Throughout history, we have gone to incredible lengths to ensure someone remembers us after we die. Ancient people left handprints on cave walls. Emperors marshalled armies of slaves to build monuments. Medieval merchants commissioned paintings. All their efforts translated into three short words: I was here.
The fear of being forgotten is universal. It is expressed in different ways across cultures, but we all instinctively believe we die twice—first when our heart stops beating, then once more and finally when someone remembers us for the very last time.
It is terrifying to imagine yourself dead and gone, with no trace left behind that you even existed. Ironically, only a tiny fraction of a fraction of us have ever succeeded in being remembered.
Consider all the millions who have been born, lived and died in the Nile River Valley over the millennia. You are probably vaguely aware of only a couple, and we know almost nothing about them. No one remembers what the mighty pharaoh Ramses thought, how he spent his days, what he dreamed and what he feared. His great pyramid can only tell us that he once existed, and that is all.
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Even William Shakespeare, the most famous writer in history, left behind almost nothing. There is a church record that tells us he was baptized in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon on April 26, 1564. There are some references in tax files that tell us he was a managing partner in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, an acting troupe. And there is his will. Nothing beside remains. We can guess at the man by reading his plays and sonnets, but there is no trace of how he lived or whom he loved. Our assumptions about Shakespeare as a man say more about us than him.
But now, even the humblest among us is leaving behind massive piles of information, digital pyramids crammed to bursting with records of our days, what we ate, where we went, what we thought and what we did, and even how often we defecated.
In recent weeks, many of us have only just realized the scope and detail of our legacies. Data breaches at Facebook have sparked this sudden conversation about what is contained in our social media accounts. Some have made the effort to download this information and are staggered at the size of it—dozens of gigabytes.
One data expert discovered that his Google account contained the equivalent of three million Word documents. If he were to print those off, the resulting stack would be taller than the Empire State Building. For comparison, Shakespeare’s entire stack, including his works, is not quite as high as a can of soda.
And that is just from one social media platform. We are compiling even more data in the rest of our lives. Our credit cards, our emails, our voice mails are recording everything. It is estimated that we are now taking over three billion photos every single day. That is more than all of the visual records left by all of mankind from the beginning of our species to the 20th century.
A future historian, likely with almost no effort, may be able to track every expenditure you ever made. He could know to within a few dozen feet where you were at any moment, and who you were with. Your most intimate notes and photos will be there to examine. He could even know your heart rate right up until its final beat.
These electronic records have been scattered about like billions of grains of sand; they have been copied and backed up and shared among servers and they will likely exist in one form or another for as long as this civilization lasts, and quite possibly beyond.
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Our forebears literally tried to move mountains in order to be remembered, and yet failed. We have done nothing but pick up our smartphone out of boredom and inadvertently carve out mountain-sized monuments to our existence.
But now we are all building monuments—billions of monuments made of trillions of records, a vast and endless range that stretches far away, boundless and bare. Our own handprint saying “I was here” will never be seen among so many.
Which brings us to perhaps the great irony of our newfound digital immortality. Our predecessors were forgotten because they left so little; we will be forgotten because we left so much.