Thursday, September 2, 2010

Voices from the Grave

Quite by accident while researching freeware backup solutions, I stumbled upon a web site that did not back up my systems, but instead tried to convince me to back up my “vital digital property.” Legacy Locker, which has been around since Spring 2009, sells services to protect families in the unfortunate but inevitable event(s) of “loss, death, or disability.” Basically, for a small fee of $30 per year, they will store passwords to your online accounts. (I immediately think of my super important Facebook page and the millions stored in my off–grid PayPal bank account.)

The brainchild of Jeremy Toeman, Legacy Locker begs your serious consideration as an online service filling a legitimate, contemporary need. "I have young children that can't read yet,” Toeman enthusiastically reveals. More importantly, “One day my blog will have meaning to them in the same way you find an old photo of your grandfather and wonder what the story was.” With measured testimonials from news organizations (Wall Street Journal and Yahoo! News), Legacy Locker postures for position in a market already saturated with personal e-solutions for [fill-in-the-blank].

The visuals of the Legacy Locker landing site are tidy but pedestrian, a formulaic web delivery to help the target audience feel comfortable with the untidy topic of death. The page has a carefully structured layout and calming baby blue palette. Prominently featured is a white, middle class, heteronormative family, back dropped by a pseudo-Craftsman suburban split level. (What world am I living in? Not this world!)

Legacy Locker exemplifies the kind of niche entrepreneurial opportunities modern digital culture has created for hobby archivists. Capitalizing on the momentum of personal digital archiving, these often trivial markets target consumers interested in creating a personal narrative of themselves: children and anniversaries, accomplishments, careers, memories and memorials, lots and lots of pictures, and...passwords.

At what point does archiving of digital minutiae, the minutiae of the minutiae, become a ridiculous exercise in self-absorption? MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter (and OMG, Tweet-a-Watt) are among the better known venues. The fascinating sociological cult of self is exhibited by a near frantic mania to preserve our own legacies, an eagerness to establish social relevancy via real time scripting of our story, the preemptive writing of tomorrow’s history.

Archival functions are a system of preservation. Within historiography, digital archiving of objects and documents has the broad mission of ensuring preservation of materials for access by current and future generations. Archivists, like everyone else, have particularities of standpoint—education, generation, nationality, race, gender, sexuality, politics, geography—which shape perspectives concerning appraisal and retention. These inherent biases complicate the measurement of value, those objects important enough to be documented. There is obvious and significant difference between the professional and hobby archivist, and value-of-self creates opportunities for passionate, explorative discourse.

“On the Use and Abuse of History for Life,” Nietzsche’s canonical essay, speaks to the unanswerable questions of historical ownership and relevancy: "The fact that life does need the service of history must be as clearly grasped as that an excess of history hurts it... History is necessary to the living man in three ways: In relation to his action and struggle, his conservatism and reverence, his suffering and his desire for deliverance." Nietzsche discusses at length the painful fear of irrelevancy humans impose upon themselves: "The fiercest battle is fought round the demand for greatness to be eternal... For they wish but one thing: to live at any cost". Perhaps, through archiving the self, we hope to “balance the ledger of life,” and through calculated e-conservation efforts we will successfully establish eternal personal mandate. We will have succeeded in defining our historical selves and will have attempted to preserve (our)selves for others who we hope encounter our dutiful archival efforts.

Technology is growing at an exponentially fantastic speed. The archive grows in unison. But do my loved ones really need a web service to help them cope with my LinkedIn account when I “pass?” At the risk of exposing myself as trapped in the same tar pit as my ancestors, I seriously think they do not. My survivors can find the crayon drawings from first grade in a box in the garage, clearly labeled. The legal papers are filed with the attorney, copies in the desk. Passwords? For the time being, I’ll continue to use a freeware password application. The super secret code to that is on the Post-It under the keyboard. See you on the other side. We’ll look at pictures of our grandfathers.

~ Anne Gehr


  1. People long past who saved diaries and letters did so for the same reasons of self-absorption that today's modern society may choose to save their digital lives. We value what they saved because of the window to their lives which is provided by those materials.

    Future historians will want to understand the role of technology in our lives, how we expressed ourselves in this new, very not-private way, and how we used it to communicate within our spheres of influence; as well as the details of how we commuted to work, what we thought about, and so forth.

    Also, very interesting is the public expression of grief in a culture which does not have a good ritual for dealing with death. The posts to people's online accounts on Facebook for instance, after they have died are a surprising reminder that despite the overwhelming and rapid changes in our society today which arguably push us further apart from each other, we are still human and long for our fellow humans.

  2. My ancestors go way back in this country, and as far as I can tell have been cleaning outhouses and such the whole time. There are only scraps of information to be found for most of them.

    And thank god for that. I shudder to think how much information about me and my generation will be available to my great-grandchildren. The poor bastards will have not just birth, marriage and death certificates, but blog posts, discussion board comments, Facebook updates, Tweets and a huge great load of digital shiite to dig through. "Look, a hundred years ago today great-grandpa watered his crops in Farmville!"

    It is a curse.