Open Access LegaciesEpisode 03
Amanda Meeks: Hello and welcome to Our Digital Futures with Permanent.org. This podcast explores the ways in which we can all preserve our memories within a changing digital landscape. My name is Amanda Meeks, and I'm the Community and Partnerships Manager here at Permanent and also your podcast host. Today we're diving a little deeper into the world of digital legacies and specifically creative digital legacies with Miriam Pytell.
This is a topic of particular interest to us at Permanent, and we hope you enjoy this conversation.
Okay, so our guest today is Miriam Pytell who is an interaction and communication designer from Germany, currently based in Malmö, Sweden, with an interest in thanatosensitive design. And Miriam has explored the topic of digital legacy in different contexts from a qualitative design perspective. And I am super excited to get to know your work and get to know you a little bit better.
Miriam Pyttel: Thank you very much. I'm happy to be here.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah. So let's just start with learning a little more about you. I'm curious if there was an experience or an event in your own life that inspired you to explore digital legacy and cultural heritage, and if so, would you mind sharing a little bit about that?
Miriam Pyttel: Yeah, of course. So, I think different dots have connected back then. On the one hand, I always had an interest in storytelling, you could say, and how, and that includes especially how things have been passed on and how also maybe knowledge has been preserved through passing it on. And in my last year of my bachelor's, I happened to have worked for a funeral home, part-time sort of as a student job.
And there I encountered generally just the work that comes along with when people pass away. And, there for the first time I even heard the term digital legacy. And back then I didn't directly work a lot with it, but it was already sort of present also as part of the work and that it might be something we also need to offer the customers.
And I think that really stuck with me. And when I went to Malmö to do my master's in interaction design, we generally, the masters in the studies had a lot of opportunities to explore the topic a bit more. And it basically fit right in.
And so in two thesis, I had to write during my masters, or two research projects, at both times I explored the topic a bit more from different perspectives. And a more recent one I explored in the context of digital comments. That was like a short description of the journey that led me to really dive into the topic.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah. Working at a funeral home does not sound like a typical student job.
Miriam Pyttel: I guess not.
Amanda Meeks: I worked in a library as a student, so no, very different, but yet here we are. I think that's really interesting. And I think what was your, I'm curious what your undergrad was in, what was your degree in?
Miriam Pyttel: My undergrad was in communication design, so nothing related to funerals whatsoever, normally.
Amanda Meeks: Interesting.
Miriam Pyttel: And yeah, the job at the funeral home, it just came about a conversation with a friend where I mentioned that I didn't want to work at a restaurant because I'm very clumsy, but I needed a student job. And she sort of jokingly proposed, "Oh, I hear she can work at the funeral home."
And I just thought, "Yeah. Why not?"
Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm.
Miriam Pyttel: And so it was a sort of coincidence, you might say, but has opened a lot of new opportunities and doors and the way interests for me.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah, for sure. And you mentioned that that's where you first heard of digital legacies.
Miriam Pyttel: Yes, exactly. Because I mean, sorry.
Amanda Meeks: Oh, I was just gonna say, what was the context that you understood digital legacies at that time?
Miriam Pyttel: Back then we, I mean we had a typical sort of service for arranging funerals, but we also, a big part of the work was also people wanting to prepare for the funeral and arranging different things. And we had like contracts for that and different options we could offer.
And one part of that package was that we could or collaborated with a service that would arrange people's digital legacy, you could say, or like help them plan for it and to pass it on or whatever else should happen with it. And I think it just like kind of hit a spot with me that I was like, oh yeah, we have all this digital stuff and everyday life and there's so much and so many personal things.
And yeah, what happens to it when I die one day or I have to take care of the digital legacy of another person? Yeah, it just came in the context that it becomes, I think also more part of this traditional work with death and funerals and overall, and the expanded context.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah, I love that. And I also think, I'm guessing that this was maybe before or right around the time that like Facebook and Google and Apple and some of those platforms were developing legacy planning features, or maybe it was even before, before those features were being developed.
But I'm not sure. I think those came more recently.
