Note: This post is written with partial assistances from ChatGPT. Furthermore, this post is explicitly released under public domain.
TL;DR version: An essay highlighting the needs to build or energize a movement to support preservation of digital heritages in both short and long terms given the worrying trends of major technology companies such as Google making decisions that imperil or jeopardize digital heritages and thus by extension history itself presently. Furthermore, the idea of building a knowledge ark on Earth or in space is explored.
Google's policy of deleting inactive accounts, and how it's a harsh and inhumane approach.
In the fast-paced digital era, where information flows ceaselessly and technological landscapes evolve at an unprecedented rate, the fragility of our digital heritage becomes increasingly apparent. Google's impending mass-deletion of inactive accounts which will occur on December 1st, 2023 immediately floats to mind. Such decision will threaten accounts and contents by users who for some reason aren't able to log on to their account for extended period of time, which in this case would be two years.
For living persons there are many reasons that will render them incapable of accessing their accounts for a long time, which include imprisonment (whether rightfully or not, since there are many people who end up on false charges all the time as cases from the Innocence Project show), medical incapacitation (i.e. coma), being a member of extended scientific expeditions which could include astronauts in deep space missions one day, living under authoritarian regimes which imposes internet blackouts from time to time, and simply wanting to take an extended break from the Internet following major traumatic incidents such as severe Internet harassment. Worse still, in Asia there are many young people who ended up trapped at fraud dens in Myanmar and Cambodia, sometimes for many years, due to job scams and ensuing human traffickings.
Google itself is also notorious for effectively locking people out of their accounts for small reasons such as signing in from new devices or not signing in for months, which happen even to people who know full well their login credentials and access to their recovery addresses. Often Google will ask for their phone number for SMS verification which many would find privacy-intrusive but in some cases they would get rejected anyways even if they followed the on-screen instructions of SMS verification and so on. This had already caused many anguish among many users who then are forced to abandon their familiar accounts to start anew.
While living persons are adversely impacted by Google's new inactivity policy which is frequently described as "harsh", accounts and contents from users who have now passed away are the biggest victims of such a policy. While some could delegate their accounts to their family members or friends to help save or maintain their legacy by either using their credentials to sign in or through the "Inactive Account Manager", there are also a lot who for reasons such as privacy and as far as "the need for finality", prefers to see their accounts being untouched. Facebook has a feature to help those users to archive or memorialize their accounts per their choices after all, which could happen as soon as any third-party submitted valid proofs that they had passed away.
A perverse incentive leads to an unexpected side effect
The logic of instituting such destructive policy against inactive user accounts have been called into question. In a CNBC feature article, many have compared Google's rationale of security in terms of inactive account deletions akin to burning down a vault and all the cash in a bank which is located in high crime areas. Furthermore, such policy will accidentally spawn niche market which offers to safeguard your accounts from inactivity on a fee basis, which is the very definition of "perverse incentive". The exact workflow of it begins when users to provide their passwords, 2FA keys, or so on to them for safekeeping before fee payment. They would have to auto-forward their security code emails to specified email addresses by the service as well. Once the payment is confirmed, the service logs on and off at their accounts in any interval, or rather make it stay logged on any given device owned by the service.
Each browser in any device can host multiple accounts indefinitely as long as the cookies aren't cleared and if it's not on incognito mode. They remain logged on even if they go from lets say a home network to that of Starbucks' unless the sign out button is pressed. To keep track of all these one must have a spreadsheet or Jira-type system to do just that. While some might be smart enough to sequester their activities in different computers for security but what if they made a slip, or their measures aren't good all along?
Lets say one of the customer is so famous that they are subjected to advanced persistent threat attacks all the time. What if the the custodian service's staffmembers opens up something that contains worms? The worms then, can spread from one to another, stealing credentials all the way or perhaps just the cookies, or maybe they could also set up rogue remote desktop sessions. The end results of these after all, is to going back to the same point as if there's no inactivity deletions in the first place. However, in a stricter sense, they are not the same point whatsoever, but a worser variant than that point because the inactivity deletions also entails the destruction of historical records which definitively causes our history to no longer appear objective and equitable to the people in the future.
