The spectacles of life, sex and death are the mainstay of Dennis
Cooper’s blog, DC’s Blog. I never know what to expect when I read it, but I
always know I will be provoked, challenged and intrigued. Over the years, Mr.
Cooper, an artist and writer, has curated any number of collections of ideas and
images, revealing an inexhaustible curiosity about art and the human condition.
He has unfailingly championed small-press writers, and particularly those who
experiment with language, narrative and form.
I am especially drawn to Mr. Cooper’s posts on sex, death and violence — the
things we do with and to human bodies. Often times, the work he shares is
grotesque but impossible to ignore. Twice a month, he posts personal ads from
international male escorts, young men detailing what they like to do sexually,
what they will allow to be done to them, a display that is hypnotic and
Then there are the collections of interesting things — demolished mansions,
revolving restaurants, ruined flesh, miniature golf courses, fireworks displays,
dioramas, amusement park rides. It’s never just a handful of images — it’s 40,
50, more. The sheer quantity becomes thrilling. Mr. Cooper’s blog also hosts one
of the best comment sections on the internet, with a real community of people
who engage one another and the art, with none of the blunt ignorance found in
most comment sections.
Or, I should be speaking in the past tense. On June 27, Mr. Cooper’s Google
account was deactivated, he has said. He lost 14 years of his blog archives,
creative work, email and contacts. He has hired a lawyer and made complaints,
and many of his readers and fans have tried to support his efforts. There is a
petition circulating, urging Google to restore his work. Pen America, an
organization that promotes free expression, has weighed in, saying that Mr.
Cooper deserves a substantive response from Google.
Thus far, these efforts have been in vain. Google has not responded beyond
saying there was a violation of the Terms of Service agreement. It has neither
identified the specific violation nor indicated why it also deleted Mr. Cooper’s
email account. It has not provided Mr. Cooper with the ability to download his
personal information so he might rebuild his blog and email account elsewhere.
In one interview, Mr. Cooper said he thought that the male escort ads might have
led to his account’s being deactivated, but this has not been confirmed by the
When I contacted Google for further comment, I got a response that said, “We are
aware of this matter, but the specific Terms of Service violations are ones we
cannot discuss further due to legal considerations.” I asked about why Mr.
Cooper’s Gmail account was also deleted and whether or not he would be able to
retrieve the archive of his work, and I was directed to Google’s Terms of
Service, Gmail Policy and Blogger Content Policy, which did not offer any useful
Mr. Cooper’s is not the only blog that has been deleted over the years. There
are reports here and there across the internet about blogs, mostly, being
deleted for violations of Terms of Service. What is happening to Mr. Cooper,
though, in terms of lack of an explanation, seems to be unprecedented, and he
has, as of yet, the highest profile of those who have experienced this measure
of data loss.
Google’s relative silence is deafening and disturbing. Mr. Cooper is reluctant
to call this deletion censorship, but given the nature of his work that is what
it feels like. Regardless, Google’s actions here suggest that some boundaries
shouldn’t be challenged. That’s a shame. There is a wide range of art in the
world, but there is an urgent need for art that pushes us and makes us
uncomfortable because it forces us to think, to question, to give into it, to
I am all for conversations about art and its limits, but I do not want a
corporation to be the arbiter of those limits. Google, as a private entity, is
allowed to dictate how people use its services. It is allowed to dictate the
consequences when people use its services in ways it doesn’t approve. Such
protocols are outlined in Terms of Service. “By using our services, you are
agreeing to these terms,” they state. Access is acquiescence. We are invited to
use “free” services, and in exchange, Google puts ads in front of us and mines
our online habits for data.
The scholar Langdon Winner has written extensively about technological progress
without consideration of the consequences of adopting technology. Professor
Winner coined the term “mythinformation,” the wishful thinking that with open
access to technology, the world will become a better place. He has written of
“computer enthusiasts,” that they feel there is “no need to try and shape the
institutions of the information age in ways that maximize human freedom while
placing limits upon concentrations of power.” The deletion of Mr. Cooper’s blog
is, perhaps, evidence of what happens when we don’t try to limit concentrations
In 2004, when Google went public, its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin,
wrote a letter to potential shareholders that, at the time, felt groundbreaking.
It was something of a manifesto about running a company ethically and
ambitiously. It was full of robust idealism including mandates like “don’t be
evil” and “make the world a better place.” They made it seem as if it was
possible for a large tech company to operate with a measure of humanity. It was
a really nice idea.
What is far more disturbing than the transgressive work of Dennis Cooper is the
cold reality of technological progress. The idea of a cloud benevolently storing
our personal information, our work, our photos, our music, so much of our lives,
is also really nice, but as users, we have no control over the cloud.
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We surrender that control each time we write a blog post or log in to an email
account or upload an image. The allure of all this technology is hard to resist.
I use Gmail, Google Docs, Google Drive and of course, the Google search engine,
all day, every day. I use other online services, like Dropbox and iCloud, as
well. Even as I write this, I am using several Google services, though over the
weekend, I downloaded my archives using the company’s takeout service, which is
pretty handy, should you still have access to your Google account.
