Dead Programmers Aren’t Much Fun

Two years ago my step-dad died. He was fine up until close to the end, so the family came down and he took us on a tour of his things. There was a truck, a car, some tools, and things that had sentimental value. More so than a will, this was more a tour of his physical possessions; where they were and what to do with them.

It got me to thinking. Today I’m doing something most of you older programmers out there should do as well: I’m sitting down with my oldest son to talk about where all of the family’s “digital inheritance” is.

You know, that partial app you wrote five years ago and put on GitHub, the one you still get emails about, what’s going to happen to that? Or the web site about dancing turtles you created that makes five dollars a month from AdSense. Should that stay up or be abandoned? What other choices are there? Or how about what you’re reading now? Perhaps you have a blog out there that you spent a few years tinkering with. Maybe nothing serious, but still, you spent a hell of a lot of time with it. Is it all just data to be deleted? If not, where should it go?

Who moves it? Where do they put it? Who controls the content? Who receives the income, if any? Who responds to any emails?

What happens to your email account after you die, anyway? You don’t want to shut it down immediately — there are correspondents that may only write once a year, and it might be important for somebody to respond to them when they do.

Source code on places like GitHub should probably be flagged. Something like “This person is no longer alive and the project will probably receive no updates.” So should blogs — no matter what else happens to them. People deserve to know that the person they are reading is no longer with the living. This might also be a good idea to do with professional forums, such as HackerNews. If a person has spent many years contributing to a social site, there are probably people that want to know if they’re gone. At least you’d hope so.

How about social networks? I’m starting to see family members log on to Facebook accounts and post something like “Joe died last night in his sleep. A memorial service will be held ….”

That’s nice, so somebody should be sure to do that. Then what? Leave the account active? Delete it after 90 days? If you’re a programmer it’s certainly possible you might have some pre-canned scripts to run — perhaps telling nephew Susie she should have a great birthday and life once she turns 18. Maybe you have something to detect jokes your Uncle tells and add in a “lol” in a comment. Aside from being weird, is that socially acceptable? Should relatives help you do this?

The pieces of a digital life are a lot more complicated than a physical one. When my step-dad took us for a tour, it was a very easy thing to do. If he would have died suddenly, we still could have made do by simply showing up at his house, reading his papers, and wandering around. We live in a different age. All his possessions were static. They just sat there. The things I create often interact with real, living people — without my having to be alive for them to do so. And they are all invisible. Sometimes hidden. Picking up digital pieces is nothing like sending a car off to auction. Yes, right now programmers and tech people are ones feeling the pain, but we’re always the outliers, the ones who get to these problems ahead of everybody else.

Are you going to spend money on life insurance, writing a will, and making final funeral arrangements only to leave a digital disaster to some poor family member who is both technically unable and unaware of how to handle it all?

Don’t do that.

ADD: Some folks are offering up sites that store information and/or send emails upon your death. Thanks for this, but I don’t think they’re going to work for me. Being a programmer, my stuff is complicated. I have several domain registrars I’ve used, for example. Programs can be in various languages. From time-to-time I’ve used pseudonyms. Sometimes proxies or key files are required to get to certain assets. Different source repositories were used, and so on. To simply access all of my stuff, it’s more like setting up a complex development environment from scratch. You have to write a script and then test it out. A simple email or a list might be missing key details that seemed trivial at the time but is impossible for the reader to figure out. And it’s not like anybody can ask you questions if your email doesn’t work.

Great idea, though. These various services are doing a great job for what they do. Perhaps they’ll evolve as time goes on to cover more paycheck-type items (ie, complicated and purposely difficult to access and configure) and less email or to-do-list-type items..

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3 thoughts on “Dead Programmers Aren’t Much Fun

  1. John Reeve

    One option is to look beyond programming for the solution.
    With FB, last week I sent them an email saying that my aunt had died, and so they “memorialized” the account… things could still be posted on the wall (and flagged, I assume), but the account is more or less shut down and won’t appear in friend recommendations… and I think there are some other effects.
    But this relies on someone actually doing something rather than a programmatic solution.
    Perhaps a larger solution is to have a digital “will” where you grant your projects and assets to various people, not necessarily your legal heirs, but to people who who would be able to work on the code and extend your projects.
    For public-domain works, that seems like a useful solution, but I can see how you might want your revenue creating elements to go to your relatives.
    At the same time, if these are projects that they can’t use it does them no good, whereas ostensibly your revenue creating assets and projects are revenue-positive because people in the world find them useful, which seems like a good enough motivation to simply assign those assets to the public domain when you move on…

  2. Mentifex

    One solution might be to create an artificial intelligence (AI) that knows all about you and then let that immortal AI Mind live on beyond your own earthly existence, flitting about the Internet from website host to website host.


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