Miriam Pyttel: Yeah, relatively recently. Though I worked for the funeral home, and actually started beginning of 2020 and was there for half a year. So also quite a -
Amanda Meeks: Oh, okay.
Miriam Pyttel: Interesting time to work there before everything changed with the pandemic.
And back then, it was already a thing that there were options for it. But I guess it's more a very gradual process of how services implement and promote and offer these kind of options. But I think Facebook already had its option back then.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah, they definitely did. I think they might have started memorializing I think in 2014 or 16 or something like that. But the legacy contact feature is also fairly new for these other platforms and I think there's a growing interest, which is great.
And you've specifically focused on kind of the digital cultural heritage platforms in your research and in your studies. Can you talk a little about those and share more along the lines of what you've discovered along the way?
Miriam Pyttel: Yeah, so in my research project, I focused on two design cases, you might say. One was GitHub as like, currently still the largest platform for publishing open-source software. And the other case was the Free Music Archive, so a platform for publishing openly licensed original music.
So quite different in a sense, but they also share the similarity that you could put under an umbrella term digital commons. That you just have like original or creative or whatsoever intellectual content that you make openly accessible.
And I looked at those two cases. On the one hand, GitHub already has successor functions or similar to a legacy contact. And they have also launched an archive program. So things are already happening there. While the Free Music Archive doesn't yet have an implemented an option for any thanatosensitive design choices.
Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm.
Miriam Pyttel: And I wanted to approach both cases from a very qualitative perspective. So I've led interviews with, on the one hand, musicians, but also developers.
And also with the developers, I did a round of workshops to really go in-depth with how basically the end user or like the, the creators, think about legacy in general about the work they publish as a legacy and how they would like to plan for it. And in terms of what I've found out, it's for both cases it's slightly different, but like one big learning so to say, or outcome is, thanatosensitivity is also relevant for these cases and this sort of space that is neither.
Okay, it's just a business with its own regulations. It's also not just private data and personal memorabilia.
Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm.
Miriam Pyttel: But it is something that comes from an individual but is shared with a lot of people and accessible and can be personal, but also has its purpose.
Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm.
Miriam Pyttel: And moreover, there are like five different main learnings or outcomes I would say that I have from this research project.
So the first is to actually acknowledge death, which is still often a taboo topic or it just like people don't think about it or it's just not usually present.
Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm.
Miriam Pyttel: But, let's say in the case of a GitHub, like a project, an open source project that a lot of people use or access or may be even dependent on, and maybe it depends even on a single creator, mostly. If that person was to die or even just not continue it and not be accessible anymore, that would pose a lot of problems.
A second outcome is features or providing options for planning ahead, which look different in both cases. So one for GitHub, it might be more about, okay, who's going to continue the project? Or how can everything be as accessible or even documented as possible? While for the Free Music Archive or musicians, it might more about, okay, who's going to maybe steward it and make sure that the content is still accessible, but has an eye on who uses it for which purposes, and so on.
The third outcome, which is especially relevant for GitHub, but it can also be for the Free Music Archive, is continuity.
So who, if the project should be continued, and that's like a big difference to, for example, your Facebook profile or any other personal data you might have, because normally, maybe people need to use it for purposes depending on what kind of documents or so on it is.
Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm.
Miriam Pyttel: But maybe it mostly is personal memorabilia.
Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm.
Miriam Pyttel: But these kind of creative projects, they're like in a way still alive and might outlive their creator in the sense that other people will continue them or use parts of it for their own projects and it can further branch out. And if that is supposed to happen, then it also needs to be planned ahead for or considered.
And then where the two cases mostly differed is that on case of the Free Music Archive, creators saw it way more as a personal legacy since music is also such a personal creative expression. That this idea of, okay, that's how I'm going to be remembered, or like that's me as an artist, as a person was like quite an important aspect.
Whereas when I talked to, , developers that were active on GitHub, for most of them it was less of, okay, that's my code, it's part of me, or like, can show part of my personality, but it's not as personal or it doesn't need to be my legacy. But there, and generally important factor was more, okay if I have created something that a lot of other people use or where I think, okay, this is really valuable, how do I preserve the knowledge that's embedded in it and how can I pass that on and maybe teach other people so it doesn't get lost, and I don't know, the wheel doesn't have to be invented anew every time?