When we use their services, we trust that companies like Google will preserve
some of the most personal things we have to share. They trust that we will not
read the fine print.
The Google Terms of Service state: “You can stop using our Services at any time,
although we’ll be sorry to see you go. Google may also stop providing Services
to you, or add or create new limits to our Services at any time. We believe that
you own your data and preserving your access to such data is important. If we
discontinue a Service, where reasonably possible, we will give you reasonable
advance notice and a chance to get information out of that Service.”
Google, it seems, doesn’t even play by its own rules.
Roxane Gay is an associate professor at Purdue University, the
author of “Bad Feminist” and the forthcoming “Hunger,” and a contributing
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A version of this op-ed appears in print on July 30, 2016, on page A21 of the
New York edition with the headline: The Blog That Disappeared.
enough to write an ordinary will, deciding how to pass along worldly goods like
your savings, your real estate and that treasured rocking chair from Aunt Martha
in the living room.
But you may want to provide for your virtual goods, too. Who gets the
photographs and the e-mail stored online, the contents of a Facebook account, or
that digital sword won in an online game?
These things can be important to the people you leave behind.
“Digital assets have value, sometimes sentimental, and sometimes commercial,
just like a boxful of jewelry,” said John M. Riccione, a lawyer at Aronberg
Goldgehn Davis & Garmisa in Chicago. “There can be painful legal and emotional
issues for relatives unless you decide how to handle your electronic possessions
in your estate planning.”
Many services and programs have sprung up to help people prepare for what
happens after their last login.
Google has a program called Inactive Account Manager, introduced in April, that
lets those who use Google services decide exactly how they want to deal with the
data they’ve stored online with the company — from Gmail and Picasa photo albums
to publicly shared data like YouTube videos and blogs.
The process is straightforward. First go to google.com/settings/account. Then
look for “account management” and then “control what happens to your account
when you stop using Google.” Click on “Learn more and go to setup.” Then let
Google know the people you want to be notified when the company deactivates the
account; you’re allowed up to 10 names. You choose when you want Google to end
your account — for example, after three, six or nine months of electronic
silence (or even 12 months, if you’ve decided to take a yearlong trip down the
Google has ways to make sure that your electronic pulse has really gone silent;
it checks for traces of your online self, for example, by way of Android
check-ins, Gmail activity and Web history. Then, a month before it pulls the
plug, Google alerts you by text and e-mail, just in case you’re still there. If
silence has indeed fallen, Google notifies your beneficiaries and provides links
they can follow to download the photographs, videos, documents or other data
left to them, said Nadja Blagojevic, a Google manager.
And if you just want to say goodbye to everything, with no bequests, you can
instruct Google to delete all of the information in your account.
Naomi R. Cahn, a professor of law at George Washington University Law School in
Washington, says Google’s new program is a step forward in digital estate
planning. “People should carefully consider the fate of their online presences
once they are no longer able to manage them,” she said.
Other companies may also be of help in planning your digital legacy. Many
services offer online safe deposit boxes, for example, where you can stow away
the passwords to e-mail accounts and other data. Accounts like this at
SecureSafe, are free for up to 50 passwords, 10 megabytes of storage and one
beneficiary, said Andreas Jacob, a co-founder. Accounts can be accessed from a
browser, or from free iPhone, iPad and Android apps. The company also offers
premium services for those who need a larger storage space, more passwords or
There is always your sock drawer or another physical repository to store a list
of your user ID’s, should you be deterred from online lockboxes by fear of
cyberattacks or the risk that computer servers that may not be there in a few
decades, said Alexandra Gerson, a lawyer at Helsell Fetterman in Seattle.
“Make a private list of all your user names and passwords for all the accounts
in which you have a digital presence, and make sure you update the list if you
change login information” Ms. Gerson said. “Don’t put user names and passwords
in your will, though, as it becomes a public record when you die.”
Make sure that your executor or personal representative understands the
importance of preserving these digital assets, and knows how to find them, said
Laura Hoexter, a lawyer at Helsell who also works on inheritance issues.
“Preferably the person should be tech-savvy,” she said, and know about your
online game accounts, your PayPal account, your online presence on photo storage
sites, social media accounts and blogs, and even your online shopping accounts
where your credit card information is stored so that the information can be
AFTER you die, an executor or agent can contact Facebook and other social media
sites, establish his or her authority to administer the estate, and request the
contents of the account.
“Most accounts won’t give you the user name and password, but they will release
the contents of the account such as photographs and posts” to an executor, Ms.
Transfer at death can depend on the company’s terms of service, copyright law
and whether the file is encrypted in ways that limit the ability to freely copy
and transfer it. Rights to digital contents bought on Google Play, for example,
end upon the person’s death. “There is currently no way of assigning them to
others after the user’s death,” Ms. Blagojevic said.
Encryption is a common constraint, but there are exceptions. Apple’s iTunes
store, for example, has long removed its anti-copying restrictions on the songs
sold there, and Ms. Gerson advises people to take advantage of this in their
digital planning. “Get your music backed up on your computer,” she said.
