Digital curation: what's at stake?

We think our photos, videos, stories and documents are safe because they’re backed up. But in reality, anything digital is impermanent and won’t last. As technology moves on, ageing file formats get left behind. Anything digital degrades over time. This means our memories face an unavoidable and inevitable threat – they will fade and could be lost forever to what is known as Bit Rot.

Our solution

Whilst big tech continues to ignore the problem, we’ve developed a service that continually converts your family’s most precious digital files to the latest formats, paid for by a simple monthly subscription.

This sounds straight-forward but there are numerous technical, financial, legal and organizational ‘firsts’ we’ve needed to achieve to develop a service guaranteed to exist for millennia – a company your family can trust and rely on to take care of your digital legacy, even after you’re gone.

The technical challenge

What is ‘bit rot’? All digital files have two fundamental vulnerabilities.  The first is the gradual and inevitable deterioration of the digital ‘bits’ that constitute a digital file. The second is obsolescence – the hardware and software required to access the bits becoming increasingly difficult or impossible to obtain over time. Together these vulnerabilities are known as bit rot.

Digital information is far more easily deleted, written over, corrupted or rendered inaccessible than physical information. With physical documents, saving the printed photograph or hardback book saves all the attributes of the original that it is possible to save. Digital content files are different because they are not inextricably bound to their ‘containers’, and therefore preserving them is not simply a matter of preserving containers as it is in the analogue world. As a result, while we can read the 400 year old books printed by Gutenberg, it is often difficult to read a 15 year old computer disk.

This defines the technical challenge at the heart of digital preservation: ensuring full access and continued usability of digital content.

The financial challenge

Preserving digital content requires ongoing monitoring, reproduction, and migration of your digital photos, videos, stories and documents as files deteriorate and formats evolve over time – all of which uses storage, takes time and costs money.

Emortal pays a large part of your family’s subscription fee into a sustainable, ring-fenced Digital Legacy Fund. This fund pays for every file format update required over time, defeating bit rot and ensuring a family’s digital legacy will open and play back for generations to come.

While today’s Web has enabled huge advances in the ways we create and share our data, advances in technology are far outpacing the prevalent social norms online. In addition to the Web’s considerable incursions on privacy and security, our intellectual property is jeopardised every time we grant access to our content. Even password management can be a huge hassle.

The law has much further to evolve to address these unfortunate realities of our increasingly digital world. For example, there is currently no universal legislative definition of what a ‘digital asset’ is. In the meantime, the new role of the digital fiduciary is beginning to emerge. Fiduciaries already play a crucial part in our daily lives outside the Web. Much as a trusted doctor safeguards our health and a trusted attorney assists with our legal challenges, the digital fiduciary takes on a strong duty of care to protect and promote the data-based interests of its clients and customers.

In terms of sharing and eventually passing on your digital assets to loved ones, the digital fiduciary stands ready to ensure your interests are fully promoted.  Through its service offering, Emortal is pleased to be one of the world’s first digital fiduciaries.

Emortal takes its role as one of the world’s first digital fiduciaries very seriously. As a custodian of your precious data, it requires us to demonstrate a strong duty of care towards you and your family in everything we do. That custodial role includes taking all reasonable and prudent steps to protect your data from harm, and treating you always as an honourable account holder, rather than a mere user.

The organisational challenge

Content fidelity, privacy and security are paramount and coded into our development DNA, and this means that for some aspects of our service, these considerations are prioritised over convenience. For example, we don’t allow account holders to import content from social network accounts directly into their Emortal Safe. This is because file fidelity is often compromised – we’d prefer account holders upload original files at full resolution and with metadata intact. Importing from other social networks would also introduce a security vulnerability, and your data could be aggregated. Such decisions reflect our strong duty of care to our account holders as a digital fiduciary, prioritising their interests over convenience or growth.

Life insurance companies use managed reserve funds to make sure they can pay out against long-term risks. Universities use managed endowments to pay for their operations over hundreds of years. In the same way, Emortal will use the Emortal Digital Legacy Fund to preserve digital content across generations. Funds in the Digital Legacy Fund are fully restricted, meaning Emortal can only withdraw a small amount from the Fund each year and the money withdrawn can ONLY be used to preserve and protect any qualifying family’s digital content.

Emortal supports all open source standards for data preservation and curation, including the OAIS standard, and intends to abide by and become fully certified in all pertinent data preservation and curation standards, including but not limited to ISO16363:2013.

Preservation: how we do it

Files uploaded to Safe are queued for transcoding into the appropriate open source format. No compression takes place, meaning the quality of the original file is preserved. A copy of the file is then made, the original being sent for safe-keeping in cold storage and the copy used for viewing and sharing within the Emortal app. Both files count towards your family group subscription’s storage limit.

Where we store your content

Open source formats are critical to achieving content access over generations. Licensed software and formats present preservation problems when subscriptions lapse and old versions become unsupported. Put simply, your files won’t open when this happens.

Emortal has therefore chosen to store all digital content in Google’s Cloud because of Google’s group-wide and enduring commitment to open source.

Preservation is nothing without curation

Emortal is not a back-up for every picture, video or story we record. It is only for the memories that really matter. Our most important memories and stories are more than just linear autobiographical recordings that connect us to our past. They define us, provide a sense of self and source of coherence, comfort and meaning throughout life. Our cognitive memories are the contextual framework upon which our core values, morals, ethics and beliefs are based. The ability to pass on past experiences, life lessons and cultural heritage from one generation to the next are the foundational building blocks that our families, our communities and sustainable societies rely upon.

So what should you preserve? This is a deeply personal decision but moments of significance, content that evokes feelings of nostalgia and sentimentality, things that bring joy… these are the things we want future generations to understand and remember us by.

In our digital age, curation has become a far larger undertaking than it ever was for our fore-fathers, and one that’s easy to put off. But the cost of inaction is a family legacy that is increasingly impossible to access and stories of loved ones lost for all time. It’s simply too important to leave to chance.

Over 25,614 treasured memories saved to date