XVIII.1 January + February 2011
Page: 17
Digital Citation

Things we value

Elisa Giaccardi

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As designers of interactive systems, we are increasingly asked to better understand what people value. At the core is the deeper question: What does it mean to be human? Understanding what makes us human influences how we design and what we design. It also places at the center of our thinking that the world we inhabit is always changing. Who we are and what we value never stay the same.

One way to expand this understanding is to look at the stories we tell about ourselves. We craft these stories through the things we preserve and pass on: objects and practices standing in for knowledge and values that are still meaningful to us.

The Mona Lisa, the archeological site of Pompeii, and the Balinese dances—even grandma's recipes, family photos and memorabilia, and the countryside where we once played as children—are all examples of the different types of heritage we care about. It is how we participate in shaping the value of these objects and practices that is at the center of heritage studies, a growing area of research and an increasingly important field for designers.

This forum concerns emerging forms of technologically mediated "heritage practice"—human activities around heritage objects and concerns that are supported or provoked by information and communication technologies. The goal is to offer and promote a rich discussion at the intersection of art, performance, and culture that expands the boundaries of HCI, while broadening our understanding of how things of the past come to matter into the present. By considering the heritage aspects and implications of HCI work, we will expand our vocabulary and resources for designing in support of intensely felt human needs—including the need to remember and develop a sense of belonging.

back to top  Notions of Heritage

We could say that heritage is everything we value and want to pass on to the following generations. These things are usually objects, places, and practices that we use to tell stories about ourselves, and play a central role in shaping our sense of identity as individuals and as communities. But as we change, so do the values we ascribe to things. Have you ever unearthed a memento from long ago and gazed at it, bemused, wondering why you have kept it so long? Something that was once a precious reminder is now of little value. Or the converse: A trinket bought decades ago is now held dear, a tangible representative of a cherished experience.

Emerging technologies are fundamentally shifting how we as human beings congregate and engage in shared experiences and values. For example, mobile and ubiquitous technologies provide new opportunities for capturing experiences—and for archiving and representing them digitally. Beyond capture, these technologies change how experiences and memories are constructed, valued, and passed on in a society in which people increasingly come together through the continuing reciprocation of opinions and beliefs, attachments, and antipathies. Just think of the mobile uploads and comments we often exchange with our friends during a trip abroad, for example, and how they influence the experience and significance of the place we are visiting both in the moment and in the memories we will carry. It is through this type of engagement and interaction with extraordinary as well as mundane artifacts and sites that emerging technologies are radically changing the way in which we understand what is heritage and how we experience it.

back to top  Heritage in Practice

To think of heritage as only about memory is a mistake, however. Heritage is a living practice. The ways in which we are enabled to remember, experience, and communicate heritage affect and shape our sense of belonging, identity, and culture in the present as well as in the future. Heritage practice is not simply about preservation but also about taking care of things past that are considered important, and ensuring their place in the future. This is true in the context of both "official" and "unofficial" heritage practices. One may consider a museum to be an "official" location where heritage is preserved. However, museums are places where objects of the past are housed for us to view and to help us feel more at home with the past and its effect on the present. When we leave the museum, the hope is that we will have been in some way transformed, that we will now carry some of the heritage with us into our daily practices. Less formally, heritage practices are experienced also in our streets and neighborhoods at a grassroots level. The Notting Hill Carnival in London, for example, is a summer festival that promotes Caribbean music, dance, and cuisine to unite the local African-Caribbean community, while asserting a sense of pride and kinship between all Britons. This is a classic example of grassroots heritage practice, which was "designed" to address racial tension between Londoners and the African-Caribbean community and emphasizes the positive aspects of cultural diversity.

Part of the heritage-related work done in HCI revolves around enriching the experience of visitors to a museum or heritage site. Supporting meaningful interactions with and around heritage objects, this work has contributed design frameworks and sensibilities centered upon important issues of place, embodiment, and engagement [1]. Some projects have focused on how to make individual visitors feel comfortable within official heritage spaces, engaging people in very personal and meaningful visitor experiences of the museum artifacts. Other projects have focused on understanding how to support informal interaction and sociability in the public setting of museums and galleries, and more recently on how to design museum experiences more open to visitors' interpretation and participation (see Figures 2 and 3).

