The Permanent Legacy Foundation is a non-profit organization that allows families and individuals to store and preserve their digital heritage for future generations. In this interview, executive director Robert Friedman discusses Permanent’s advantage as a non-profit and invites readers to build their legacy archives for as little as $10 per gigabyte.
Please describe Permanent’s story and mission.
My name is Robert Friedman and I’m the executive director of the Permanent Legacy Foundation. We are a nonprofit registered in the United States. Most of us are located in Austin, Texas, but we have team members and collaborators across the United States.
Permanent’s mission is to preserve the digital legacy of all people and to make it accessible for future generations. Traditionally, preservation was very expensive. If you wanted to be remembered for 1000 years, you had to build a pyramid, a temple or a castle, and inscribe your family memories and heritage on stone walls. That’s what it took for the Pharaohs and Kings of the world to be remembered all those years.
Today, not much has changed. It is the privileged, fortunate few, who are given the kind of treatment that will guarantee they are remembered. There is no doubt that the stories of the leaders and the celebrities in our society will persist. There’s so much digital material created about them in so many different places that historians in 100 or 1000 years from now will be able to learn about these people.
But for most of us, the idea that someone might know your story, even a generation or two from now, seems difficult to organize. In the last 100 years or so, families have taken great efforts to create that shoebox of photos and memories to make sure that something gets handed down from grandma to grandkids that have some family history and heritage associated with it. Even that can sometimes feel like a burden, especially for families who are in transition, displaced due to work or other economic factors.
Sometimes generations don’t realize how important their history is until it’s too late. So the idea that we could find a simpler, cheaper way to build our pyramid using digital technology is revolutionary and transformative.
Imagine that we could capture the stories of every individual and preserve them for future generations. That would dramatically change the way we understand history.
While there are many nonprofit, government, and for-profit sector efforts to preserve the digital legacy of our society and all of the human knowledge, Permanent is revolutionary because there are few public institutions committed to preserving the legacy of all individuals.
Permanent was founded by Dean Drako, a fortunate individual who wanted to make a positive change and offer something of value to the world. He is deeply invested in it and he continues to be a major supporter of our work today as a board member. We also have many other advisors and board members who contribute to this effort.
In such a competitive market, what makes Permanent unique?
We try to combine what has made museums and libraries such resilient cultural heritage entities with the power of the cloud. The most important tools that those organizations have are their governance structure and their endowment model. Some of these endowments become very large. For example, universities in the United States have multi-billion-dollar endowments that make sure that the universities persist throughout time.
There are many different archives, museums, and libraries that are doing a great job of preserving history. We deeply respect those organizations, but their scope is limited to their area of focus. Whether it’s a museum about natural history or African art, the area of focus determines the type of things they try to capture. In most cases, it doesn’t include people’s individual stories.
Story Core is a great example of a beautiful project in the United States that does focus on individuals and their stories. For example, they recorded a beautiful conversation between a father and a son. They capture the stories but they don’t necessarily empower those people to do it themselves or to preserve those stories.
On the for-profit side, you’ll find big names like Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud, and Facebook. They do an incredible job of collecting data from people, but these are for-profit companies whose bottom line and mission are to generate revenue from that data, not to preserve it. They don’t ensure that your data and your stories will be available for the next generation. The financial mechanisms they use ensure that your data is available today, but not necessarily in the future.
Free services extract financial gain through selling your data or utilizing it for commercial purposes. Others require pricy monthly subscriptions. They create high-quality products, but there’s no guarantee that your children will inherit your story or your legacy.
As a nonprofit, we don’t face the pressure to delete your data as a for-profit company might. Storing data is expensive and if that data is not generating revenue, it’s very difficult for a for-profit to construct an argument for keeping it. Investors would likely instruct their companies to delete that data so they can save some money and improve their profit share.
I’m not criticizing for-profits, but that is the reality in that space. By operating an endowment model, we put enough money in the bank to continue to pay the ongoing costs of storage and operate without the pressure to generate profit. Our governance model is highly transparent, so it is improbable that someone with a private interest could take over.
Permanent is an online web-based tool, which makes it accessible to all people who are connected to the internet. I think there’s more work to be done to connect those who are disconnected. We work with nonprofit organizations through our Byte-for-Byte program to extend storage to organizations that work with communities that have barriers to accessing the internet. We want to engage with those who have limited access as well.
How can you guarantee that what people upload to Permanent actually remains forever?
I think the name of our organization expresses an aspiration. Ultimately, depending on your personal beliefs, there is some end to all things, and true permanence is still extremely difficult to achieve. Even the pyramids will eventually crumble over time.
