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Posted: July 30, 2012

The futurist: Controlling your legacy

Act now to manage your post-mortem reputation

Thomas Frey

Over the 4th of July, I attended a theatrical production of the history of my hometown of Mobridge, South Dakota. The actors and actresses did a terrific job of illustrating the tough times of the early pioneers trying to forge a new life along the Missouri River in barren lands of northern South Dakota.

What I found most interesting was that this production took place in a cemetery.

They were giving us a glimpse of the legacy left behind by these brave and bold individuals against a backdrop of tombstones and gravesites.

While we know very little about those who lived 100-200 years ago, people today have the ability to leave a very detailed, well-documented legacy. In fact, they have the ability to control their reputation long after they die.

Emerging from the midst of our massive information revolution is a fascinating new industry – legacy management. And one of the critical decisions each of us will have to make is whether we want to manage our legacy virtually or have it tied to a specific location.

A Growing Number of Legacy Tools

Our ability to capture snippets of our lives and preserve them has been growing exponentially over the past few decades.

Posting documents, photos, videos, voice recordings, and other details of our lives onto the likes of Facebook, Youtube, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Google+ has never been easier. The number of “legacy-building tools” is growing quickly. But at the same time, we have no good understanding of whether these tools will still exist even 10 years in the future.

How much of what is being captured today will still be around 500 to 1,000 years from now?

In 1999 some of the top Internet properties were Lycos, Xoom, Excite, AltaVista, and GeoCities. Each of them were attracting millions of web visitors each month, competing head to head with companies like Microsoft, Yahoo, and Amazon. Today each exists in name only, resting quietly in a shadow of its former existence.

It’s difficult for us to think this far out when our technology is changing so quickly. Will companies like Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, and Twitter still be around 100 years from now? Probably not.

More importantly, if companies like this disappear, what happens to all the information they collected?

Organic growth often leads to organic abandonment. Is the speed with which they arrive a predictor of the speed with which they will leave?

In the midst of all these questions lie the makings of an entire new industry, one near and dear to our own hearts – building and preserving our own legacies.

As we look at the next generation of the Internet, watching carefully as it unfolds, we cannot help but be struck by how quickly it has infiltrated our lives and how much of our attention it currently commands.

Much like the physical structures in our cities that form along the horizons of our urban landscapes, the data structures inside today’s data giants represent some of mankind’s most remarkable feats. True, they exist only as a digital compliment to the bricks and steel of physical buildings, but they hold within them vital clues about who we are, what we find valuable, and our drives and passions for forging ahead.

How Much is Too Much?

Walking through cemeteries, I marvel at the huge investment people have made in the granite tombstones that mark each grave. People are desperate to leave some small record of their existence.

Over the coming years, funeral homes and estate planning professionals will offer a variety of services for “leaving a legacy.”

As we debate whether its better to leave a digital legacy or a physical one, many will still opt to buy cemetery plots as a permanent location to preserve our passing.

Using 3D printer technology, people in the future will be able to create a physical sculpture of themselves, life-size or larger, for not much money.

At the same time, we will be improving technology for producing digitally engraved portraits, documents, and other records in the likes of granite and marble.

Since we don’t have confidence in our ability to leave a long-term digital legacy, many will resort to leaving a physical one.

If, for example, over the next 100 years a total of 10 billion people decided to preserve their legacy, each leaving a total of 10 cubic yards of physical material, the resulting collections would take up a land area slightly smaller than the state of Ohio, and would be filled with countless immovable objects that communities would have to build around.

Is that a likely future?

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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