An old German folk wisdom influenced me, wrapping my head around the topic of legacy. It is an interesting analogy to the social, material and genetic heritage which seems to be important to humans not least to archive the purpose of live:

“A man should plant a tree, build a house and conceive a son”1

By “planting a tree” one can leave something behind that will outlive his/her identity. An indirect feeling of immortality, visible for everyone can be reached. The tree is a symbol for a social impact that is bigger than a human life. “Building a house” stands for the material heritage one can leave behind to indicate success and wealth acquired during a lifetime. Finally, “conceiving a son” the genetic legacy one can bequeath in order to achieve immortality. This is, biologically, the most important goal for humans based on the plan to survive as humans in general and as an identity in particular. It allows to pass on identity, believes and personality.

With the change in society to a broader ability to read and write the folk wisdom was expanded by the phrase: “writing a book”, a representation of the intellectual heritage that can be left behind. And it made me wonder: What will be the next extension to the folk wisdom?

Once more our world has shifted. We are surrounded by a digitalized world and almost everyone has become a publisher with a strong online identity. An identity that becomes similarly important to the real life person with the only difference of data and meta data that gives a more detailed description. The question is: What is the value of this identity and how can we leave a meaningful legacy behind, with an infinite amount of data that is still hard to filter and understand. How might our heirs relate to our digital trace?

Digital vs. Physical

Although we primarily act within a digital world the values of those digital artifacts are not the same as the values of physical objects. For example, I have a small wooden sheep that I owe since a couple of years and that I take wherever I go. It is just a wooden figurine with no data or information on or in it. Basically, it can do nothing but sitting on my night table. But it has personal meaning to me and it is somewhat important in my life. I got it as a present at an artisans market in a small town. I clearly remember the old proud craftsman who sold all the hand-carved figures for a Christmas pyramid. I got the sheep as a present and proudly took it home. Still, l enjoy looking at the carved furrows he made to shape a sheep out of a piece of wood. I like to just hold it in my hands to feel the warmth of the wood. Due to the emotional information and memories that I connect with this sheep it became a keepsake. I will take care to not lose or break it and it already has a place in every future apartment.

I also have a mobile phone, it is my fourth phone and the old ones are still working. The new phone has much more functions and it can take pictures. Although the phone has a much higher market value, is much more useful and carries a lot of personal information it is still not as important as a simple sheep to me. It is replaceable and if I lose it, I would only worry about all the inconvenience that comes with setting up a new phone. I will not miss the phone itself, because a new one will have more functions.

I am interested in how the value of physical objects can support digital data.

Denial of Death

When I read “Heidegger and a Hippo Walk through those Pearl Gates” written by Thomas Cathcard and Daniel Klein2, I learned about Ernest Becker’s book “The Denial of Death”. Becker published the book in 1973 and ironically died 2 months before the book won the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction3. I was very intrigued by the idea that all humans are just driven by the fear of death. It might be a point of view that is a little too simplified but I definitely see truth in it. In the end humans are craftsman that need to “create” their own history. It is about leaving something behind that will last longer that one life.

My Intention

Aim of my master thesis is the concept and the development of a service design experience in which the user can produce and deal with digital data in regards of passing on a legacy. My intended goal is to enrich the interaction we have with our digital data and the data of others to build an emotional experience. To communicate the experience I want to illustrate the interaction between the user and the service as well as the interaction between the heirs and the service.

Purpose Statement

We live in a world where digital data has become part of our lives and in fact has become part of our identities and memories. We cannot only have “the one” identity in the real world — defined by our family, friends and the surrounding environment. We also have a second identity or better many second identities in the digital world. The identities are not influenced by face to face interactions or by our history, they are influence by the constrictions that the digital world gives us. For example if a new site asks about personal data, either in form of a picture, some history or just a name; we will give up this information. From that moment on, we start to create a new identity: We could have a fictitious name and a new idea of how we would represent ourselves. I for example have 5 identities that represent myself in the online space. These identities can range from highly professional (with LinkedIn) to only personal (Flickr) and everything in between. My identity is influenced by the boundaries of the site and by the designed interaction that I have with other people on that site. By creating those digital identities we expand our analog identity to another space — the digital space.

But not only the identities are influence by the digital world, more and more of the memories are triggered by digital data. In order to remember what we did one year ago we can look at our digital photos, our Facebook status updates and blog post. This helps not only remembering what we did, it actually provides us with exact dates, time, places and people. It became easy to find out what we were doing and what we were thinking in the past. But although the meta data is available it is not very accessible, yet.

Whole experiences can be saved in digital files and in a non tangible way. This social change does not only affect our lifetime but also influences the death and the inheritance of personal belongings. The large amount of digital data we leave behind can possibly exist for eternity and raises the question of ownership, curation and storage.

Whereas the web has followed up quickly with death related services4, a meaningful way to pass on digital memories to friends, family or the next generation has been unaddressed. Recent research shows that in the real world people use rituals, artifacts and memorials to be remembered by loved ones5 and little has been done to understand, address and translate that issue to the digital world.

With the social change towards a digitized world in mind I want to explore the relationship between people and the material and immaterial things that can be inherited. I want to investigate how we wish to be remembered by future generations and what part of the digital representation of ourselves we deem as valuable to bequeath to others.

  1. Forum Deutsche Sprache,, – []
  2. Thomas Cathcard and Daniel Klein, “Heidegger and a Hippo Walk through those Pearl Gates: Using Philosophy (and Jokes!) to Explore Life, Death, the Afterlife, and Everything in Between”, Viking Adult, 2009, 14-19 []
  3. Ernest Becker, Wikipedia, last modified on 3 April 2011, []
  4. Scott Lachut, “Digital Immortality and Death 2.0″, August 2009, psfk website, []
  5. Will Odom, Richard Harper, Abigail Sellen, Dave Kirk, and Richard Banks, “Passing on and putting to rest: Understanding bereavement in the context of interactive technologies”, Microsoft Research, Association for Computing Machinery, Inc., April 2010, 8-11, []