Quick, what are any of your great-grandfathers’ names? Great-grandmothers’? Will any of your great-grandchildren know yours? Do you care if they don’t? Should you? Before you answer, consider Desmond O’Conor, a wealthy former investment banker and corporate director-at-large. He lives in Sussex, in the south of England, and he can trace his ancestors back over 1,500 years. We will return to him.
Personal Legacy, Historically
Knowing about one’s ancestors and extended relations was once a kind of sacred duty. Their names were often scrawled in a family Bible, and stories of their names, stories, and exploits were passed down from one generation to the next in the form of stories told by (great-)grandparents in rocking chairs in front of fireplaces while children were made to listen.
Many cultures still place a high value on the wisdom and knowledge of elderly relatives and committing to memory one’s family history and webs of kin. Consider the Ren family in China, which can trace itself back 853 years, has identified 2,000 living relatives, and recently gathered 500 kin from seven generations for a reunion.
Not so much Americans. In the age of Ancestry.com, 23andme.com, familytree.com, and their ilk, many Americans are taking more of an interest in their family trees, but for most today, learning about genealogy and one’s family history is just another quirky, too-cute-by-half, faux-retro hobby — something to spend a few months on before moving on to needlepoint, scrapbooking, or talking to people in person.
Some among us, usually WASPy ones whose families have been in America since the earliest colonial days, maintain detailed family histories and know their relatives back to the Revolutionary War or the Mayflower. But for most of us, whose polyglot families have arrived in America in various stages since the Civil War, often looking for a clean start after fleeing war, persecution, and/or famine in our ancestral homelands, knowledge of the family history usually doesn’t stretch back past great-grandma and pa — and even their details are often sketchy at best.
We’re in large part a nation of immigrants, movers, self-reinventors, and multiple-marriers, mostly interested in the present and the near-future at the expense of the past. Most Americans have very little knowledge of their ancestors more than a couple generations back, an ignorance exacerbated as we continue to have children later in life even as some of us live longer. In times of early childbirth only fifty or more years ago when forty-five year-old grandmothers, and seventy-year-old great-grandmothers were not uncommon. For those now whose parents (and theirs) began to have children only in their mid-30s or later, grandparents have for many become a dim childhood memory, not a part of our adult lives; great-grandparents might as well be the Tudors.
Maybe that’s just as well. One might say there’s not much to be gained from knowing the name and bits of the life of some long-dead progenitor, especially where their lives were harsh and views likely problematic (to say the least) by today’s standards. But even if you share that view, or have just never gotten around to looking into the lives of your forebears, stand on the other side of the mirror: Will your great-grandchildren know your name and anything about your life? Would you want them to and why (not)?
Will your great-grandchildren know your name and anything about your life? Would you want them to and why (not)?
For many wealthy patriarchs of the past and still today, the answers to those questions of legacy are usually “yes,” “of course,” and “because I’m singular and amazing on an intergenerational scale.” If we’re being charitable, this feeling is owing only to the innate human feeling of pride (which, perhaps not coincidentally is nonetheless traditionally considered the original and most serious of the seven deadly sins); moreover, there were estates to bequeath, titles to be handed down, and portraits to be admired, all of which fostered the recording and passing down of family facts, names, and stories among the gentry. Conversely too, the great-grandsires would assuredly one day be curious to know where the trust fund came from, who bought the family compound in _______port, New England, how their last name ended up on a hospital wing, or if grandpa was a Senator or — someday — cryogenically frozen in a vault on Mars.