The problem is, despite numerous calls and suggestions, Google, especially its services Blogger and YouTube, do not contain any features whatsoever to archive/memorialize accounts and contents from deceased users after all. The only feature resembling that is a request form in relation to such accounts which practically limits the options for the families/friends to deletion, which in all cases means the destruction of their accounts and all their contents.
Those being said, as long as Google keeps going on its deletionist-inclined trajectory in terms of contents and so on, it will not bode well in the current and long run where any digital researchers will have trouble assessing the complexities and nuances of our era and thus may end up with a distorted view of our present. Any authoritarians seeking to "rewrite history" may find exploiting such loopholes tempting. Lessons crucial in preventing the next mistakes could be wiped out or otherwise forgotten.
The case for building a movement, and suggestions on how to start from somewhere
Such developments are viewed by figures such as Cory Doctorow as the definition of "enshittification", where companies supposedly become "evil" after reaching its growth limit and subsequent stagnations. They posited that companies couldn't behave well on their own due to the corruption of power and hence hard check and balance measures such as pursing legislative routes is crucial in order to stop or even reverse enshittification.
Hence, within this context, there needs to be a new, energized movement to support preservation of legacies and heritages, just like how Greta Thunberg's school strikes re-energize the climate movements. In the short term it is crucial in order to pressure lawmakers and legislators to initiate and pass bills against so-called "Big Tech" in order for them to install thanatosensitivistic features which allows organized managements of accounts of deceased users, including archiving/memorialization. Such a bill could either exist on its own or be part of a larger framework, such as Senator Frank Pallone's American Data Privacy and Protection Act or the proposed Digital Consumer Protection Commission Act by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Lindsey Graham, the latter which entails the creation of a new oversight commission to regulate big platforms which would be immensely useful in pursuing thanatosensitivistic policies.
Thanks to ChatGPT, a starting point of such a bill for the US Congress can be as follows.
Proposed draft of Digital Legacy and Privacy Act
Section 1: Purpose
The purpose of this Act is to establish guidelines for big tech platforms regarding the management of deceased users' accounts, allowing for a user's preferences to be respected through either memorialization or deletion.
Section 2: Definitions
(a) Big Tech Platform: Any digital platform with over [X] million active users, as determined by the [relevant regulatory body].
(b) User: An individual who holds an account on a big tech platform.
(c) Deceased User: A user who has passed away.
(d) Memorialization: The act of preserving and maintaining a deceased user's account in a non-active state for memorial or remembrance purposes.
Section 3: User Preferences and Consent
(a) Upon the death of a user, big tech platforms shall implement features allowing users to express their preferences regarding the management of their accounts posthumously.
(b) Users may choose between memorialization or deletion of their accounts, and such choices should be explicitly stated in the user's account settings.
(c) Big tech platforms shall respect and enforce the posthumous preferences of users, as indicated in their account settings.
Section 4: Memorialization Guidelines
(a) In the case of memorialization, big tech platforms shall provide options for the display of a memorialized profile, ensuring it does not perpetuate harm or misinformation.
(b) Memorialized profiles shall be accessible only to confirmed connections if there are any, and access may be subject to additional privacy settings as determined by the user before their demise.
Section 5: Deletion Guidelines
(a) In the case of account deletion, big tech platforms shall establish a process for the efficient and secure deletion of a deceased user's account upon verification of their death.
(b) Deleted accounts shall be permanently removed from the platform, including all associated data, in accordance with applicable privacy laws.
Section 6: Notification and Verification
(a) Big tech platforms shall establish mechanisms for receiving and verifying reports of a user's death.
(b) Upon verification of a user's death, the platform shall promptly implement the user's posthumous preferences as indicated in their account settings.
Section 7: Enforcement
(a) The [relevant regulatory body] shall be responsible for enforcing compliance with this Act.
(b) Non-compliance may result in penalties, including fines and suspension of services.
Section 8: Implementation
This Act shall come into effect 180 days after its passage.