Up to five computers can be authorized to play purchases made with one iTunes
account, and a company support representative advises that users make sure that
their heirs have access. At Kindle, too, family members with user ID information
for the account can access the digital content.
Professor Cahn in Washington says the time to prepare for the digital hereafter
is now, particularly if serious illness is a factor. “If someone is terminally
ill,” she said, “in addition to getting emotional and financial issues in order,
you need to get your Internet house in order.”
We know what
was written in the first telegram, sent by Samuel F. B. Morse in 1844: “What
hath God wrought?” We know the words spoken by Alexander Graham Bell when he
made the first telephone call in 1876, to his assistant, Thomas Watson: “Mr
Watson — come here — I want to see you.” (The “polite telephone manner” had not
yet been invented.) But we have absolutely no idea what was said in the first
e-mail, just 35 years ago.
The digital age brought with it the false promise that everything written,
filmed, photographed or recorded might now be preserved, for ever. The “save”
key would eliminate the need for filing and storage. Since 1945 we have gathered
100 times more information than in the whole of human history up until that
point. Entire libraries could be preserved on disks that fitted into a pocket.
Paper was dead.
It has not quite worked out that way. Digital information may be impossibly
voluminous and convenient, but it is also vulnerable and dangerously disposable.
Already a vast amount of information has been lost. CDs disintegrate in just 20
years, whereas the Domesday Book, written on sheepskin in 1086, will still be
with us in another millennium. Few people still write regular letters, but their
replacement, the ubiquitous e-mail, is so easily deleted and forgotten, to say
nothing of the fleeting text message.
Technology has already left behind the forms of electronic storage once expected
to be eternal: the laser disk, the 5¼in, the 3.5in floppy, the Amstrad
all-in-one word processor have all been flung into obsolescence, often taking
their information with them. Only a small fraction of government bodies and
companies even bother to archive their digital material. Who, save the most
fastidious self-chronicler, takes the trouble to embalm their own e-mails
electronically? Historians of the future may look back on the 1980s and 1990s as
a black hole in the collective memory, a time when the historical record thinned
alarmingly owing to the pace of technological change. Future biographers may be
reduced to trying to extract personality from whatever electronic fragments
survive, cheque stubs and those few ritual moments (birth, death and overdraft)
when a subject still puts pen to paper.
I have recently spent many hours in the National Archives, ferreting through the
wartime records of MI5.
The sheer richness of written material is overwhelming: letters, memos,
telephone transcripts, diaries, scribbled notes in the margins. You can smell
the pipe smoke and personalities wafting off the pages.
When MI5’s current files are released decades hence, historians will have a far
drier time of it. Electronic messages not deemed to be of “archival” value are
routinely deleted by civil servants, simply as an insurance policy — significant
or potentially damaging information is strictly verbal, particularly since Jo
Moore’s attempt to “bury bad news” by e-mail.
Arguably, the most important and reliable real-time histories of places such as
Iraq and Iran are currently being written on weblogs, the online journals and
discussion forums that are, by definition, mutable and impermanent. A historian
50 years hence would probably get the most accurate picture of life in Baghdad
today by collecting and studying the blogs of the moment, but it may already be
too late. The average life expectancy of a website is about 44 days, roughly the
same as the common house fly.
Just as importantly, by committing to erasable electronic memory the things we
once committed to paper, we may be denying future generations the chance to
witness the warp and weft of our lives. Our ancestors were writers and hoarders.
I have a collection of my grandfather’s letters in the attic, describing the
life of a sheep farmer in New South Wales in the 1930s. They are of interest, I
suspect, to no one but me, but to me they are invaluable, a chronicle of where I
come from. What will we bequeath to our grandchildren? At best a bunch of
antiquated disks that they may well be unable to open and read.
Anyone (with a magnifying glass and patience) can read letters, but there is a
real danger that technology will leave much of the electronically written record
marooned and illegible. The BBC’s Doomsday Project of 1986, intended to record
the economic, social and cultural state of Britain for all time, was recorded on
two 12in videodisks. By 2000 it was obsolete, and rescued only thanks to a
specialist team working with a single surviving laser disk player.
When Nasa sent two Viking Lander spacecraft to Mars in 1975, the data was
carefully recorded on magnetic tape. Two decades later, no one could decode it.
The original printouts had be tracked down, and typed out again on paper.
And that, ironic as it seems, may be the answer. The Digital Preservation
Coalition, a group encouraging governments, businesses and individuals to curate
and preserve electronic information, recently published a report stating that
“storage of printed copies of important documents is generally accepted as a
reasonably failsafe method of preservation”.
This, then, is a plea for paper. So long as it is stored properly and acid-free,
paper endures. Leave the ephemera to the electronic ether, but if you value
certain words and images, preserve them on paper. The “print” button is a more
faithful saviour than the “save” button.
Before the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson sent his message to the fleet by raising
flags using Sir Home Popham’s telegraphic code (a rather newfangled form of
communication, which not everyone approved of) — whereupon the words were
written down for posterity, on paper.
Today the same message would probably be sent by text — instant, easy, and
instantly perishable: “UK xpx dat evry man wll do his duT.”