Digital Undead, Content Beyond the Grave

I was recently asked, “How can we keep our website up after we’re gone to ensure our digital body of work outlives us?”

It’s an interesting thought that doesn’t have a straightforward answer, but instead requires reflection on a deeper question.

Archiving content is relatively simple, you save the HTML from your website to a server. Done.

But archiving content to live on for any extended period time after one’s demise is a bit more complex. This has to do with the ephemeral nature of the digital space. Look at the technological advancements of the last decade. In this brief period of time we see how challenging it is to predict technological change with any accuracy.

This rapid technological progress has been a problem in the archival of New Media. If you properly store a Rembrandt you can simply return to the piece years later and appreciate it as it was originally intended. The same can’t be said for electronic or digital artwork. To properly appreciate digital artwork that relies on the hardware and/or software of it’s time you must maintain the fidelity of that equipment. This is no easy task. Technology comes and goes. Bits and bytes can be easily corrupted. And artwork that requires an underlying technological service, such as over-the-air analog television signals, will no longer function once those signals cease to exist.

I don’t anticipate the obsolescence of HTML happening any time soon. But when we look at a long enough timeline it’s inevitable that the web as we know it will one day become obsolete. It’s not a question of if, but when.

Despite this concern there’s a simple way to allow your website to continue on after you’ve passed. You simply want to to setup a static backup of your site. You can purchase a long term hosting plan, place the HTML for your site on the host’s servers, and hope for it’s perpetual existence.

I say hope because the biggest hurdle in archiving your digital self isn’t the technology, it’s the human component. To have our web presences outlive us for any meaningful amount of time our digital estates need to be managed. Servers need to be paid for and maintained. The companies who own those servers need to remain in business. In short, someone needs to care enough about our digital assets to ensure that they live on.

We have the writings of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, bodies of work that were never meant to reach a broad audience, yet they’ve survived for millennia. Those who have found immense value in the work have ensured its safe passage through time.

So this brings us to the question at hand. Instead of asking what can we do to preserve our work maybe the better question is, Is what we’ve created worthy of preservation?