A few years ago, I started toying with the idea of leaving behind contingency letters in case I died an early and unexpected death. I usually like being fairly well-prepared for all kinds of data disasters, financial disasters, and natural disasters, so death seemed like a sensible thing to prepare for too. It sounded kind of shocking and morbid at the time, and I didn’t want anybody worrying I was some depressed teenager, so I didn’t tell anybody about it1. These things usually work better when nobody knows anyway. I got the idea from this animated TV show where a scientist leaves behind computer programs that activate automatically when he dies, so that he can get messages across to people and manipulate events from beyond the grave. If anybody ever tried that in real life, I doubt it would work as successfully. First of all, posthumous programs usually do drastic irreversible things, and you can’t test them like you can test innocuous programs. And even after you’ve tested component by component, there is no guarantee that the entire system will execute flawlessly when the time comes. You won’t be around to correct any program bugs, after all. I imagine that NASA felt the same way launching probes into space that would take 10 or 20 years to reach their destinations.
Writing those programs got me interested in cryptography2 and network security. Ironically, the consensus among security programmers is to never write cryptography code yourself, but to know how to identify when somebody else does it poorly. My death programs went through several revisions over the years. A while after I started working on this, I came upon the Wikipedia page for the Dead Man’s Switch3. It turns out that tons of people had the same basic idea as I did (figures), and that there were already plenty of practical uses devised. For example, dead man’s switches can be used in trucks to automatically apply the brakes when the driver falls unconscious. Julian Assange, Lisbeth Salander, and a host of other real/fictional characters have used dead man’s switches to ensure that certain things happen in case they die. There are even services online where you can sign up to have your bank details, social networking accounts, and secret hiding places passed on to somebody in case you die. They might not all be targeting teenagers, but they were certainly proof that people think about doing this all the time.
Preparing for an early demise makes you really think hard about the people and things that matter to you. I kind of foresaw that happening when I first came up with the idea, but I didn’t really feel the full effect until I got down to preparing the material. When you first start compiling names, you realize that you’ll probably have to include your parents, maybe your employers, and also people to whom you’ve left so many things unsaid. Before you start writing, you’ll need to get in the mood. I think you can reasonably expect the recipients of your posthumous emails to be somewhat sad or shocked. It would not be a good opportunity to tell a joke or speak lightheartedly, which is how I usually feel while writing these letters because the whole idea is kind of outlandish. I’m not a political activist or an important corporate person, and all the cryptography involved seems silly in comparison to how little I have to hide. Most teenagers don’t even think about the possibility of dying early. It’s also really hard to write appropriately for that kind of recipient unless you’re in a sad mood yourself. On the other side, preparing content for posthumous release can be just the catharsis you need when you’re feeling frustrated or depressed. Nothing compares to writing letters with such utter detachment to life. It puts your daily concerns and stress into perspective, as death usually does. Don’t keep thinking that way though. It will drive you crazy eventually.
Since then, I’ve stopped preparing these letters and shut down the systems that siloed them, so if I do die early, this post is probably all you’ll ever get. I think that letters (emails, really) are too impersonal and not an acceptable solution to the original problem. Instead, people should strive to live in a way that already expresses everything you could ever write in such a letter. It’s true that there’s no place like a posthumous letter to say things you’ve always wanted to say. But I think it’s a bit unfair to keep words bottled up until the recipient has no way of responding back.