to pass this stuff on. These are apparently questions others have asked – I found a Wikipedia page on digital inheritance, with references you may want to check out. It seems like a waste of money to buy a Kindle book if no one will be able to read it other than me (side note: lending is allowed for some books; maybe inheritance can be managed the same way).
What is ironic in all of this, is that what does remain after you die are your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn profiles. Because… yeah… those spaces representing your identity actually belong to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, rather than you.