An open question is how mobile, embedded, and ubiquitous technologies are changing our "unofficial" heritage practices (see Figures 4 and 5). Consider "Tales of Things," a project exploring social memory in the emerging culture of the "Internet of Things." The project proposes an alternative "grave to cradle" economy in which memories and stories are used as a means of adding value to artifacts as they pass through society. This work is a good example of new ways of preserving and communicating objects, places, and the memory of events that may not be recognized or listed on official heritage registers. What is most interesting is how "Tales of Things" seeks new ways for people to participate in the social production of heritage value and significance. This translates into exploring how emerging technologies can be brought to bear on our encounters with artifacts and places, and on the socially produced meanings we ascribe to them. This strand of work is bringing to HCI subversive forms of art and performance, and strengthening HCI discourse and practice around issues of social action and sustainability.

back to top  Social Media

Social media is enabling more participatory ways of interacting around heritage objects and concerns, creating "infrastructures" of communication and interaction that themselves act as places of cultural production. Grounded in forms of communication that engage a wide variety of human experiences, social media supports forms of collection, curation, and meaning making that help explain and capture our own lived experiences and leave a legacy for the future. There are at least three areas in which social media is having an impact on how we make sense of the things we value, on how we tell stories, and how we connect and reconnect with things past. There are many ways in which designers can get involved with this emerging area of inter-disciplinary investigation. Here are three that have been on my mind:

Social Practice. Novel social practices of collection, curation, and communication are emerging as a result of activities of content sharing and social tagging. PhilaPlace (, for example, is an online project powered by Collective Access and managed by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania that encourages ordinary people from the local community to contribute their own stories, photos, and films to the map-based exploration of Philadelphia's rich history, culture, and architecture. Similarly, the Coney Island Voices Oral History Archive ( emphasizes community building by enabling people to comment, tag, and create sets of assets out of the media records collected in the online archive. More unofficially, the ongoing crowdsourcing of microcontent is affecting the stories we tell about ourselves—what we tell and how we tell it. This contributes to expanding the renewed legitimacy of personal accounts and community-based practices promoted by platforms such as Collective Access and Omeka. For example, it enables people to add content into a developing story simply by editing a comment to Flickr Commons [2]. These emerging collective memories and distributed curatorial practices are just a few examples of how social media is giving new meaning (and providing new challenges) to notions of heritage and curation. As designers, we need to ask ourselves: What novel forms of heritage does social media produce? What new forms of curation does it promote and can it support, to help us preserve and make sense of our past—as it unfolds?

Public Formation. Peer-to-peer activities such as information sharing are also promoting and legitimizing a participatory culture in which individuals increasingly come together on the basis of common interests and affinities. New communities are forming and evolving around events that will grow to have historical and cultural significance. These include lifestreaming activities through social-media sites like blogs, Twitter, and Flickr, and perhaps more important, events that attract widespread public attention, such as disasters (e.g., 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina) and political events (e.g., the 2008 U.S. presidential election) [3]. These experiences raise the question: What interactions does social media open up between peer-to-peer activities and heritage matters? In other words, what radically new ways of connecting around heritage matters does and can social media support in the emerging cultures of participation?

Sense of Place. As computing becomes more pervasive and digital networks extend our surroundings, social media also supports new ways to engage with the people, interpretations, and values that pertain to a specific territorial setting. Bringing or strengthening a sense of place means creating a living, sustainable relationship with the heritage. From a design perspective, this translates into creating communication and interaction spaces capable of sustaining novel forms of engagement and performance with heritage objects and places. Locative media is an example of a creative laboratory for mobile and ubiquitous computing, in which new spatial practices and social interactions are sought and explored (see Figure 6) [4]. Interesting questions that arise from this work are: What does social media reveal about the places in which we live and our attachments to them? How can we use social media to explore and articulate our connections to the land we walk?

back to top  Issues and Opportunities for HCI

Generally speaking, heritage practice is about the design of personal experiences and interactions with the things we value. More significantly, it is about enabling people to collectively participate in the social significance of objects, places, and events. As heritage scholar Susie West reminds us, heritage practice means looking beyond the ways in which heritage is offered to the ways in which heritage is valued. Thus, considering heritage "in practice" broadens our under-standing of what it means to be human. Sitting at the convergence of anthropology, sociology, history, geography, tourism studies, memories studies, cultural studies, and performing arts, an investigation into heritage practice now and in the future offers a fertile bed of issues, perspectives, opportunities, and challenges for HCI.