So that's where both cases diverged. So that's my attempt at summarizing it. There was a lot of rich material I got out of the research project, especially the interviews and very different perspectives on everything and the workshops. But these are the main aspects I would say.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah. I love how you articulated that divergence between the two and also like acknowledging that both of them are open commons so anyone can contribute, anyone can participate, anyone can see it.
And I think that like thinking of like what you would find on GitHub code and such, like as less of a personal legacy than, you know, even what you have on Free Music Archive or your personal social media accounts, Facebook, et cetera. I think that's really interesting because I tend to think of legacy in a more holistic sense of like what will live outlive you and what does persist after you have died?
And, you know, the idea that the code on GitHub can be built upon and shared in a way that like supports the community and the nature of the platform and the growth in terms of like coding and, and what people set out to do in their life's work - their life's work being building systems and such that, that serve a purpose in society.
So I think that's a huge legacy and it might not feel personal to the coders, but it is very impactful. So yeah, I think that's really fascinating.
And as you know, we've been developing a legacy planning feature for Permanent.org and getting thanatosensitivity right can be tricky when a process is mediated by a screen versus face-to-face interactions.
What can you share about your approach to designing for this purpose and how like you factored thanatosensitivity into your work with both of these platforms?
Miriam Pyttel: As a general first step when working with this topic or researching into it or however else engaging in it, I would say it's first of all doing some groundwork of how do the participants relate to the topic as a whole.
And then, depending on the specific context, for example, in both my research projects, I haven't dealt with grief or people who are grieving which would've been another very specific group to work with and, would need to be approached a bit differently. But in my work, I have mostly engaged with, in a way considering your own or like mortality and basically planning ahead.
So the first question is always, okay, how do people consider their own mortality and also just addressing us and how do they feel about the topic and sort of laying a groundwork of, okay, are they comfortable talking about it? Are there any possible triggers? Or, also in every interview I did or a workshop, I emphasized that we can stop at any time or whatever, like you don't want to talk about it, don't.
So on the one hand, it's about not treating it as a taboo subject, but on the other hand, still being very sensitive about it. And after that step is done and it feels like, okay, everyone's comfortable with it and you can dive in, one thing I have learned is that it's good to have a mixed method approach.
So on the one hand, the interviews give a lot of insight into people's general thought process or feelings about the topic, and they're more familiar with it. But then doing like these sort of workshops where people had to in a way make small decisions of, okay, would I save this as a legacy or would I share the password to this account or otherwise having to draw out a plan or so on.
That makes a big difference because usually it's something far ahead in the future and sort of abstract and kind of blurry. And then working with activities, for example, that are very concrete and okay, if I would have to make that decision now, how would I want to make it?
Thinking if that has answered your question or if you want to -
Amanda Meeks: Yeah, I think that does answer it. I think the approach of having conversations that help to remove the stigma and the taboo kind of nature of these conversations while also leaving room for people to reckon with their own mortality, because that is challenging. I don't know.
I'm a death doula as well as my work with Permanent. I also work as a death doula. And so I see that come up with clients and people that I work with in my community around end-of-life planning.
And I always, I think, I think our approach is similar in that you have to leave space for people to understand the feelings that they're having about mortality, whether it's for themselves or someone they love. And I think that can be challenging in a digital environment.
We are working on our legacy planning feature in a way that I think supports people's ability to kind of do it in small chunks or come back to it if they need to take a break.
And I think that's kind of the best we can do from my perspective.
But I don't know if you've seen anything or, or tried anything in terms of the digital aspect of that in making room for people to kind of process what they're going through in that moment of sitting down and thinking about their mortality.
Miriam Pyttel: Hmm. I would say the digital in a way, can pretty much mimic real life so that there's like two different modes in which people might engage with it. So like legacy planning and so on.
And one is okay, sitting down and like considering it, making these decisions. And even if you would write a traditional will, I would assume you would do it like in your own home and just sit down, take some time, just think it's through, maybe talk about it with someone.