Although the criteria for the platforms to be subjected to such legislation is up for debate at this time, one useful proposed metrics to follow is to go by top 50 most visited websites on the Internet to include any social media or email services within, which according to this Wikipedia page as of time of writing includes Google (by extension Blogger, Gmail and YouTube), Facebook (by extension Instagram), X, Wikipedia (user accounts really are a thing, particularly for those editing the encyclopedia), Yahoo, TikTok, Microsoft Live, Reddit, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Discord, Twitch, Zoom, Quora and Fandom.
In the longer term though, bold approaches needs to be taken into consideration with the fact that more unexpected variables such as disasters that could jeopardize legacies, histories or heritages are involved in such a bigger timescale. One of the bold approaches entails the creation of a knowledge ark which is defined as a place, location or a vessel where knowledge in any forms such as physical objects and digital information are collected and preserved. In broad definitions the scope of such a knowledge ark could theoretically include anything, ranging from as small as everyday objects like furnitures and toys to larger, grandiose ones such as genetic materials, whole copy of the Internet, books and vintage objects such as arts, sculptures and vehicles.
Candidate spots for hosting such knowledge arks would need to have climate and weather conditions that doesn't accelerate rotting or decay, so tropical locations such as those along the equator will have to be ruled out while freezing areas along with dry desserts have to be prioritized. Taking account with current contexts knowledge arks should not be situated in active or potential areas of human conflict, along with areas with high incidence of natural disasters such as earthquakes, which means that locations such as Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, Europe, Hawaii, New Zealand, Chile, Peru and some if not much of Africa. That leave us with North America and Australia, and even so choices in North America are pretty limited since the West Coast are earthquake prone due to proximity to fault lines, while the Southeastern and the Eastern coasts are prone to hurricanes, and while some of the Midwest are prone to flash floods. This leave us with only the choices of Southwestern desserts such as New Mexico or maybe Nevada, and some spots in the Upper Midwest that could contain stable environments to host such an ark, in the context of thousand of years.
But what if we have to look even further, perhaps millions of years and larger? Ultimately continental drifts on the Earth will make future maps become radically different than ours, so we have to look for spots beyond the skies.
The Moon is the nearest prime location to chose from, particularly as some mini-ark missions like the Beresheet lander is already there, although not in a good way as it had crashed during landing. Unlike the Earth, there is not atmosphere nor active geological activities on the Moon which means that objects can remain stable and preserved there in the span of millions of years. However to mitigate adverse events such as meteoric impacts, underground locations should be prioritized, which the labryinth of lava tubes on the Moon would be prime choices.
Planet Mercury has pretty same conditions as the Moon, however it is not deemed ideal for two reasons, first of which is exorbitant delta-V trajectories needed to go from Earth to there, and the second is it will certainly be engulfed by the Sun when it ages into the red giant phase. To construct an ark that could last around a billion year we will have to go into the Asteroid Belt and find some asteroids whose orbits will remain practically stable for such a long timescale. Asteroids which are prime candidates exist in the form of Zhongguo asteroids where space researchers described that they are in stable orbits and resonances that could make them stable in the timescale of a billion year. Constructing knowledge arks in asteroids also offers another benefit of mobility where if something goes wrong in the Solar System such as close star encounter and the transition of the Sun into the red giant further beyond, they are small enough to be moved through powerful thrusters such as fusion engines and maybe even antimatter ones to escape the Solar System and into interstellar, and perhaps intergalactic space. On the time scale going into the trillions of years, perhaps the intergalactic space is the ideal final resting place for knowledge arks, since the expansion of the Universe would have become so great to a point which matters unbound from galaxies are practically isolated, perhaps never to be disrupted again by forces other than natural decay of nucleons and protons.
Although it is not expected that such ultra-long durable knowledge arks will remain immortal all the time, it would be far less beneficial to humankinds of current and future, and potential civilizations beyond our own if there are no serious considerations to the idea at all.
In the vast expanse of time and space, the echoes of our existence resonate through the corridors of history. We are custodians of a narrative, an intricate tapestry woven with the threads of human experience. As we stand on the precipice of the unknown, the imperative to preserve our collective history becomes not just a responsibility but a sacred duty.
