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XX.3 May + June 2013
Page: 16
Digital Citation

There is more in personal heritage than data


Authors:
Daniela Petrelli

Clearing out the attic of what has been a family’s home for generations can reveal some surprises. In my case, it was a small pile of printed material related to my grandmother’s second cousin: an 1897 copy of his patented project to send aerostats into orbit for many uses (tele-communication included); a French magazine with his portrait on the cover, reporting on the medals he had received at the International Exhibition of Turin in 1911 and the British Latin Exhibition in London in 1912 for his work on the project; and International Exhibition postcards, receipts, and newspaper cuttings (Figure 1). I browsed through them. The first pages describe the development and patenting of the idea, and express hope that the project will move forward. It makes for a fascinating reading of early-20th-century Europe, a time of invention and entrepreneurship. This material skipped two generations and arrived to me in excellent condition, apart from a bit of moth damage on the book cover.

We live in an equally exciting time, with Kickstarter playing the role of a contemporary International Exhibition. But for today’s projects to survive a hundred years seems unlikely. Digital content is ephemeral, and effort must be spent to prolong its lifespan. For interaction designers, this represents an opportunity to explore how personal digital content could reach our descendants in a way similar to how my relative’s invention reached me. Here I will use some design concepts to reflect on this topic and push the discussion further. These designs are based on and inspired by five years of ethnographic studies I conducted to understand how people develop attachment to objects, how those objects relate to personal and family memory, and what place they have in our daily lives [1]. Meaningful attachments create irreplaceable objects that are then kept and passed on, becoming family heirlooms. What I discuss here is how to facilitate this process with digital content.

Understanding personal heritage. In museums, we are used to seeing objects that were once personal displayed behind glass, with a predigested interpretation of what they were meant for. The sensorial experience and the personal perspective are removed, along with emotion and sentimentality [2]. But at home things are different: We can hold our family heirlooms, retell their story, and feel connected. Indeed, for objects like my relative’s prints to capture a person’s life and travel across the centuries is not uncommon: People, particularly in old age, like spending time and effort collecting meaningful objects and passing them on to the next generation [3]. Consider this exemplary excerpt from the findings of one of my field studies on family memories in the home: “My mother gave this box to me for Christmas. She had been to America in the summer and had seen her sisters and brothers and they have a lot of family things between them. And they were talking about me and the textiles and she picked up all sorts of lovely little family treasures. ... Pictures of my great-grandparents, my great-grandmother sewing things, ribbon, darning… She did lots of beautiful needlework, and when I started to be a textile conservationist, my mother kept saying you know ‘Ooh! You’re just like her.’ ... [This nativity carved on a spool] was made by my uncle. ... Oh so many memories! It’s like a little corner of that part of my life.”

Family heirlooms come with stories that connect past and present in subtle ways, such as the textile connection with a great-grandmother whom one never met. But is there any long-term value in personal digital media that justifies consideration for digital heritage? Although there is a strong perception that digital content is transient and utilitarian, a variety of digital belongings are intentionally recorded or kept because of their emotional value. PowerPoint presentations, Photoshop projects, websites, and any creative efforts; personal emails and voicemails; social media pages of self and friends; digital video and photos; and recordings from radio or TV are all examples of digital belongings worth keeping. Digital communication in particular generates such an attachment that 44 percent of mobile phones in the U.K. are not recycled because of the personal data they hold. Moving and intimate conversations have been in writing before, of course, but while grandparents’ love letters have serendipitously reached their grandchildren, the prospect of next generations being able to read today’s mobile-phone flirting sounds unrealistic. To be preserved and passed on, affective communication needs to be first identified and then honored in special ways. Emails and messages from loved ones, like other biographic objects, must be periodically revisited to build up the attachment that makes them irreplaceable.

