Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Interview with John Romano, author of Your Digital Afterlife

Your Digital Afterlife, When Facebook, Flickr and Twitter are Your Estate, What’s Your Legacy? By Evan Carroll and John Romano
(Berkeley, CA, New Riders, 2011)

BH:  Today we welcome John Romano, co-author with Evan Carroll, of Your Digital Afterlife. John grew up in the Free Acres section of Berkeley Heights. Welcome back, at least in a virtual way, to your hometown and thanks for visiting us, John.

JR: Thank you. It’s my pleasure to be interviewed by the library that I remember visiting as a kid. I remember sitting downstairs at the library listening and reading along to the book and cassette tape of “There Was an Old Woman” a hundred times.

BH: You grew up in Free Acres, a part of Berkeley Heights historically associated with artistic, free-thinking people. You are trained as a graphic artist. Was Free Acres an artistic inspiration to you growing up? What led you into art and design?

JR: I think the spirit of Free Acres cultivates a feeling of openness and freedom that encourages exploration. I think that gives people the courage to pursue whatever they’re passionate about. For me it was design.

When I was 12, my parents took me to Gershon Benjamin’s house for art lessons. They got me into extra art classes in high school. Going to design school and becoming a designer was what I always wanted.

BH: The idea of organizing information, preserving it, archiving it and making it easily available to the next generation is a cause dear to a librarian’s heart. How did a designer/artist as you are become interested in this field of information management?

JR: In 2001, I helped clear out my grandfather’s house after he died. Later that year my son was born, and like most new parents, I took lots of photos and videos. The difference was that all mine were digital. So I began to wonder about the long-term fate of all these new digital heirlooms.

Digital technology provides lots of benefits, but we have to consider the long-term ramifications of the shift to digital. As a user experience designer, I’ve been trained to identify and consider the user’s needs. In this case it was a long-term need that most people haven’t considered yet.

BH: You begin the book with the story of a Viet Nam vet whose letters home are preserved by his family, compared to an American soldier killed in Iraq whose family wishes to gain access to his email accounts in order to preserve his legacy. The family did finally prevail after some legal battles. That was a great cautionary tale. Who cares about digital legacies besides family?

JR: Becoming a digital society means that we have to create social and legal structures to deal with digital assets. The emotional and familial value that heirlooms like photos and videos have is the most obvious kind. Social networking accounts like Facebook provide a powerful presence of the departed and often gain a similar value to the bereaved.

But digital assets and accounts can also have logistical, financial or historical value. Families that pay their mortgage and bills online run into trouble during the transition. Online businesses need to be transferred properly. Over longer periods of time these assets may become the artifacts that historians look to when doing primary research.

BH: I was patting myself on the back so to speak for having a list of online accounts and passwords that I gave to my kids and have all that kind of information all neatly arranged in a librarianish kind of way, but as your book points out, a list of passwords alone may not be sufficient (88). You point out that the law has not caught up with the digital reality yet which means the individual has to be more proactive than just making a password list. Thanks, John! Do you think legal cases and the awareness your book and website have created are beginning to make a dent in the situation of digital legacies?

JR: I think the situation is a complex one that requires the technology companies, online service providers, the government, the legal community, and consumers to all come together. Awareness from the book and media coverage is just the first step. The hard work of creating best practices for companies and protections for bereaved is still ahead of us.

But the situation can’t go unresolved. It will become more and more necessary to deal with as Gen X and the Millennial generation, who have spent significant amounts of their lives online, approach old age.

BH: You recommend having a “digital executor” who might be separate from the traditional executor of your will, someone tech savvy and willing. You also include in your book names of online services that help people create a “digital estate plan.” (87) You talk about how various internet sites like Facebook and Google and Yahoo and so on should, and some have, begin to think about after-death policies for their members who create content or participate in their social networks so that heirs won’t have to go through what the family of the soldier mentioned in the opening chapter had to experience to gather up his digital legacy. How do you get people to think about this, besides writing a book of course - which I hope everyone either buys or checks out from the library. How can you encourage awareness of these issues?

JR: While the media coverage (and hopefully the book) is helping, it can’t solve the problem.

Change can happen from within the online services community. Awareness can be created as more companies like Facebook and Google adopt policies that address death directly. The legal profession is another way. We are currently working with lawyers to find ways to address digital assets as people prepare their legal will.

But there is a long way to go before we have legal, technical and social structures in place to adequately deal with the problem.

BH: The first step you recommend is to create an inventory of one’s online life and digital creations.(103) Right there, I can hear many netizens start to hyperventilate about how much of their lives and stuff is out their in the ‘cloud.’ Having tweeted something like that to you, you answered:
 “When considering digital assets, ask yourself, "what is most valuable or necessary?" Secure those things first.”
That’s just so calm and rational. Are you one of those hyper-organized people or do you also feel a bit overextended in cyberspace at times?

JR: Me? Hyper-organized? (laughs out loud). No, I’m just as unorganized and overextended as most people, which is why we recommend for people to start with the most valuable assets. Asking people to inventory every online account, email and computer they have is unrealistic and unnecessary.

BH: I’m starting to imagine a t.v. reality show along the lines of “Clean House” or “Hoarders,” but dealing with people who have so many online bank and email accounts and passwords, not to mention social networks, photo-storing websites, blogs, tweets, wikis etc that they never leave home and develop agoraphobia and John and Evan have to come in and troubleshoot the situation. Sort of the the Collyer brothers for the 21st century. Thoughts?

JR: Most of the assets will disappear due to benign neglect. And that’s OK, as long as they aren’t valuable or connected to financial accounts. I wonder if a better show would be to follow Digital Estate Services. These guys are digital locksmiths that help the bereaved recover data from deceased people’s computers. Imagine all the skeletons that come out when looking in digital closets.

BH: Ok, I can see it now, “Digital Locksmiths:” a show that has the detectives sifting through digital assets to solve crimes instead of those gory forensic shows.

BH: I’ve read about Death Day on your website. Can you tell us about it?

JR: Digital Death Day is a small conference of people that come together to discuss these issues. Lawyers, archivists, librarians, technologists, entrepreneurs, and user advocates come together to identify opportunities and problems and talk about how to solve these issues.

BH: I remember one of my library school professors talking about people having too much stuff, and riffing on comedian George Carlin’s routine about “stuff” which in those days was physical stuff. So the idea of coping with too much stuff has morphed into too much information online, but the challenges remain - how not to become overwhelmed and lose or misplace things. What I liked about your book is that it gives very specific advice and solutions to the problem of getting ahead of “stuff’ getting out of control. I would advise people to keep your book on hand to refer to and as a sort of workbook to go through.
What has reaction to your book been?

JR: I think the idea of “emotional economics” is a strong one. Having too many photos or videos of an event just serves to diminish the value of any one of them. Curating your digital life serves to hone your collection and makes the things you keep more valuable. It’ll serve you during your life and make the job of going through your assets easier on your heirs.

BH: What projects are you working on now?

JR: We’re working with the legal community to address digital assets as part of the traditional estate planning process.

BH: thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us, John. You have given us a lot to think about our digital assets and how to begin thinking about the future of our online selves.

Related websites:

http://www.thedigitalbeyond.com/ John's organization Web site.

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