“Do all hard drives go to heaven?” paper

My final paper for the “big picture criticism” course. (I’ve had to adjust the formatting of the paper to fit in the blog format limitations) Of course, I welcome any thoughts or criticisms on the paper. It was a quick assignment, and a quick writing, but it is a subject that I am quite interested in pursuing more.

Scenario 1
I’m dead. I have left behind all my worldly possessions: autographed book collection, snowboard, laptop and external hard drives, cameras and lenses, old wooden desk, many legos, two iPods, and other items too numerous to count. I modestly took care of my possessions. I washed my hands before reading a book, kept my desk dusted and clean, and backed up my photos onto hard drives whenever I thought to do so—typically every few months. I was an amateur photographer who started shooting film and then moved to digital cameras. I have a modest collection of negatives, prints, and digital photo files. I was the stereotypical “nerd” of my family. I happily accepted this role helping install software, fix problems, and show my parents how to use the internet. No one else enjoyed it as much as me. After I died, my laptop and hard drives sat collecting dust in a closet of my parent’s house for almost a year. It wasn’t until my 16 year old nephew found it that it was again given a purpose, even though it was only to surf YouTube. With the pain and suffering that is typical of experiencing a death, it isn’t surprising that things get put in closets and soon forgotten. My family doesn’t think of technology as an extension of my being, so why would they think of exploring this facet? These circuit boards and bits of data were merely tools I used for my “job” or “projects”, not vehicles of expression. The bits of data on the hard drives that represented my life were eventually deleted to make room for first-person shooter video games. The only memories and artifacts my nephews and niece have of my life are whatever physical possessions that were saved and whatever photos of me that were taken by other people.

Scenario 2
I am dead. I have left behind all my worldly possessions: autographed book collection, snowboard, laptop, cameras and lenses, old wooden desk, many legos, two iPods, and other items too numerous to count. I took care of my possessions. I washed my hands before reading a book, kept my desk dusted and clean, and faithfully uploaded all my photos, videos, and documents into “the cloud” to make them accessible and safe. I fully embraced the digital tools available to me to preserve my valuable media artifacts. I was an amateur photographer and enjoyed tweaking my photos, uploading them to Flickr, and tagging them with rich metadata to make them searchable. I wasn’t the only in my family that embraced “the cloud”. My sister and oldest nephew enjoyed uploaded photos to Flickr too. Though, my parents were confused enough at why the “e” was missing in the name. After I died, my physical possessions were divided, discarded, sold, or saved. The digital artifacts of my life, however, lived on. Before I died, I gave my family access to my photos on Flickr, videos on Vimeo, and documents on Google Docs. My social networking profiles remain online as a memorial to my life, offering the living a place to reflect on my life. All of these digital bits that represent all extensions and facets of my life are preserved and available to my family and friends. My nephews and young niece now have all possible dimensions to remember my life. Future generations of our family have a reference to look back on, to see how I lived in the past. Memories may fade, but the preserved digital bits offer the possibility of passing precise records of my life to future generations.

What happens to your hard drives, and all your files, when you die? Do you want to be buried with them, hoping they’ll be uncovered thousands of years from now to explain the mysteries of the year 2010? Will your family look at the files? Do you think anyone will care about the files on your hard drives? Are you afraid of your family looking at all your files?

These two scenarios offer opposing outcomes for your personal digital files, which are possible today. Will your journals of personal thoughts representing years of your life be deleted to make disk space for a video game? Will your digitally captured and metatagged life be uploaded to The Cloud and made available to the world, only to get lost among the millions of other uploaded lives that die each year?

The Western World is in a transition of mediums. For example, in my relatively short lifetime of 33 years, I have witnessed the death of film-based photography and transition to digital photography, death of VHS tape and birth of DVD, transition from analog to digital television, and birth of social networking web sites. I have friends that live on Facebook and friends that feel it is just a fad, while I float somewhere in between. Our lives are moving to a digital medium, and less tangible and physical medium, whether we like it or not. How will this transition affect society after one’s life?

The effects of this transition can already be felt in society. Jayne West, an experienced photographer, argued in her dissertation that “…the use of digital photography in news reporting means we could lose a valuable pictorial record of history.” [1] Most of the time photographers covering a news story have to edit captured photos as they photograph the event because of storage limitations on the camera. This “live editing” was not possible when photographers only used film, and creates the risk subjectively removing elements of history that the photographer felt was not important at the time. This is a risk even for you, taking photos of your family at the next holiday party. Should you delete that photo of Uncle Jack sticking out his tongue because you wanted him to smile instead? Or does that “bad” photo more accurately demonstrate Uncle Jack’s silly personality that you will remember far longer after he’s passed away?

Imagine the same scenarios, but this time magnified and applied to the entire Western World.

Scenario 1…
Millions of us are dead. Our bodies are gone and all that remains are the physical items we collected when we were alive. Even though our life was rich with digital photos and writings, they are lost after we die. Entire segments of our lives are lost, never to be known by anyone ever again. The only surviving elements of our lives are those that are passed on through physical form or spoken word. Can our lives only be represented by physical objects? Future generations will have no greater insight to our lives, than we do now of our ancestors one hundred years ago.