Our affective communication is currently mixed with work or other mundane information, for example, emails related to online shopping. While one can keep postcards and letters together in an ornate box, digital communication is split across different devices and applications: Messages are on a mobile phone or in instant-message conversations; threads and email messages are managed by another application on a different account. Standardization to the same format and fragmentation across applications reduce the salience of affective communication that is currently neither differentiated from work nor looked after in any special way. Imagine a dedicated device that gives due relevance to exchanges with a special person: The Affective Bundle receives only personal communications from a range of different applications and is automatically activated by new messages. It shares the same properties as a box of letters and postcards: a tangible place for all affective communication that can be immediately accessed and personalized to better capture intimacy and personal attachment. The Affective Bundle aims to close the gaps between how material and digital are managed and how present they are in our daily lives. It builds on the empirical evidence I collected during my studies that material and digital belongings trigger similar emotions and that objects become meaningful because of their physical presence in space for an extended period of time.

In space and over time. Even if rarely looked at or talked about, family heirlooms contribute to the construction of meaning. The little family treasures from the field study discussed earlier are stored in a wooden box: “It’s a pleasure to know [the family box] is there [on a shelf in the family room], because I spend most of my time in here. A lot of things that are memories get put away in a cupboard, where you don’t often go. That’s just nice to pass it by. I mean, I hardly ever show these to anybody. But they sit there, and the fact that it’s there and you know what it is, it’s just a sort of rather nice thing to have around you.”

The importance for objects of memory to have a place in everyday living spaces—to “just be there”—is a recurring theme emerging from my ethnographic studies. The reason is not to optimize frequent access, but in the awareness of its content and in being shared within the household. The positioning indicates an explicit will in terms of selecting what is of personal value. Different types of mementos are located in different spaces, with symbolic objects—for example, gifts—in rooms where strangers are entertained, and more intimate objects—for example, a pregnancy cast—in private rooms. Thus they afford different “uses”: The ones in public spaces trigger conversations, and those in private rooms, personal reminiscing and intergenerational storytelling. Whatever the object and its use, the value is repeatedly affirmed by being in sight. On the contrary, digital content is hidden within computers, laptops, external hard drives, CDs and DVDs, answering machines, and mobile phones. Photos and videos are sometimes looked at on the rare occasion of presenting a show for friends and family; the rest is forgotten.

Digital belongings can have a physical presence. In design we can build upon those aspects of materiality that contribute to create attachment, such as aesthetic pleasure and sensorial experience. The Family Memory Radio in Figure 2 is a hybrid of material and digital: It holds personal sound recordings that can be browsed and played back. The radio is an interesting object to have around, with its distinct aesthetic, and acts as a reminder, offering direct access to personal files. It celebrates the family life captured in sound and offers opportunities for developing attachment over time in a playful manner through the tangible interaction with buttons and knobs. Among the uses suggested by the families who tried it was to play it at mealtimes and at other social occasions. We can then imagine the radio one day gaining a status similar to that of the old family treasure box, with snippets of granddad’s bedtime stories or children singing their favorite songs. As designers we can provide opportunities for creating a digital legacy, but personal appropriation and time are of the essence.

Time can give unexpected meanings, as when rediscovering forgotten items from our past: a receipt from a holiday that led to a pregnancy, the only picture with baby and great-grandma, schoolbooks from childhood. When invited to make a time capsule to be opened in 25 years for one of my studies, people created an interesting mix of items that would acquire meaning only with time: a shopping bill (“To see what we were buying and how much things cost”), a parking permit (“Will there be so many cars and so many issues with parking?”), a book (“I mean, will there still be books on paper?”), newspapers and magazines (“They give a good picture of ‘now’—the society and what’s important”), and a mobile phone (“Technology moves so fast”). Whereas digital-preservation specialists are capturing snapshots of the Web to preserve its content for future generations, personal digital traces are unlikely to be accidentally kept and re-encountered at a later point in life, their meaning shifted from disposable item to object of interest. The “Previously ... Widget” concept, developed by Simon Bowen [4], is a way for our digital traces to be recorded and randomly rediscovered at a much later date. It monitors the user’s computer and Web activity and stores samples of salient behaviors, for example, a file edited many times for a long time, or a website accessed intensely for a short period of time, such as when organizing a trip, or one periodically used, as for online shopping. These fragments are then displayed back years later when, for example, the computer is shutting down.

