A challenge for future historians

Future historians will have a hard time making sense of us, but unlike previous eras their problem will be the surplus of information not the lack of it. The raw material of history, the sources, will be more plentiful than ever.

Cini Foundation Library

This is partly thanks to pioneering sites like the Internet Archive which stepped in early on; at first to store the ever changing structure of the web itself before branching out into an increasingly eclectic mix of digital media: 1,329,543 television episodes, 12,124 hiphop mixtapes and a grand total of 23 playable Amstrad GX-4000 games.

Retro gamers

The historians’ problem will surely be processing and curating the immense amounts of data being generated; already by 2015 there were 300 hours of video being uploaded to YouTube every minute and the growth of social media continues at an inconceivable rate; according to one recent report:

  • Internet users have grown by 82%, or almost 1.7 billion people, since January 2012. That translates to almost 1 million new users each day, or more than 10 new users every second;

  • More than 1.3 billion people started using social media – that’s a rise of 88% in just five years, and equates to more than 8 new users every second

  • Over the past 24 months 864 million people have started using social platforms via a mobile device, at a rate of almost 14 new users every second.

Domo infographic on internet growth in 2017

And all this social data raises yet more problems for the historian; how much of what people share is public, how much to closed groups of friends, relations and confidantes? When people do share publicly does it really represent who they are in the real world? How will the historian find what really matters in the digital attic of our civilization?

Lucy MaidenMy name’s Ben and I’m the chief techie here at Bounce Works. I’m not really worried about academics in a far and distant future. But we do face many of the same problems right now. How do you fish the story of a life from the digital stream in the least intrusive way possible?

This week we’re talking digital legacy in all it’s forms. At Bounce Works we all spend a lot of time thinking about how technology might be used to construct a “helpful” legacy. A legacy which could allow a bereaved young person to improve their understanding of who their parent was; to answer inevitable questions about their parent’s personality long after their death. I’m also a Dad and I know that - if something were to happen to me - the “digital” is merely a side-show, the only legacy that really matters is the one we all want to leave our children, a deep sense of love and self-worth that will stay with them and guide them for a lifetime. I also know, from stories like Amy’s last week, that so many don’t have the good fortune of years getting to know the love of their parents.

Of course, practicalities are still important. Many of the details of our lives are online, and sites like the The Digital Legacy Association, The Digital Beyond and Dead Social are excellent resources to help you organise your own digital resources to help those you leave behind cope with your absence.

For some, the possibilities inherent in artificial intelligence suggest a different way of coping, a digital representation of the dead made possible by the automated analysis of the thousands of texts, emails, chat logs and videos many of us leave in our wake.

“Talking to someone from beyond the grave may sound creepy. But it may offer some measure of comfort to your loved ones. It’s like the high-tech equivalent of putting together a scrapbook, or writing letters for your kids to open when you pass. Plus, it’s less frightening to think of death when you know you won’t vanish wholly into the void—but remain, in a sense, in the hearts and text conversations of the people you loved the most.”

New technology is forcing us to confront the ethics of bringing people back from the dead: Quartz Magazine

It’s easy to see where this idea comes from and where it will probably end up; a growing number of individuals and companies have built chat-bot versions of the dead. And if you can realistically synthesise Barack Obama speaking surely it can only be a matter of time before someone puts together a service to Facetime the dead.

Would that actually help us come to terms with loss?

What about the danger of “not letting go”?

Will actual or real human connection be replaced by digital ‘bots’, meaning that even after death we sink further into the online unattached world?

Black Mirror - S2E01, Be Right Back

We take these issues seriously and with Apart of Me, we’ve made a game whose primary purpose is encouraging interaction back in the real world. We’re not interested in attempting to digitally resurrect anyone. But we do think there needs to be better ways for young people and families to find their way through grief by both holding onto memories - creating memory boxes and memorials using the digital photos and recordings we all make everyday of our lives - and at the same time being able to let go.

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