Internet of the Dead: the net's collision course with death

My latest Locus magazine column is "The Internet of the Dead," which discusses the collision course the Internet is on with death. It was inspired by my work to preserve the personal data of my old friend Erik "Possum Man" Stewart, who died unexpectedly and tragically in June:

It was while I sat in Possum’s room that I began to think about his computer. It was a homemade Franken-PC that sat under his desk, its wheezy fan making a racket like an ancient refrigerator. After I’d left Possum’s house and headed back to the airport, I got to thinking about that computer. I strongly suspected that Possum would have copied over all the data of his life – all the e-mails and lists and photos and movies and programs and essays and stories and, well, *everything* – onto each new machine, keeping it all live and handy. After all, hard-drives are cheap – especially if you’re building your own tower PC with lots of full-height drive bays – and their capacity increases exponentially, year on year. It’s been a long time since it made sense to keep your archives in a shoebox full of Zip cartridges or floppy drives. If you buy a PC every couple of years, your new machine will almost certainly have more than twice the hard-drive space of your old one. Keeping your data on your live, spinning platter means that it will get saved every time you do your regular backup (assuming you perform this essential ritual!), and if the drive starts to fail, you’ll know about it right away. It’s not like dragging an old floppy out of a dusty box and praying that it hasn’t succumbed to bitrot since it was put away.

Possum never uploaded his consciousness to a computer, but he approximated such a transfer, one keystroke at a time, year after year, filling those noisy, full-height drives with all his secrets, all his creative outpourings, all his minutiae and mundane trivialities and extraordinary profundities. It’s a transfer we’re all effecting, but Possum got a head start on most of us, kicking off the project in the 1980s. That homely, rackety tower under Possum’s desk was him, in some important sense – in the same sense that my laptop holds a good deal of what it means to be me.

Cory Doctorow: The Internet of the Dead


  1. One of the most disturbing things I’ve had to do as an IT manager is close out the accounts for a co-worker and friend who had died.

    I had archive and remove all of his personal files from his PC to get it ready for his replacement.  Remove his Windows login and personal settings.  Remove his network account.  Shut down his email account and redirected his mail to a folder on someone else’s account.  Shut down his instant messaging account and several other online accounts where he had a presence.  Remove his phone extension.  Remove him from the company web page.

    It was as Mr. Doctorow says; he still had a presence in all his” secrets, creative outpourings, minutiae and mundane trivialities”, as well as a web and network presence that still considered him very much alive.

    And my job was to shut it all down.  It felt like I was performing the final stage of killing him.

    1. Nah, more like going through drawers and closets to clean out a house after its resident ceases to exist.

  2. Sorry Cory and Roger, for having to go through that.

    On an extremely tacky note, when I saw the “the net’s collision course with death” part of the headline, I thought Congress put up another SOPA-style bill for debate, or the ITU conference was in full swing a week early.

  3. This is an important subject Cory.

    The solution seems very elusive given all the aspects to address.

    People need to name someone as the person to attend to their data after they wrap up a lifetime.

    I know someone who has spent 30 years on some software, and when he dies, it would likely be thrown in the trash because he never released it, and no one is adept to rescue his life’s work and ensure his goal that it benefit mankind, except myself perhaps, knowing of it.

    I think is an ideal body to consider this issue, as well.  So much hard work stands to be lost, and that is not a good thing, neither for the deceased, nor for mankind.

    One other thing, I do not agree with shutting down people’s accounts when they die. They should simply be marked as deceased on the accounts, otherwise it’s like destroying all the sculptures of an artist after he dies. Do not destroy the work, just mark the person as deceased and forward email and other links to a relative or designated living representative.

    I intend my online work to -remain- after I have died, and anyone destroying it is disrespectful and is the problem.

    Keep going with this subject!

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