But it's sort of more this enclosed individual activity and also that you can come back to it, do it in chunks. I think what you just mentioned really mimics that in a digital space. And the other thing is when people, for example, went to the funeral home and I've saw some of the appointments, so to say, and just said," Hey, I want to make these plans. I need some support, or I want to arrange for it," I think then the sort of personal conversation and contact was quite important. But with the like video calls and so on, I think we also have the possibility to mimic that very closely.
I mean, nothing will replace these interactions and the nuances in it in real life. But still, to offer kind of both, on the one hand, this, okay, here's your own private space in which you can draft up your plan and make your decisions, come back to it, change it however much you want, and also have it kind of private, I guess. And on the other hand to offer, "Hey, if you need support with something," or personal contact and just having someone to talk it through who is also an expert and who can kind of guide someone through that process. I think those are like kind of two pillars that are the same in real life as in a digital space.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah, for sure.
Yeah. In thinking about doing my own end-of-life planning, I have taken what I think of as a very leisurely pace, and it's taken like two years to get through, you know, all of the, the will, the advanced directives, the care plans, digital legacy, all of those things.
And so in a way, this is kind of like a micro version of like the larger planning that needs to happen. And I really appreciate you bringing up the, the fact that having space to do this privately is important. And I think then, once you've kind of been able to sort through and make decisions, sharing it, having tools and ways to share it, and communicate it is also very important.
And I like what you said a few minutes ago about just the fact that you didn't work with grieving people in your process and that you really focused on people who were kind of doing this for themselves. I think that working on a project like this and having loved ones in mind who have, you know, just inherited somebody's digital legacy is also an important factor in all of this. Right?
Miriam Pyttel: And if I might add something here, I mean just inheriting someone else's digital legacy and depending on how that person has dealt with their digital materials and all their digital assets and how far they have planned ahead can be quite a messy process.
But also when it comes to creative works and creative commons, on the one hand, there is already published material, but there might also quite be quite a lot for example, unreleased music or work in progress. And the question is if people have access to that and if it might be an option to publish it at later point.
Or, specifically when it comes to software and code, if the thought process behind it or some other things of how it has been done hasn't been documented, it's also like knowledge that can't be retrieved later.
So everything in either creative expression or knowledge and so on that is in the way actually tied to the individual creator. If that isn't sort of shared or made prepared to be accessible by the creator themselves, it's sometimes nearly impossible to retrieve it once they're gone, especially if it's only internalized.
And so it also opens this very interesting relationship between also individual creators and then this community of creators and how some things, in some aspects, an individual might not might not matter as much. Sounds a bit too harsh, but like in the sense that, it is carried by multiple people and it is not always necessarily about a single person leaving a legacy and presenting themselves.
But at the same time, it is also, like there's so many contributions by all these individual people that all have their own genius, you could say. And that if that has never been expressed or saved in any form or made accessible, a lot of things are just lost, which makes also this sort of space of creators quite interesting. And like, I see a lot more opportunities to explore it more as either from a design perspective or other relating fields.
Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
That's a really good segue into my next question, which is for creative folks listening, what are some of the key considerations in leaving a digital legacy? And I think you just touched on on one of them for sure. And do you have any useful tools or books or guides or anything of that nature that we could point people to online?
Miriam Pyttel: In terms of guides, I feel like for this also specific context, I haven't personally encountered anything in my research.
Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm.
I'm asking cause neither had I, so - (laughter)
Miriam Pyttel: It was also, when I started that research project and I started looking at what is already existing, I got the impression it is not that much yet. So it is also kind of still, I guess, a Wild West situation where a lot of unknown territories are yet to be explored.
I can recommend a book by Richard Banks, The Future of Looking Back, I think it is called. It just shows different ways or like to also touch upon a bit more of that topic of legacy heritage in terms of also digital materials. And in my research on digital legacy, it has definitely been a sort of huge inspiration you could say.
So for any like listeners who are considering to dive deeper into the topic, and I would recommend that book.
Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm.
Miriam Pyttel: And in terms of tools, while GitHub has launched their own archive project, there's for example also the Software Heritage project, which is also supported by UNESCO's charter that is about digital cultural heritage and how to preserve it.
