Life goes online after death with 'memory boxes'

By Dave Lee
BBC World Service

image captionThe Timecard machine will save a Flickr account for safe keeping for many years

The death of a close, elderly relative can often mean a sombre weekend or two going through old things, sorting through photographs, donating old clothes to charity.

But in an age when so much of our lives are online, little thought has been given to how we handle a person's digital world when they are no longer with us.

By the time the "Facebook generation" become old and grey, their whole lives may be spread out with a million updates on Twitter, thousands of photos on Flickr, hours and hours of video on YouTube and maybe their own website too.

As a person dies, should their online presence end too? What should happen to all that personal information?

Richard Banks believes he may have the solution. He is an interaction designer for Microsoft and his team, based in Cambridge, have been working on the concept of digital memories - and how, even if a person is no longer with us, their digital self can still be enjoyed.

He told BBC Radio 4's All in the Mind about how the death of his grandfather few years ago inspired him to think about the future of bereavement.

"After he passed away, I became the recipient of a suitcase full of photos of his life.

"Inside there was about 200 shots of different periods of his life, all old analogue photos, printed out, stored away in envelopes.

"It got me thinking about what the difference would be, now, with my photographic practices, and the kind of things I might leave behind for my own children."

He has created several devices that run independently from any computer or other internet device, instead acting like a traditional box of pictures and memories.

Rather than physical photos, however, the pictures in this device are displayed via an interactive touchscreen.

"If I touch one of those photos at any point, then I get taken to a timeline," explained Mr Banks.

"What appears then is a whole range of photos spread over time.

"Suddenly it's a way of thinking can we start to take advantage of the digital qualities of some of this content, so that we can start to make objects that maybe represent a person's life, or maybe give a sense of their evolution over time, or where they spent time at different points in their life."

Mr Banks hopes that his devices would mean digital memories would far outlive the technology they were created on - much like the old photographs in his grandfather's suitcase.

The cloud

This task is made easier by our increasing reliance on "the cloud" to host our information - rather than physical storage such as hard drives for floppy disks.

image captionThe boxes are designed to work independently, so do not rely on keeping certain hardware

"I think we tend to think about the physical limitations of digital things through objects like floppy discs and DVDs and CDs that we've stored our content on.

"I think actually some of those physical limitations are going to go away as we start to store more and more content online. We'll put them in places and they'll pretty much just stay there."

This, however, offers up another issue. Will there be simply too much data? If these systems save every utterance online, the suitcase of 200 precious pictures could suddenly become a vast collection of pointless data.

"I think that sense of quantity, and overwhelming numbers of content, is a tougher thing to handle," says Mr Banks.

"I think there are ways to deal with that computationally - getting a sense of when photos were taken or who might be in the photos and those kinds of things."

Secrets beyond the grave

Our online personas can offer a candid look back at a persons' life giving glimpses into personalities and friendships. But with it comes a risk of sharing too much.

Abigail Sellen is also part of the team working on the project. She says that we may, while we're still alive, have to consider what could be left behind when we pass away.

"A lot of those materials may in fact be quite sensitive or personal.

"So if you leave all of that stuff behind to somebody that you care about, is that person going to be comfortable going through all of it?"

Ms Sellen says that finding secrets left behind by a deceased relative is nothing new, but e-mail archives and other information could be misinterpreted.

"In the past we might have worried about physical love letters and coming across those when you're going through your grandfather's things and being shocked by it.

"At least in that case you know that they kept them for a reason and maybe it was important to them."

In future, it may be that as we write our wills and maybe even burn our secret letters, we may have to also spend time cleaning out our online lives, ready to be put on show to those closest to us.

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