For the more humble among us, whether middle-class or outright poor, the question of legacy was traditionally thought of as beyond serious consideration given the more immediate concerns of survival. In addition, there was the reality of the dearth of a physical legacy for most. Until recently, those from modest backgrounds might only have a literal handful of pictures and perhaps a brooch or piece of furniture handed down from anyone beyond their parents or grandparents. Other heirlooms were usually divided among many children and lost and scattered throughout the country as they moved toward the American West. Modest homes were sold in probate and the meager proceeds divvied up and spent. Certainly for the vast majority of us, then and now, there are no ancestral homes, no compounds, no estates, no summer homes, no fur coats nor coats of arms to pass down to posterity. Even fewer among our rabbly number have some begetter’s great talent or accomplishment set down in an encyclopedia, almanac, or history book; some predecessor’s small mention in a hamlet’s little newspaper long ago, of having caught a large fish or competed in a state track meet, is gone and forgotten — lost in a fire, or buried in an unexamined shoebox under some great-aunt’s bed, the newspaper too long closed, its microfiched archives lucky to be in some state college’s library’s sub-basement. Also, it should be said, many times there’s simply not much interesting to say: Great-grandpa? He farmed, had kids, and died. Great-grandma? She cooked and died having kids. And so, after a generation or two, we were and are, all but a very few of us, utterly forgotten.
After a generation or two, we were and are, all but a very few of us, utterly forgotten.
But as with so many aspects of our culture, technology is changing that.
Personal Legacy in the Digital Age
In stark contrast too all of humanity up to now, those of us alive today will all leave behind a vast treasure trove of digital heirlooms in the form of tens of thousands of pictures, Tumblrs, YouTube videos, Instagram feeds, blog posts, Facebook jottings, text message chains, and Pinterest pages. Our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and beyond, will, like no generation before, have the ability to see and know us — intimately and in perpetuity (so long as they have our passwords).
For the first time in human history, everyone’s posterity will be able to know what we, their antecessors — us — looked like, what we sounded like, what we thought about, what our passions were, how we entertained ourselves, what our politics were, and what we ate for lunch. In sum, for the first time, from now on, our ancestors will know — if they want to — what each of our lives, and us, were really like.
From now on our ancestors will know — if they want to — what each of our lives, and us, were really like. But will they care?
But will they care? Will our descendants have the time to ever comb through our digital archives? If they have the time, will they ever choose to spend it that way? If so, for what purpose? And, importantly, would you want them to and why or why not?
There are no known or generally accepted answers yet to these questions of history and legacy. (Though, it bears asking whether, if you could, you would choose to spend much time combing through your great-great-grandmother’s diary. And, whether that answer would change if you could also access each of your parents’ diaries, and theirs, and theirs in between too.) These are questions we will all just have to answer for ourselves as our parents die, leaving closets full of old computers full of digital pictures from 2004 and Facebook thoughts and rants since 2008. We will all have to decide for ourselves what we want to do with all that digitalia handed down to us, perhaps while trying to discern what our parents would have wanted us to do with that information (if they haven’t told us, which, I’d wager, most have not). All this considering that our own lives — and America’s ongoing journey to a gig/serf economy where leisure time is a luxury good — will be marching on.
Each of us should also then also think about what we want our children to do with our virtual selves after we’re gone. Are these innumerable snapshots into every picayune and prosaic point of our person a legacy or a burden to our posterity? How should we decide what we want to hand down and what we want to just go away when we do?
Practically, do you want your children to have to look through thirty thousand digital pictures to find a few ones to print and hang on the wall? Are there some pictures that mean something to you? Do your children know which ones they are? Have you written anything you want them to read, or that you want the world to? If so, do your children or estate administrators know how to find it? Do they have your passwords?
Philosophically, would you want your grandchildren to know you thought climate change was a hoax? Will that be the future equivalent of being the eugenicist ancestor that no one talks about? Perhaps more realistically considering the audience here, would you want your children to know that instead of politically opposing in every way you could our possible slide into autocracy and global-warming catastrophe, you were Instagramming your lunch or Tweeting pithy remarks about how scary and foreboding The Handmaid’s Tale is and that we should “do something?” Or that you enthusiastically watched American Ninja Warrior? Or would prefer that after your grandkids, your personal life evaporates from any living conscience, perhaps mercifully forgotten like the existence of the slave-owning great-great-grandfather?
Digital archives or no, few of us will have descendants like Desmond O’Conor, who will know who we are fifteen centuries from now. (In fact, I’m sure I am not alone in doubting whether any of us will even have any descendants one century from now.) But, in an age when everything about us will be available to our progeny forever, we should all consider what we want our digital legacy to be, and, perhaps just as importantly, whether we want one at all.