So there are already some initiatives or knowledge that, okay, people are going to die or like developers are going to die and we need to preserve like this code and the knowledge in it. And so for anyone interested in software, that is worth checking out.
Of course there's always Archive.org. And sometimes it's a useful tool just to find something that has been released a few years back and might not be available anymore, but also the potential it has in terms of heritage and cultural heritage is very huge.
But aside from that, I would just generally recommend to just consider kind of expressing things or like creating things or whatever, and maybe a planned project hasn't been started yet, just to make sketches if people wish to that at some point it is accessible to someone else to just like bring it into any sort of form.
And then just to consider access, so a, on which platform? Be it on like even just sharing passwords somewhere or like keeping the password safe or where the files are stored and how can people access it.
And then also who is supposed to access it. So that's a big question of stewardship and who do you trust to maybe take care or maintain or manage your work for a while? And yeah, if that person is okay with it, can take on that responsibility.
And then also a question of what do you not want to see happening with your work. So that also came up in the research and in the interviews that either the code but also the music, like shouldn't be misused for purposes or projects it wasn't intended for.
So, and that's a very tricky one because if it's already been published and it's openly accessible, it's hard to control it. But it's also like a question to consider how, if you would maybe want something rather to be deleted than to be misused in any form later, or not have any say in it anymore.
So yeah, there was, aside from a few concrete recommendations, more, some general aspects to consider as there's not many very specific things or tools or implementations out there. But maybe more if one so wishes to make a plan, use whatever is out there already, from any cloud storages to password managers to more about the general structure and considerations.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah, that is all very solid advice. I feel like it sounds great also, and then like setting up all of those password managers and kind of putting everything in order with the intent and knowledge that it will be in someone else's hands can be a pretty big challenge for a lot of people. And I think that we struggle with that as humans but I think the more time and energy you can dedicate to it, like the more control you can have over like what your legacy actually is, which I think ties into some of what you were just saying about like how things can and can't be used and who has access and who doesn't, and what gets deleted and what gets shared. All of those things are super important considerations.
So. Yeah. I appreciate that. Thank you.
Lastly, if you could be remembered for one thing, what would it be?
Miriam Pyttel: I would say I would like to be remembered with a smile. So of course it would be great to leave something of value behind, like as a designer or like any other kind of work that that people see, still see some value in and that might outlast me. But if I would have to really break it down, I think I would want to be remembered for what kind of person I am or that I was. So yeah, just to have touched some people's lives in a positive way. I think that's the most important thing for me.
Amanda Meeks: I love that. Thank you for sharing.
Thank you so much for a wonderful conversation, Miri, and thank you to everyone listening of course.
Miriam Pyttel: Thank you.
Amanda Meeks: Thank you so much to our wonderful listeners, our members, and of course Miriam, for being here today. Early on in our development of our own legacy planning feature for Permanent.org, which will be available in Spring 2023, we were connected to Miriam who introduced us to the idea of thanatosensitivity, which really helped inform our design choices. So we're especially delighted to get to sit down and talk with her and share a little bit more about her work.
If you or someone you know contribute some form of creative digital content, whether that's music, code, photography, film, or something else, anywhere on the internet, it's a great time to consider what aspects of that content you'd like to be preserved and start making a plan for your own legacy. Reach out to us at Permanent if you'd like help getting started.
The Permanent Legacy Foundation is a nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and provide access to the digital legacy of all people for the historical and educational benefit of future generations. Our web and mobile app, Permanent.org, is designed for personal digital archiving and allows anyone to preserve their memories and traditions safely and securely without recurring subscription fees.
We also support nonprofit organizations in their long-term preservation efforts through our storage granting program known as Byte4Byte. Anyone can create a free account and start archiving today.
Special thanks to our podcast producers at Next Day Podcasts.
See you next time.
Amanda Meeks is the Community and Partnerships Manager at the Permanent Legacy Foundation where they cultivate opportunities for members to connect, socialize and learn from each other. They love learning about other people and their stories; inspiring and empowering people to document and share their ideas, experiences, and art with the world. Amanda is also an artist, end-of-life doula, and research librarian who lives in the southwest with their beloved dog, Theodore.