Sometimes it’s not until years or decades after a public figure has passed away that we begin to piece together who they were in private through their letters and diaries.
Although Facebock and Twetter and Snachtap have given every person with a phone the tools to become a worldwide celebrity, I suspect that in the distant future historians may have more difficulty researching and understanding our private lives.
The reason is that as we move the majority of our thinking and correspondence online, we also tuck most of it behind a layer of encrypted security. This is unquestionably a reasonable thing to do while we’re alive. And despite what the more conspiracy-minded might think, most of these companies fight hard to protect personal data even after their members pass away. In some cases, they will release some data to families of the deceased, but this is not standardized across the industry and the process can be prohibitively difficult.
The question our dedicated future historians might pose is whether there should be any sort of expiration date on that security. It’s understandable that a person’s correspondence doesn’t feel any less private in the days and weeks after they die. After all, the recipients and subjects of those messages are probably still around.
However, privacy is a concept that exponentially decreases in importance once you no longer have a self. The people two hundred years from now will have no respect for today’s secrets, any more than we would leave a journal from 1816 unopened.
With today’s mechanisms of digital security, the challenge for historians won’t be discovery, but access. In the year 2216, the primary discipline of historians won’t be analog archeology – the practice of uncovering and analyzing physical records – but digital archeology. Otherwise known as hacking.