An Engineer's Guide to Death Cleaning

 By: Kelly McDonald

Now that I am on my journey as a septuagenarian, my regular exercise regimen of running has slowed to a brisk walking gait. But I keep going every morning when the weather permits. Several weeks ago, as I walked past my neighbor’s assigned school crossing-guard location a few blocks from my home, I paused to ask about her family. She also inquired about my physical well-being. As is typical of me now, I complained that I’m getting older. I alluded, in jest, that because of my age, I’m not sure how much longer I can do this walking exercise thing. In a serious and concerned reply, she inquired, “Have you heard of Swedish death cleaning? Perhaps you should google it.” Somewhat taken aback, I thanked her for her suggestion and continued on my way, mulling over what I looked like to elicit her remark that I had one foot in the grave. She must have noticed that limp in my step. Perhaps she remembered some health complaint from our previous week’s dialogue.

Yet the further I walked, the more I liked the idea that perhaps it was time to start cleaning up after myself. And, as is typical of the engineer in me, it didn’t take long in my walking ruminations to put a technological twist on the outcome of my thinking. My wife, Beverly, has been recently asking me to write down passwords to bank accounts and the Wi-Fi. What should she do if the computer in her workroom freezes up, and I’m not there to rescue her? No doubt she is concerned about how she might need to move forward if I were to vanish from the family scene.

I turned to my new AI friend, ChatGPT, who recently arrived on the Internet stage, to discuss with me this newly found philosophy of technology cleanup. 

        “So, ChatGPT, what is Swedish death cleaning?” I inquired.
Swedish death cleaning, also known as "döstädning" in Swedish, is a concept introduced by Margareta Magnusson, a Swedish artist and author. It refers to the practice of decluttering and organizing one's belongings with the intention of making it easier for others to handle your possessions after you pass away.
The idea behind Swedish death cleaning is to take the responsibility off your loved ones to sort through your belongings and make decisions about what to keep, donate, or discard. By actively decluttering and organizing your possessions during your lifetime, you can ensure that your belongings are in order and reduce the burden on your family and friends during an already difficult time.
Swedish death cleaning involves going through your personal items, such as clothing, books, documents, and sentimental objects, and deciding what to keep and what to let go of. The focus is on simplifying your life and only keeping things that hold true value or significance to you. This process allows you to reflect on your life and the things that matter most to you while relieving your loved ones of the daunting task of sorting through a lifetime's worth of possessions.
It's worth noting that Swedish death cleaning is not strictly limited to Sweden and can be practiced by anyone who wishes to organize their belongings and make their end-of-life matters more manageable for their loved ones.

A pretty good answer. Maybe I was on to something. No wonder ChatGPT has become such a popular Internet celebrity. My next step was to read the definitive work which ChatGPT mentioned. Magnusson’s book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, was a quick and pleasant read. Although her suggestions were relevant to my thinking, she mainly addressed personal possessions, such as clothing, valuables, art work, and tools. She mentioned nothing about accumulated technology, other than treating it like other household possessions. There was a small amount of discussion concerning the cleanup of digital photos, but it seemed an afterthought. Thus, I figured that I was on my own in tackling the burgeoning pile of technology which had substantially taken over several of the rooms in my home. Maybe with ChatGPT’s help, I could find an acceptable level of compromise. After all, it is also a technology and may be more attentive to my specific problems than Magnusson’s book.

But why worry about it at all? Why not simply instruct Beverly that upon my passing, just ask one of our children to load up the residue in my three ‘hobby’ rooms, and haul it to Deseret Industries, the local donation drop-off. After all, her own technology is well partitioned into her own space. Even better, I could make my death-cleaning wishes known to our family financial executor to do just that. However, there are some complications. For example, I’ve developed some computer systems which deal with household events, such as reporting the opening of the garage door and controlling lights and locks with our voices. And what about the media server which not only hosts our evening television watching but also entertains a myriad of family members and friends? I’m especially concerned about all the curated children’s TV programming which has become a staple in several of my relatives’ households with young children. Some of my family members also login to my computer systems to calculate their annual tax returns. Surely such technology should survive my passing and remain available, perhaps even be enhanced, to meet the growing needs of our technology patrons.