The relationship between emerging technologies, design, and heritage practice is inherently transformative. Emerging technologies shape the space in which both conventional and new forms of heritage are experienced and performed. At the same time, heritage practice offers a powerful language to mobilize technology development and broaden design concerns and approaches to the cultural sphere. Centered upon embodied and meaningful experiences of place, community, identity, and social action, contemporary heritage practice brings to HCI conceptual resources and sensibilities to understand and design technologies as a medium for unfolding our cultural preferences and changing values.

To interaction designers, heritage practice offers the opportunity to expand the focus from the fairly brief moments of the visit to a heritage collection or site and include matters of extended temporality. It helps us understand how we come to form an attachment and sense of commitment to objects and places with which we hold a long and meaningful connection. Grounded in the understanding that we build (or oppose) a sense of community and identity through a plurality of experiences, meanings, and affects, heritage practice shifts the focus of interaction design from the centrality of an individual experience to repeated and enduring interactions. This shift opens up questions [5]. How can we bring enduring participation and engagement to bear on the cultural work done by emerging technologies?

To those interested in digital memories, heritage practice offers the opportunity to expand their concerns from the technical and political issues of digital archiving to the social benefits of remembering and forgetting [6]. The organizational politics of preservation that influence the accessibility of archival records in the future remain important [7]. Heritage practice emphasizes how remembering is a way of coming together as a family, a community, or a society through the stories we tell and improvise—and through what we do not want to remember. This opens up the opportunity to reflect on what we must remember to be who we are now, debating on what factual records should be preserved and who should be deciding. But it emphasizes also the issue of how we might be in the future, and the need for technologies of memory to bring us together around matters of shared concern. We need to ask explicitly: Why and how should we remember [8]?

To those interested in social media, heritage practice offers a lens to understand the cultural and historical value of information shared and curated in a "socially distributed" fashion across a multitude of technological devices and infrastructures [9]. Particularly in times of crisis and disaster, when the breakdown of social significance impels communal activities of recovery and solidarity, heritage practice offers also a vocabulary to understand the long-term role of social media in support of community identity and resilience. How can the next generation of social-media tools unbury the value hidden in the living experiences and memories of ordinary citizens and communities? How can we enable people to organize, interpret, and share what matters to them from the bottom up, and use it for positive social change? This leads to the more fundamental question: What is a positive social change? As designers, how should we address the differences and conflicts in what is valued that exist among different people and groups?

More generally, heritage practice teaches us that values are not attached to objects, buildings, or places. Neither are they frozen in time. They are the result of ongoing and sustained interactions. As we naturally and continually reinvent ourselves and our cultural affiliations, the heritage value we ascribe to things—both sociocultural and economic—is subject to change and renewal. We need to always be mindful: With the power to shape our interpretation of the past will come the ability to shape our visions of the future.

Submissions are welcome.

back to top  References

1. For projects and approaches, see Ciolfi, L., Cooke, M., Hall, T., Bannon, L.J. and Oliva, S., eds. Re-thinking Technology in Museums: Towards A New Understanding of People's Experience in Museums, Univ. of Limerick, 2005.

2. Rosie the Riveter is a good example of story around women workers during War World II. This spontaneous collection was pulled together by the Flickr community by using the tag "rosie the riveter" to describe photos of the Library of Congress that had been classified differently. Try a search for "rosie the riveter" in Flickr Commons.

3. The 25th Anniversary of the Bhopal gas leak is an interesting example of how social media such as Facebook and Wikipedia made possible a "remembering together" of the event that helped develop and reaffirm existing social solidarities; it also offered the possibility of new social connections between diverse people. This case is part of an ongoing virtual ethnographic study conducted by Ph.D. candidate Sophia B. Liu at the Connectivity Lab, University of Colorado, Boulder, directed by Prof. Leysia Palen. Try a search for "bhopal gas leak" in Facebook.

