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What will happen to your computer when you die?

When you're dead, you're dead. What a fantastic opportunity for people to start rifling though your life!


Have you ever thought what will happen when you die? Not to your immortal soul, I don't know anything about that. I mean your stuff - what will happen to your stuff?

Well if you are an ordinary person, your relatives will rifle through it to find out whether you had any interesting skeletons in your closet. Or any money they haven't found out about yet.

But suppose you have had a few hit records and made a real artistic contribution to society. What will happen then?

Well I was listening to BBC Radio 4 recently - trying to expand my brain on topics other than audio - when I happened to hear a program about archiving. The archiving in this case was about writers, but I see no reason to believe it wouldn't apply to musicians as well.

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In the old days, when a writer died, archivists would bundle up all of their papers and take them off to a university or museum, where they would be pored over by scholars.

But things are different now, people create on computers, not on paper. So what will happen is this...

Firstly the archivists will descend on your room, your studio - the place where you spent time creating your art. They will image it in all possible ways with their high-resolution cameras. They will image the desk where you wrote your lyrics, the chair you sat in, your equipment, your walls, the half-eaten sandwich you hadn't quite made it through when the grim reaper called, the lumps of hardened chewing gum under the table top. Everything... they will image every last speck of dust, just as it was when you passed over.

When that is done they will take out a large, semi-transparent plastic bag and put your computer in it. The whole thing, monitor, keyboard and all. And the yellow Post-It notes stuck around the screen.

Back at base they will take out the hard drive and connect it to a special one-way buffer gadget, so they can take an image of the drive without altering the data in any way (even accessing a file in the normal way changes data on the drive). This is what the police would have done if they had suspected you of any wrongdoing while you were alive. Good job you didn't do any wrong then.

Once they have imaged the drive, they will start to look it over. They can open any files they please using an emulator to run any necessary apps.

"OK" you say, from beyond, "I don't mind them looking at my art, nor even the work that was in progress when I died. I'm proud of what I achieved."

Yes, you will be proud of your achievements. But they will look at everything, even your e-mails. No, especially your e-mails. And your web history.

And don't think that because you erased everything in your dying moments that you covered your tracks. They can read erased files too. And they can read stuff you think you have securely erased.

And they won't just read it. They will hand it out to anyone with a PhD thesis to write. And because what they are doing is paid for out of public money, they have to make it available to the public as well. Your life, your digital life, the whole of your digital life, put on public display. What are you going to think about that from beyond the grave?

Still, I suspect my own computer will just be put up on eBay. And if having my computer rifled through by digital archivists is the price of musical success, well I guess I'll be willing to pay up.

By David Mellor Thursday April 28, 2011