As an engineer, I know that my computer systems won’t run themselves, and Beverly doesn’t need to be burdened with providing my contrived technology services to family and friends. I need a sysadmin. 

        ChatGPT, tell our readers what a sysadmin is.”
A sysadmin, short for system administrator, is a professional responsible for managing and maintaining computer systems, servers, and networks in an organization. They are like the guardians of the technological infrastructure, ensuring its smooth operation and optimal performance.

I especially like the title that ChatGPT mentioned, “guardians of the technological infrastructure”. It’s an eloquent way of stating that sysadmins keep things running. Could ChatGPT become the sysadmin for Beverly? Let’s give it a try.

         “ChatGPT, my Plex server is down. What should I do?” 
If your Plex server is down, here are some steps you can take to troubleshoot and resolve the issue:
1. Check server hardware and network connectivity: Ensure that the server machine is powered on and connected to the network properly. Check cables, network settings, and router configurations to ensure there are no connectivity issues.
2. Restart the server: Sometimes, restarting the server can resolve temporary issues. Restart the machine running the Plex server software and give it a few moments to boot up.
3. Verify Plex server software: Ensure that the Plex server software is installed correctly and is up to date. Visit the official Plex website to download . . .
It should be obvious that Beverly would need to be a sysadmin herself to understand and execute any of ChatGPT’s suggestions. 

It seems then, in my case, that the Swedish death cleaning of my home technology must be scrutinized in two different ways. First, that closet full of old computers, disk units, and cabling, which aren’t currently being used for any purpose, are much like my clothing and personal possessions. Beverly would be glad to see them go. I could drag the equipment out into plain view, decide whether to give them to a friend or family member, or send them off to Deseret Industries for recycling. There may be a few items that strike my fancy for an upcoming tech project I’m thinking about, which I may yet get to in my lifetime. But I should still keep these things in a box with an appropriate destination label, just in case I never actually arrive at developing that new and interesting thing in the back of my engineering mind.

Second, I need to find a ‘death sysadmin’ who can take control of my home systems after I have passed on. Like our financial executor, this person will expertly execute our wishes regarding the computing and information systems that inhabit our home. Thus, the major activity of my tech cleaning endeavor will be to inform our sysadmin about the technical details that they will need to become familiar with to keep the technical systems functioning that I have made available to our family and friends. Undoubtedly, some type of written instructions will be necessary. I will need to prepare a sysadmin manual to document the details of what needs to be attended to and what to watch out for.

And to make this a bit more compelling, perhaps I could also create some audio recordings to make the death sysadmin briefing more mysterious. I could create a list of messages that are automatically sent out weekly to the sysadmin, after my demise. I can imagine them receiving a recorded audio message on their smartphone. “Good morning, Mr. Phelps. Mr. McDonald has recently passed away, leaving dozens of unattended technical systems for Mrs. McDonald to grapple with. Your mission, Jim, should you decide to accept it . . .”

Now that school is out for the summer, my friend is not on the street corner during my morning walk. That will give me more time to make progress with my technology cleanup plans and systems tended by a sysadmin before I report my results to her this coming fall. Who knows? Perhaps she will be interested in acquiring a box of old disk drives or introducing her youngsters to my children’s television library next time we chat while she escorts the school kids across the street.


Tristan Rhodes said…
What an interesting thing to think about! Although it may seem depressing, death planning is important and good. I had not considered the technology side of this topic much, other than writing down the master password to my password safe.

Your post makes me want to create a video that starts with "If you are watching this video, then it means I am not going to be logging into the server anymore. Here is what you need to know..."
Pat Burns said…
Loved this, Kelly, and so pertinent to me, my closets, and my wife. I have said for years that I will be the first to go. As she is the family CFO,we would have the reverse problem were that not to be so. Fortunately, I have two very capable sons who I can ask to be sysadmins, so one primary and a backup.

Heading to the tech closet now to take an inventory...

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