The Fragility of Memory: Memory, the fragile architect of our past, is susceptible to the ravages of time. Like sand slipping through our fingers, the details of our triumphs, struggles, and innovations can be lost in the relentless march of centuries. The human story, a testament to resilience and progress, risks fading into obscurity unless we take deliberate action.
Lessons Learned and Unlearned: History is not merely a record of events; it is a repository of lessons. In the chronicles of our past, we find the footprints of triumph and tragedy, of innovation and stagnation. By preserving history, we offer future generations a compass to navigate the uncharted waters of their own time. The mistakes we've made, the victories we've celebrated—each chapter is a beacon illuminating the path toward a better, more enlightened future.
Cultural Continuity: Our history is a celebration of diversity, a kaleidoscope of cultures, languages, and traditions. In preserving history, we safeguard the essence of who we are and where we come from. A knowledge ark becomes a vessel, carrying the richness of our heritage across the vast ocean of time, ensuring that the tapestry of human culture remains vibrant and diverse.
The Knowledge Ark: A Beacon of Light: Imagine a repository of knowledge, an ark built not of wood and nails but of information encoded in indestructible mediums. This ark, sailing through the ages, becomes a beacon of light in the dark corridors of the future. It stands as a testament to our commitment to understanding, progress, and the perpetuity of the human spirit.
Facing the Heat Death of the Universe: As we ponder the far-reaching future, the concept of a knowledge ark that endures until the heat death of the universe takes on profound significance. In the face of cosmic entropy, where stars fade and energy dissipates, our knowledge ark becomes a defiance of inevitability. It is a statement that our quest for understanding, our stories, and our shared humanity transcend the cosmic boundaries that confine us.
Preserving history and building a knowledge ark is not just a gift to our descendants; it is a declaration to the cosmos that the human spirit is indomitable. It is a promise that, no matter how dark the night, the flame of knowledge will continue to illuminate the path forward. In this pursuit, we transcend the limitations of our mortality, becoming architects of eternity and champions of the timeless legacy that is the human story. Without knowledge arks, irrespective of their origins, the universe is devoid of meaning resembling a tragic absurdist boring-ish hellscape, like a barren planet without life whatsoever.
In the vast cosmic theater, where galaxies twirl and stars dance in their celestial ballet, our stories emerge as constellations of meaning. As we contemplate the inevitable embrace of the heat death of the universe, the preservation of narratives becomes not just an act of remembrance but a profound way to infuse the cosmos with enduring significance. In the grand tapestry of existence, stories are the vibrant threads that weave together the fabric of meaning. From the epic tales of heroism to the intimate narratives of ordinary lives, each story contributes to the symphony of human experience. Allowing these stories to endure until the very end of the universe transforms our cosmic journey into a magnificent dance, where every narrative, like a twinkling star, contributes to the brilliance of the night sky. Stories are bridges across time, connecting generations and civilizations in an unbroken chain of shared humanity. By allowing our stories to persist until the end of the universe, we extend our hand not just to the present but to the distant future. Our struggles, triumphs, and the very essence of what it means to be human become a timeless gift, fostering empathy and understanding across the unfathomable reaches of time.
In the face of cosmic silence, where stars extinguish and galaxies drift into cosmic isolation, our stories become the whispered echoes of a once vibrant cosmos. The preservation of narratives transforms the seemingly indifferent vastness of the universe into a canvas upon which our shared experiences are painted, infusing the cosmos with a meaning that transcends the boundaries of space and time. Preserving stories until the end of the universe is an act of transcendence. It is an acknowledgment that our individual journeys, though fleeting, contribute to a legacy that surpasses the confines of our mortal existence.
In this way, we become architects of meaning, leaving an indelible mark on the cosmic stage, ensuring that our stories resonate in the cosmic silence long after our last breath. As we gaze into the cosmic abyss, the act of preserving and telling stories until the end of the universe becomes a celebration of the enduring significance of the human experience. Our narratives, like immortal stars, twinkle across the vast reaches of time, casting a warm glow that defies the cold inevitability of cosmic entropy. In this way, we imbue the universe with a richness and meaning that extends beyond our temporal existence, turning the final chapter of the cosmos into a testament to the everlasting power of stories.