Your Unauthorized Biography

When we die, each one of us leaves behind an archive. How much control do we have over that material once we have shuffled off this mortal coil?

This week, SIFF is doing a limited run of the new documentary on the life of Kurt Cobain, Montage of HeckThis is the first “authorized” documentary, in that it was signed off on by his widow and executive-produced by his daughter. The director had access to an incredible volume of source materials: personal recordings, journals, drawings, paintings, animations, home movies, and concert footage, most of which have never been seen by the public. The man was a prolific creator, and most of his creation was just done for the heck of it.

Would Kurt have signed off on this kind of bio? Who knows what he would think as a 48-year-old man, had he lived. But we can make a fair assumption that the young man who created this archive was not thinking of it as an archive. On the other hand, he left it behind when he killed himself, so he surely knew what it would become. On the third hand, many audience members at the Seattle opening derided the director for focusing on the Courtney Love version of the narrative. Interpretation is all, when you’re not there to tell your side of the story.

My grandmother was a lifelong diarist. As an adult, she burned most of her diaries from her teens and twenties, but she kept one from 1942 — the year she turned 16. I unearthed it a couple of years ago, transcribed the whole thing, and published it on Tumblr. I did this without any discussions with my family. In my estimation, she had left this diary behind on purpose when she died in 1983. It’s a gripping love story, a historical document, and nearly everyone mentioned in it is dead. I also gave a talk about her diary that has been seen by over 1,000 people.

Grandma’s diary is every bit as (potentially) embarrassing as any teen diary, but Salon of Shame has proven that many of us can get over our shame about teen angst. If my teen diaries still existed I would definitely cringe at the thought of someone reading them, but I am far enough removed from that age and those events that it wouldn’t feel incriminating. 30 years later it’s easy to look back and laugh. But what if someone could read my last 20 years or so of email archives? Now that would feel invasive.

Most who knew her would probably agree that Kathy Acker would have balked at the publication of I’m Very Into Youan email exchange she shared with her lover Mackenzie Wark in 1995. They had met and fallen in bed with each other when she was visiting Australia, and they proceeded to have a daily exchange that was literary, philosophical, and deeply personal. Acker would certainly not have liked to reveal her vulnerability in a romantic situation to the world, but she died of cancer in the late 1990s, and Wark gave his permission for these exchanges to be published. And I read them.

Leaving behind a paper diary is one thing, but it’s these electronic archives that should make you nervous. It’s likely that Acker didn’t even know these emails were still out there, on some server outside of her control. It was the 90s, and people did not think about data privacy the way we do now.

According to science, people who like curly fries on Facebook are likely to be highly intelligent. This is not related in any way to fried potato preference, but rather to how social trends occur. Smart people are more likely to be friends with smart people, and everyone is more likely to “like”pages their friends “like.” It’s subtle correlations like this that allow data scientists to draw fairly accurate conclusions about personality, habits, income, etc. with nothing more than a collection of page likes, games, and other incidental behavior. In other words, you will be judged not so much by “hard data” you choose to post — like photos of your dog or your relationship status — but by your behavior. Clicks, likes, and searches tell a story.

The potential for discrimination based on data science (however inaccurate) is real. Employers, insurers, and financial institutions could look for traits that indicate financial or health risk and use that against you. Are you likely depressive? Prone to sick days? A frivolous spender? Facebook probably knows, or at least thinks it can figure you out.

Personally, I refuse to become paranoid about it. Unless or until I become a criminal or we enter some kind of Orwellian neo-mccarthyist police state, I say let them have my data. The worst “they” have done so far is show me poorly targeted ads… which has been happening to me since long before the internet. Google can have all of my email forever, and if someday someone reads it… whatever. Go for it, NSA. My data is not all that interesting to anyone but myself.

I was on a panel with the author of Fake It! and he offers some useful techniques for anonymizing your data, but it’s hard to do without cutting yourself off from services like Facebook and Google. I am pro-privacy laws as a general rule, but they don’t help us much if the services we want to use have to store our data in order to function. The keys for me are access, ownership, and security. I just requested an archive of my Google search data (and you can too), mostly to see if I can find any interesting patterns. If you can use your own data, you have some control. But only while you’re still alive.

The great thing about dead people is that they seldom complain or file law suits, which is why we get to enjoy works like Montage of Heck and I’m Very Into You. If I ever become interesting, I don’t have a problem with potential after-death publications of emails, diaries, or whatever. I’ll be dead, and my interest in maintaining some kind of facade is already close to nil. I am me, and trying to disguise that fact from the internet or the universe seems pointless, especially since “they” are going to draw conclusions based on whether I like curly fries*, no matter what I do.


*I like curly fries, but I don’t “like” curly fries, which I think makes me smarter than people who “like” Facebook pages for things like french fries and naps. Or not. Who knows?