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From Issue #8 January 17, 2013

Bit Bucket

A betrayal at the end of Bill’s life led to a second death as his digital self was scattered to the four winds.

By Mark Donohoe Twitter icon 

I lost my friend twice. Bill died in 1997 of lung cancer, and again, not long after, when his wife put a stake through his digital soul. She believed I had betrayed Bill.

And she was right.

Bits of Bill

On a sunny Saturday morning in late 1984, I was heading to Una’s Cafe at Kings Cross in Sydney in search of a mentor. There was “this guy named Bill” that everyone said I needed to meet. I spotted him when I was still 10 yards away: elegant in fedora and scarf, espresso in hand, smoke swirling from an ashtray which pinned the racing form to the table. Bill picked me out in a glance. “You that doctor? You like good coffee? Sit the fuck down and let’s see if you’re any good.” Apparently, I was, and we became instant friends.

I gave birth to Bill’s bits. His first digital breath was on my Apple Lisa. Twiggy drives, rounded rectangles, and a bunch of glorious fonts. He was transfixed. In early 1990 we dropped AUD$16,0001 on a ComputerLand counter for a pair of Mac SE/30s. It was the best computer I had ever owned. A blow-your-socks-off screamer, solid as granite. The Porsche 911 of PCs.

We went about encoding our knowledge and patient records in our super-charged electronic filing cabinets. I went down the folder/subfolder and consistent-naming-convention path. I ate outliners for breakfast, hated Microsoft, and settled on WordPerfect for writing and Odesta’s Double Helix for medical records.

Bill rejected such constraints and took a path I told him was crazy. He recorded everything in a single monstrous Microsoft Word file. Everything. Patient records, letters, quotes, ideas, and book outlines. Every item appended to the end of the document. Its index was chronological inside his head. He could find anything within a minute.

The time between Bill’s diagnosis and his death was around 50 million heartbeats. Not bad for a smoker on his last legs. He was comfortable with it. He had lived life as a force and at 60 could out-dance Michael Jackson. There were loose ends, though.

Bill guided me through his patient records system. He made me swear to work with his digital gold mine, to gather and interpret, to summarize and publish. He needed to know that his bits would transcend him. Bill’s mind peered out at me from the tiny monochrome screen.

Death and dying

For a doctor, I handle dying poorly. Death is no problem. Dying is different. That hideous relinquishing of youthful potency and brilliance; the hollowing of the face below the cheekbones; the longing in the eyes of a friend who is dying — these scare me and I retreat. I cannot bear to say goodbye.

I withdrew from Bill at the time he needed me. More than that, he needed his mental playmate to soften the pain and to escort him through his final months. I let him down. Bill worked until his final weeks, furiously banging away on his trusty Mac, backing it up occasionally, and tidying his digital chaos. He had never mastered email, so our occasional phone conversations were along the lines of, “Mark, when the fuck are you coming around?” And my reply was always, “Soon, Bill, soon.”

I believe it was a Saturday when I took the call from his wife. Bill was gone. There was no “soon” left to be had. Numbness. However, my instructions were clear. I drove across town to collect his SE/30 and box of backup floppies. I unlatched the door with the key he had entrusted to me, but something was amiss. His room was clean. Everything had been packed away. No SE/30. No printer. No floppies. An empty desk.

I later learned that Bill’s wife, angry and bitter that I had abandoned my friend and her husband, had misconstrued Bill’s intentions. Believing that he was passing on to me the hardware — the SE/30 — she had sold it before he died for a few hundred dollars, complete with the floppy disks, to persons unknown. She wanted me to feel the pain of loss at Bill’s passing, and she was right. I needed to feel that pain.

There were no offsite backups. Somewhere, there was an SE/30 and a tray of floppies awaiting execution, and it was my failure as a friend that had put them there. In Nicholas Negroponte’s view, we inhabit a world in transition from atoms to bits. From things to data. And, possibly, from information to knowledge and eventually to wisdom.

Bill’s digital self had the potential to remain immortal and youthful, a faithful persistent reflection of the life he had lived. Binary Bill could have lived forever had I been a better friend.

Moving to the cloud

We are human: mortal, flawed, fallible, sloppy, and imprecise. Prone to abandoning friends, yet loving deeply. Fighting the inevitable decline of age, and the cold embrace that eventually extinguishes us.

But our bits may cheat death, a timeless avatar of us at our very best and brightest. A life eternal, imbued in silicon. Our “fountain of youth.” In opposition, we also know that disaster, stupidity, plain bad luck, new technology, and even time itself will render our digital selves irretrievable at some point.

Some have proposed that we are in evolutionary transition from carbon to silicon, while others promote a dystopic hybrid world of silicon hardware and carbon wetware. The most radical see carbon life as roadkill on the way to a silicon future in which coders inveigle themselves in the machine, setting a trajectory of a form of immortality disincorporated as bits.

I plan to die. Hopefully not too soon, but I do plan to die. I also plan to leave a highly edited digital shadow behind, a curated version of my life that I hope will interest my children and my grandchildren after I’m gone. A photo album of my life.

Other, more personal bits will be encrypted, available to my family should they ever want to dig in and have a poke around. I think it would be a waste of time, but once I am gone, why should I care?

The rest I’m taking with me to the cloud.

Resurrection

It’s been 15 years since Bill died. A few weeks ago, this essay done, I saw yet another of Bill’s patients. As we talked she handed me a yellowed, barely readable ImageWriter LQ printout with a dozen fonts in every style except plain text. I hesitated, reached for it, and found my fingers running down the rough-burst edges as I had done decades before.

And in that moment, Bill’s ultimate backup strategy was revealed. He had launched 10,000 humans, each with a small part of his brilliance in their life story, and sometimes in hand — a transgenerational armada encoded in the hearts and narratives of those he had healed and helped.

With absolutely no restore strategy whatsoever.

Photo by Sunny Ripert. 2


  1. About USD$13,000 in 1990 exchange rates, and USD$23,000 in today’s dollars. 

  2. Used under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution-ShareAlike license. This edited version is therefore shared under the same terms. 

Mark Donohoe is an Australian Doctor whose dream was to become a computer programmer. He learned FORTRAN at school, bought an Apple ][ in 1978, and ran both his medical practice and regional newspaper on Lisa and Mac computers in the 1980s. His professional focus is on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and chemical injury, and he has a number of research publications in these fields. He still wants to be a programmer. One day.

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