DNA-logoText by Anthony Thomas

Whether you’re consciously aware or not, if you have an Internet connection you’re leading two lives. Your actions in reality define your physical existence, while your digital behaviour creates this alternate identity not bound by the limitations of the physical. So for better or worse, this unfiltered culture of digital self-expression has surfaced; except perhaps if you’re a Chinese citizen. This phenomenon, of course, comes with a hefty price tag; our digital voice becomes increasingly extroverted while introversion plagues our interpersonal connections. It raises interesting questions about who we actually are but perhaps more interesting again is what happens to our digital-self when our physical body dies, is there a digital afterlife? The relevance of these questions grows daily but they remain unanswered. Cutting edge research is undoubtedly being undertaken in a lab somewhere far away, unreachable at this stage. Instead I spoke with Australian ex-pat cum architecture masters student, Jordan Lane, about his 2011 project Digital Native Archive (DNA). Designed to address these big questions, DNA is currently being given new life as a part of the current Datascape exhibition. This is forward thinking at it’s finest.

There are some huge concepts behind the DNA project that I’ve been trying to get my head around with limited success. If you were to break down to a rudimental level, what is DNA?

Totally simplified, it would be a service provided for people to look after their digital assets after they die. When you pass away your physical self will die but your digital self will keep bouncing around the Internet. It was really just asking the question, of what we do and how do we deal with that afterwards? We create so much content now that something has to be done with it and it’s a matter of legislation and companies catching up to these kind of ideas because when it all started, Facebook and Google, etc., were all kind of caught by surprise. The bulk of their users were all generally young, healthy people but now that everybody is on Facebook and has an email account there’s a crazy a amount of users who actually pass away everyday. The project ended ended up producing more questions than it gave me answers.

So it’s not about digital immortality rather preservation? What was it that first interested you  about these concepts?

Exactly. The premise of the project was to create a virtual architecture and the structure of it had to be an agency within the Australian Government. That was the first challenge, getting my head around what virtual space is and how people interact with it and then how can this fit into an existing governmental structure. It really came quite organically, looking at how we record births, deaths and marriages and then I thought there’ll be a time when we have to start reporting our digital assets. A digital native is a relatively new term that describes anyone born from the 90s onwards, where they’re born into a digital environment. Our parents generation are digital migrants.

Is describing it as a digital graveyard inaccurate?

Not totally, no. I mean that’s definitely an aspect of it but it’s more looking at how the agency would be structured and how people would interact with this. There were a few ideas that I put into. For example, the difference between a digital and human memory is that a human memory degrades. If our memories didn’t degrade we’d remain pissed off at everybody who wronged us. It’s thinking of ideas like could we integrate that into the system? Can we look at ways in which we degrade the information? You can choose to have memories degrade or totally executed. So memorialisation is definitely an aspect of it. Also it would be an amazing data-mining service. I suppose like with organ donation where you donate your body to science, you donate your data-bank to science and research. From a sociological point of view, I think it would be incredible.

Do you see it becoming a new way of documenting history?

For sure. Up until the last twenty years or so, all of our historical content has been created by the winners and those in power. So this is a way of recording history where we’re looking not juts looking at the population as an average, we’re looking at an individual as a person. I think it could provide an incredible way to document different parts of cities, families and social structures at any one time. The trick will then be finding something that we have know idea what it looks like.

Have you considered the ethical issues that come hand in hand with concepts like this?

Definitely but that would have to be taken care of with someone’s digital will. It’s the same concept as setting up your privacy settings on any social media site, where you say only my friends can see these photos, only this person can see this album. I mean, the complexity of it could get quite intense. There’s the voyeurs and those that like to be watched, who’ll obviously share everything but the system wouldn’t treat any piece of information with preference to others. It’s one of those things that even though people might not want to think about it, they have to start. We’re seeing the last generation of people who haven’t interacted in a digital sense, people look for our grandparents generation now who have never ordered online, sent email – those people are becoming fewer and fewer. It really is up to the rest of the population to start thinking about this. Nobody likes to talk about death.

I want to play devil’s advocate for a second. Could  the notion that information equals power, data equals money come into it if the wrong kinds of people got their hands on the data?

I was talking to a friend yesterday actually about if insurance companies got a hold of this data for example. Facebook tailors your newsfeed in order of your preferences. I was looking to get a caravan to travel around Australia, so that’s all I was looking at online for about a week and then a month afterwards all I got was rental services ads popping up. That was the first realisation that I had about what I’m doing online is affecting me. So what I thought for insurance companies [was that] if they got ahold of everybody’s information, they would have an amazing background catalogue leading up to somebody’s death. Could they tailor insurance plans or play with premium.? If you happened to be a successful musician with a cocaine habit, your insurance premium would go up at the age of 27 because that’s when any famous musician dies. So that could be something happens. Ethically, a lot of people with legacies could come undone with people searching through, but then again, it comes back to personal choice when you set the settings. I imagine that it wouldn’t be something the government say we all have the freedom to information, but you’ve also got privacy and freedom of speech. I don’t imagine the government would ever say, “Everybody has to leave everything online. For the good of the nation.” For one, I don’t think the government’s that careful in preserving national heritage anyway.

Do you see something like DNA ever actually existing?

There’s hints of it existing around the world but only in the private sector. Right now there are companies who can act as your digital executor. So they’ll send a series of pre-determined Tweets that you’ve set up for after you die. They can also clean up your Facebook, Gmail accounts, etc. I think for some very consistent users, these people will memorialise your account after two weeks of inactivity or if a family member provides them with a death certificate. So the private sector is definitely thinking about it. I haven’t seen anything on a government or national scale.

What do you think it will take for government’s to take these kind of ideas on board?

A few landmark cases, that’s for sure. In the States, there was this one case that really set it off – a marine was killed in service in Iraq and upon his death his father requested access to his email account, but at that stage Yahoo didn’t have a digital death policy. So the father ended up taking it through the Supreme Court and was awarded access to his son’s account. Hopefully it’s not continually cases of soldiers being killed in service; it’s going to take cases like that for it to come into the political agenda. I don’t see Tony Abbot talking about because he might not understand [laughs].

Since the completion of the original DNA project, have you continued developing the idea?

Right now I’m designing chicken houses and working on a platform for Global Health, teaming up with a few universities to tackle health issues in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s strange, this project was the least architectural in the traditional sense of the word but it’s done what it’s meant to do; its digital life has kept on living, popping up in a few exhibitions and whatnot. It’s something that I haven’t worked on since but now I think I would like to keep working on it. Obviously, it’s never going to die; it’s been something that can continue.

What sort of reactions have you had from people?

It does make a lot of people think, “Oh yeah, that’s going to happen,” but for people at our age level it’s kind of like when your parents try to talk to you about superannuation. It’s got to happen but that’s a problem for our future selves. A lot of people will either on the way of saying, “That’s something I’ve never thought about,” or, “That’s something for the future.” People are seeing more and more now that what they’re creating online and the amount of content; I mean there’s more content has been created in the last two years then the entire human history.

Was the project rewarding? It’s certainly thought provoking.

Definitely, but it was a complete mind-fuck too. After four years of education where I looked at how steel connects to timber and then suddenly I’m thinking about how memories connect to binary code and how people connect to government institutions. Thought provoking, definitely. Necessary, more and more so. And a whole lot of fun.

Published online in Moustache Magazine.