Scenario 2…
Millions of us are now dead. Our bodies are gone and all that remains are the physical items we collected and the terabytes of data we created. Our lives are accurately represented and maintained long after we were alive. The Cloud has gotten a little unmanageable, though, with digital pollution. Most nuclear power plants only exist to power the servers of data. Common names on Facebook are suffixed by at least seven numbers, since all deceased profiles are still online. You still get a “friend suggestion” for Uncle Jack that passed away years ago.

Are the decisions faced in each scenario any clearer now that they are magnified at a larger scale? Should digital files be discarded or preserved when we die? Are digital artifacts any different than physical artifacts of our life? The answers to these questions are not clear and are not easy, which is perfectly represented by the current state of limbo we find ourselves today. I personally spend a lot of time backing up my photos onto redundant hard drives, but will that matter when I die and no one knows what to do with them?

Is the answer to just let The Cloud consume our digital media in an effort to preserve it? If Flickr, Vimeo, and Google Docs are already spending energy and storage for these services, why not treat them as long term solutions? I offer my photography habit, extrapolated over the United States census data for 2006, as a potential answer to this question.

In 12 years, I have managed to accumulate
approximately 1.5 terabytes of digital photos…

According to Slate Magazine [2] in 2006,
transmitting 1 gigabyte of data
used 9-16 kWh of energy…

If this is applied to the 2,426,264 deaths in the USA in 2006 [3],
broken down by median age of age ranges, and multiplied by 1.5 terabytes of data
for every 12 years a person was alive [3]…

And converting total kWh of energy into Carbon Footprint [4]…

78,000,000 to 140,000,000 tons of CO2
would be added each year,
to include everyone’s digital photos in The Cloud
when he or she dies.

(Average American produces 20 tons/year.
Global average is 4 tons/year) [5]

Thought Shift
There are no answers to these questions. One of these scenarios is not better than the other. A slight shift in thinking is all that is necessary to start to see the bigger impact of this seemingly trivial predicament. Our lives are no longer confined to physical bounds. Society will need to remember this as it makes this transition.

Small Steps
This shift will not happen with a single directive passed down from some governing body to force a behavior change throughout society. Death is personal, and this shift in thinking should remain personal as well. Small steps at multiple levels will need to happen before a larger movement will carry a society towards a preferred scenario.

  1. Individual
    Each person will need to take responsibility for the digital aspects of his or her life, and the future of these aspects when he or she dies. This can be done by simply keeping a “Digital Will”. This document would list the various digital possessions, how to access them (usernames and passwords), and what should happen to them when he or she dies.Consider what should happen to your Facebook profile when you die. Should it be removed to make space for future people that will bear your name, or kept as a memorial? Where are the photos on your computer that your family will find most valuable? What are the passwords to your web sites, emails, and Flickr account? Providing the password to your Flickr account, for example, can save the trouble of your family scanning your death certificate to prove they should access it.
  2. Family
    Once you die, you relinquish all control of your future to your family. The more you tell them about your “Digital Will”, the more plausible that your wishes will be fulfilled. The family’s responsibility is to attempt to execute your Digital Will, within their resources and ability.What digital and physical possessions can be preserved, that could give value to future generations? I have pieces of furniture that have been passed down for multiple generations. What digital possessions can also be passed down to future generations? The family is responsible to attempt to preserve these digital possessions. It is safe to say that hardware and software standards will change after someone dies. The same way that you would attempt to preserve a physical photographic print, attempts should be made to preserve the hard drives of data too. This could mean converting the data formats, or moving the data to more stable hardware.
  3. Community/Commerce
    To assist with this data preservation, new communities of support and services should be investigated. Can new businesses be started to assist families in removing valuable data, locating data, converting data, presenting data, or storing the data? This is a new opportunity to look past the gimmick web sites of “sending your final email” [6] and provide a valuable service that could benefit future generations and the future of mankind.



  1. “Digital photos ‘endanger the past’”. (2001). Retrieved January 6, 2010, from BBC News web site: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/1620067.stm
  2. “Green my blog”. (2009). Retrieved January 6, 2010, from Slate Magazine web site: http://www.slate.com/id/2207902/
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2006). Deaths and Mortality. Retrieved January 6, 2010, from CDC web site: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/deaths.htm (additional statistic analysis withheld from this blog post)
  4. “Simple Carbon Calculator”. (2009). Retrieved January 7, 2010, from National Energy Foundation web site: http://www.nef.org.uk/greencompany/co2calculator.htm
  5. Walser, Maggie (Lead Author); Stephen C. Nodvin (Topic Editor). 2008. “Carbon footprint.” In: Encyclopedia of Earth. Eds. Cutler J. Cleveland (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Information Coalition, National Council for Science and the Environment). [First published in the Encyclopedia of Earth April 18, 2008; Last revised August 23, 2008; Retrieved January 7, 2010]. http://www.eoearth.org/article/Carbon_footprint
  6. Last Messages Club. (2010). Retrieved January 6, 2010, http://www.lastmessagesclub.co.uk/lmc/Main/Home.asp
    • Jeanne
    • January 11th, 2010

    I never knew what an impact our digital lives can have on the environment!

  1. January 11th, 2010