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Posted: July 31, 2012

The futurist: More about managing your post-mortem rep

Building a digital legacy industry

Thomas Frey

(Editor's note: This is the second of two parts. Read Part 1.)

Virtually everyone wants to leave something behind.

Regardless of whether it’s a simple photo, a message for our great, great grandchildren, or the lessons we learned along the way, our ability to make our mark on the future is limited by our tools of preservation.

As we think through the future of information, there are three foundational pieces that will help us build this industry – finding the End of Moore’s Law, the Whole Earth Genealogy Project, and Creating a Digital Preservation Culture.

1.) The End of Moore’s Law – Before we can set standards for long-term data storage, we will need to find the ultimate small storage particle.

Based on this piece of Moore’s Law research conducted by University of Colorado’s Professor Mark Dubin, we still have 131 years before we are able to store information on an individual electron. However, that date will likely happen much quicker with some of the latest advancements in nanotechnology.

Assuming the electron is as small as we can go, something that we won’t know for certain for many years to come, we can begin to set standards around information storage. That would mean that a book digitally preserved in 2150 would still be readable with technology 500 years later, in 2650

2.) Whole Earth Genealogy Project - The genealogical industry currently exists as a million fragmented efforts happening simultaneously. While the dominant players, and, have multiple websites with hundreds of millions of genealogies, there is still a much bigger opportunity waiting to happen.

So far there is no comprehensive effort to build a database of humanity’s heritage capable of scaling to the point of including everyone on earth, posted on an all-inclusive whole-earth family tree.

As we improve our ability to capture DNA and decipher it, it may even be possible to automate this process.

The information will prove to be tremendously valuable, providing data about hereditary diseases, demographic patterns, census bureau analytics, and much more.

More importantly, it will become a new organizing system for humanity – a new taxonomy. Every person on earth will have a placeholder showing exactly where they fit. In many respects, it will be similar to the way maps helped us frame our thinking about world geography. This would be a new form of “geography” for humanity.

3.) Creating a Digital Preservation Culture – While many people are rallying around efforts to “save the trees,” “save our oceans,” and “save our endangered species,” there is virtually no effort to “save our information.”

Most of the digital and analog information from only 20 years ago is unreadable with the tools and technologies we have today. Cassettes, 8-tracks, and even 3.5” disks are all becoming museum pieces as the tech world has left them as little more than a fading memory in its own digital exhaust.

One of the prized assets of today’s Internet companies is their ability to amass huge volumes of digital information. But we have no provisions for preserving the data if the company itself goes under.

While governments around the world have worked hard to create a monetary system with central banks to step in whenever a currency is failing, we have no “central information banks” that can step in when an information company is failing.

Final Thoughts

How will future generation remember you? How will they perceive your successes and failures, your accomplishments and misguided efforts, your generosity and perseverance?

While many still view inheritance as the primary way to leave a legacy, people now have the ability to manage, and even micro-manage, the information trail they leave behind. In fact, if they choose to, they can even communicate with their own descendants, future generations who have not even been born yet.

The body of work we leave behind has become increasingly easy to preserve. So if we chose to let future generations know who we are and why we set out to achieve the things we did, we can do that with photos, videos, and online documents.

Stepping one step further into the future, generations to come will have the ability to preserve the essence of their personality and work with interactive avatars capable of speaking directly to the issues future generations will want to ask.

The digital world, even as it exists today, contains the keys to humanity, the raw essence of personhood, and in the long run, the future of our children’s children.

As all of us age, the notion of leaving a legacy becomes critically important, and furthering our abilities in this area will become increasingly important.

In fact, it is on the verge becoming a fast-growing industry that many of us will want to work in.


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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