4. For example, "Silence of the Lands" is a project that enables people to capture sonic experiences of the natural environment and use them as conversation pieces of a social dialogue about the places they share. Participants capture their sonic experiences with a GPS-equipped recording device and then create, annotate, and share soundscapes of the places where sounds were recorded. The result is an acoustic map that changes over time, according to people's shared perceptions and interpretations of their environmental setting. See Giaccardi, E. and Palen, L. The social production of heritage through cross-media interaction: Making place for place making. International Journal of Heritage Studies 14, 3 (2008), 281–297.

5. Some of these questions were recently addressed in a workshop exploring emerging design inquiries in the heritage domain. Giaccardi, E. and Iversen, O. Heritage inquiries: A designerly approach to human values. Proc. of the Eighth ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems. (Aarhus, Denmark, Aug. 16–20). ACM, New York 2010, 436–437.

6. Bannon, L. J. Forgetting as a feature, not a bug: The duality of memory and implications for ubiquitous computing. CoDesign 2, 1 (2006), 3–15.

7. Van House, N. and Churchill, E. Technologies of memory: Key issues and critical perspectives. Memory Studies 1, 3 (2008), 295–310.

8. See recent work on the design opportunities of interacting with inherited digital materials. Odom, W., Banks, R., and Kirk, D. Reciprocity, deep storage, and letting go: Opportunities for designing interactions with inherited digital materials. interactions 17, 5 (2010), 31–34.

9. Liu, S. B. Trends in distributed curatorial technology to manage data in a networked world. UPGRADE Journal 11, 3 (2010), 18–24.

back to top  Author

Elisa Giaccardi is an associate professor for the Institute of Culture and Technology at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. She graduated in 2003 from the Science Technology and Art Research program at the University of Plymouth in the U.K. with an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in metadesign. Giaccardi is currently editing a book for Routledge on heritage and cultures of participation.

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back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. The Wray Photo Display. Flash flood picture (1967). Part of the public digital display in Wray, Lancashire, UK funded by a Microsoft Research European Ph.D Scholarship. A rural community shares photos showing their village's history. Researchers: Nick Taylor and Keith Cheverst, University of Lancaster, U.K.

F2Figure 2. Reminisce. Memory sharing installation in the School House (August 2010). Part of the Reminisce exhibit at Bunratty Folk Park (Ireland) by the UL Interaction Design Centre. Visitors explored the open-air museum by collecting digital and physical memory tokens related to characters from Ireland's past; they could also leave their own memories in real time and access a shared memory repository.

F3Figure 3. Kurio. Mother and son virtually collecting artifacts using a tangible computing pointer that is part of the Kurio Museum Guide installed at the Surrey Museum in British Columbia, Canada. Kurio is a tangible computing museum guide for families composed of a tangible pointer, reader, listener, finder, and PDA/tabletop that allows families to collaboratively interact with the museum as part of a game. Researchers: Ron Wakkary, Marek Hatala, Karen Tanenbaum, Kevin Muise, Greg Corness, and Bardia Mohabatti of Simon Fraser University, and Jim Budd of Emily Carr University of Art and Design.

F4Figure 4. RememberMe. Art installation at the Oxfam charity shop, Manchester, U.K in May 2010. Part of the "Tales of Things" project supported by a Research Council UK-Digital Economy grant. Donated objects were tagged with stories from previous owners and made available for purchase. Visitors could scan artifacts with a mobile phone or RFID wand to listen to the story.

F5Figure 5. Mama Rhoda tells a story to Asher Ojuok during mobile digital storytelling design work in Adiedo, Kenya. See Reitmaier, T., Bidwell, N. J. and Marsden, G. "Field Testing Mobile Digital Storytelling Software in Rural Kenya." In Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Human Computer Interaction with Mobile Devices and Services. ACM Press, New York, 2007, 283–286.

F6Figure 6. Silence of the Lands. A participant is capturing her sonic experience of the natural environment with a sound camera (September 2007). Part of the "Silence of the Lands" project is supported by a U.S. National Science Foundation-Science of Design grant. People capture their sonic experiences and share them as conversation pieces of a social dialogue about the natural environment.

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