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Technology on Trial

Friday morning at Galleries of Justice. In the dock? Digital legacies.

Case for the defence: People like to leave their mark. We all like to think that we’ll be remembered after death, that our friends and family will want to leave messages – memories, photos, and so forth, on our Facebook profile, blog or website after we’ve gone. So far, so normal right? But where does it end?

Case for the prosecution: Death is big business, always has been. And it’s also ripe for manipulation. But are we thinking far enough into the future? Are we future proofing our work today? There are sites that offer online memorials, there are (American) graveyards with solar panelled stones that use the energy to activate a film of the deceased when you stand near it. The tendency today is to think that once something’s online, it’s permanent. Hence initiatives to get historical documents online, to discard the physical products that we once used – books, CDs, records, paper archives – for a cleaner, cloud-based experience. But the technology moves so fast that in even 5 or 10 years time, everything uploaded could be inaccessible. If you add in the energy needed to run the increasing amount of data uploaded these days, you’re suddenly left wondering – will we be the lost generation?

Deliberations: I’d gone along to this Technology on Trial because the subject matter intrigued me for two reasons. The first is not death, but birth – I’m expecting a baby and had spent some time wondering how to announce this in a way I felt was suitable. I reserve my Facebook profile for people I actually know so an announcement on there seemed unnecessary for most as I preferred to tell them face to face. But there are people on Twitter who I only know on Twitter and wanted to tell them too. Did I think it was appropriate for something so momentous to me to be announced like this on a social network? I’d got as far as thinking that I wil control the pictures of her I put online – to the extent where I’m not happy putting any up – but what about anything else? I wanted something more tangible for a birth announcement.

The second reason is that I’m a keen historian, researching a novel I’m writing that uses a part of my family history as its basic plot. As much as I’ve found the internet to be useful to my research, the things I treasure are the physical items – records, theatre playbills, letters, diaries, photos and so forth. If all my things are online what will my daughter or her children find about me and how I lived? You might think your online presence is a collection of easily discarded articles, chats about tea and music and other ephemera but a social historian in 100 years time might find it a treasure trove of information about how we live today. Or they would, if they’re able to access it.

Verdict: We really only scratched the surface on this, the discussion could have gone on for hours. I have seen nothing to suggest that organisations are thinking about this at all. Issues of online ownership and privacy are dominating headlines while our energy crisis continues. Perhaps technology will manage to accommodate us – we have to have faith in human ingenuity. But I’ll be printing pictures of my daughter off for us to keep safe somewhere, just in case…

To make up your own mind, you can hear and read supporting documents and arguments on audioboo! Here’s the intro to the event and here’s a legal perspective from Jayne Smith at Rothera Dowson. We’d love to hear what you think too – let us know.