Most individuals save their digital memories in fragile places, and they don’t make many copies of them. If you’re keeping your data on a hard drive at home, a storm or a flood in your basement could be enough to corrupt your drive. If you don’t replace it fast enough, the technology would become outdated, or you might be a little too old to handle these things. Within 10 years, whatever you’ve collected will no longer be accessible. It’s not enough to just put the data in a safe place. You need someone to be there and care for it in 100 or 1000 years from now.
At Permanent, we put data into a digital sequence, which means it’s much cheaper to store, whether it’s born-digital or digitized. Since our price of storing digital material is very low, we can make it accessible to anyone.
But digital has its challenges. Over time, it becomes outdated, inaccessible, or corrupted. We employ a few different strategies to ensure data remains in a safe place:
- First, we are a multi-cloud solution, which means we store the data in more than one place. This multi-cloud approach is less susceptible to natural or financial disasters. If one of our cloud providers changes its terms of service and we no longer find it ethical or financially acceptable, we’re not locked into that one provider, so we can move our data to a new one without losing access.
- We do format conversions to make sure the file formats stay current. We use open-source formats that are maintained by the community so that we’re not using proprietary formats that companies can claim rights to.
- We never delete originals. Anything you upload, we always keep it as an original, we just make copies of it in different formats. We also do different checks on the data integrity to make sure it doesn’t get corrupted.
Although Permanent is private by default, our ultimate goal is for our users to publish as much of their archives as they’re comfortable doing. Making personal archives public provides greater access for researchers, academics, students, and people to make copies of that information over time so that it’s not just on Permanent, but can be in other places as well.
What can you share about Permanent’s unique business model?
Preserving materials on Permanent is not free, but over a lifetime, we have made it a lot cheaper than our for-profit competitors. We charge a one-time $10 fee per gigabyte. There is no recurring membership or subscription. Your storage endowment even persists beyond your lifetime.
These $10 fees go to our endowment account, which works as an investment account and generates revenue. We use that revenue to pay for your storage for all time, in advance.
One gigabyte can store hundreds of books, hundreds of thousands of photos, many hours of audio, or an hour of high-resolution video. Permanent accepts all file types. Whether it’s a blueprint of your home, or a recording of your grandmother, there are a lot of different materials you could upload to your Permanent archive and a lot you can do with it.
We just released mobile applications for iOS and Android. They are currently in beta, meaning that they’re in a testing stage, but they’re pretty useful already. People who are interested in testing out our newest product can do that by following the instructions on our blog.
How would you describe the creative process that users experience with Permanent?
The opportunity of preserving a legacy raises a lot of questions around what you should preserve, what needs to stay private, and what can be made public. How do you present the data in a way that your grandchildren will appreciate or understand?
I think the hardest decision for people in our community is deciding what to save. You can’t save everything, so you need to decide what your legacy is and what you want to pass on.
My advice on that is to start small. Think about moments in your life or achievements you’ve accomplished that best define who you are. It might be an academic or a professional experience, the day you got married or gave birth to your child; maybe it was a family vacation or an adventure that you went on.
Trying to do it all at once can be overwhelming, so it is a good idea to start at one point in life, begin uploading those materials, and then grow your archive over time by adding more and more details.
The other thing to keep in mind is that you’re still alive, so this is a living archive, and your best days may still be ahead of you. Taking a few minutes to organize and save your experiences into Permanent as they occur is also an important practice to adopt. It’s not just looking backward, it’s looking forward as well.
Of course, archives don’t have to be just for the living, they might be for the deceased as well.
How can Permanent users share their archives with others?
Permanent provides three different methods for inviting other people to participate in your legacy:
- Invite people to collaborate and contribute to your archive. This is a particularly nice approach for families and organizations or for remembering a loved one.
- Share your archive privately with selected family members and friends.
- Publish your archive or parts of it, to make them discoverable and searchable online.
We have controls to ensure that user data is never exposed in a way that they don’t approve. Anything that’s uploaded to Permanent is private by default. Users can either publish, share or collaborate with others, but the data is never made available freely without the user’s explicit consent.
What are Permanent’s future plans?
We are working on a feature called Directives, that will make it possible to transfer ownership of your archive to another person after your death or assign your archive for publishing 100 years into the future. This method is often used by authors and artists to seal their materials until sometime after their passing because they weren’t ready to share that part of their lives with others. This new feature will allow users to decide when to make their materials available and to whom.
We also plan to add an Open API to allow integration with third-party platforms. This way, you’ll be able to access and manage your archive on your favorite platforms while storing your data on Permanent. That increases the potential for creativity around Permanent archives because it becomes very broad. By using API, we’re able to expose archival data to trusted sources who want to build any kind of gallery, with the full consent of the users.