Design opportunities. While some mementos are created as such—for example, gifts or love letters—or become meaningful due to gaps in life, others develop their importance progressively over a lifetime. Very familiar objects are important because of the time we spent with them and what they come to represent. A person’s life is captured in these biographical objects that hold a strong bond with one’s past or with other people. Those mementos are often mundane—a mug that has been used for 20 years, grandma’s beloved teapot, or an annotated recipe book—and they gain value as we see our own aging reflected in their wear and tear. What was a consumer’s commodity becomes irreplaceable, not because of its appearance or function, but for the meaning ascribed to it as a significant personal possession [5].

A process of “aging with” our possessions does not occur today with digital technology: Even if we want to keep using the same old mobile phone or the same laptop, the fast pace of innovation prevents us from doing so for very long. Backward compatibility in particular can easily render our digital possessions obsolete and unusable. A digital legacy requires explicit intention, and interaction designers have started to explore how we can support the capturing and revisiting of personal digital content in the far future, for example, looking back on a lifetime of tweets [6]. Besides preserving our digital life today, however, designers have the opportunity to create new ways for personal digital content to become mementos and evolve into personal heritage further in the future.

Memory Baubles is one example of how this process can be supported (Figure 3). Consider Christmas: Dispersed family members get together every year on the same day to celebrate. Traditions such as decorating the house and the tree are acted out, and provide a chance to revisit what has been stored away a year before. With Memory Baubles, every year the family can record the celebration in a digital bauble: Excited children opening their presents, people who come for lunch, Uncle Bob’s speech, the traditional boys versus girls Trivial Pursuit game. Every year, the family can replay the baubles, remembering who passed away, retelling family stories, laughing and arguing, and reinterpreting the past in light of contemporary culture. The digital baubles have behaviors: For example, they can release a memento precisely at the same time one year later or after charging via kinetic energy (e.g., pulling a string or winding a handle), or they can release it only if all the people present move synchronously (e.g., waving). Every family can appropriate the baubles in their personal way and create their own traditions around them.

A final reflection. Based on my empirical studies, I would argue that there are three elements contributing to the concept of personal heritage: values, to select what is worth preserving; attention, to keep it alive and meaningful for those who come after us; and time, which gives perspective. While design for personal digital archiving does not require us to make a physical container [7], the material dimension can be very important for people to relate to their personal digital content in a way that is engaging and affective. The design concepts proposed here, like those of others [6], are first attempts to answer to the challenges of personal heritage: They embed digital content into inviting physical objects, give them a space in our lives, and allow time to do its work.

Acknowledgments

I am indebted to many people for their insights on personal memories, for their imaginative designs, and for their skillful implementations (in order of temporal collaboration): Steve Whittaker, Jens Brockmaier, Simon Bowen, Elise van den Hoven, Lina Dib, Nic Villar, Vaiva Kalnikaite, Ann Light, and Nick Dulake.

References

1. Overall, more than 40 families took part in the studies I conducted since 2007: a memory tour of their home (2007); the making of a time capsule (2008); the recording of the family holidays in sound (2008-2009); and the capturing of family traditions at Christmas (2009 and 2011).

2. Dudley, S., ed. Museum Materialities—Objects, Engagements, Interpretations. Routledge, 2010.

3. Csikszentmihalyi, M. and Rochberg-Halton, E. The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self. Cambridge University Press, 1981.

4. Bowen, S. and Petrelli, D. Remembering today tomorrow: Exploring the human-centred design of digital mementos. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 69 (2011), 324–337.

5. Hoskins, J. Biographical Objects—How Things Tell the Stories of People’s Lives. Routledge, 1998.

6. Banks, R. The Future of Looking Back. Microsoft Research Series, 1. Microsoft Press, 2011.

7. Churchill, E. and Ubois, J. Designing for digital archives. interactions 15, 2 (2008), 10–13.

Author

Daniela Petrelli is a reader in interaction design at the Art & Design Research Centre, Sheffield Hallam University. Her current research brings together material and digital in the context of personal memories and cultural heritage. Her other interests include multimedia and multilingual information access, and intelligent user interfaces. She has a diverse background in fine art, computing, and social research.

Figures

F1Figure 1. Prints from 1897–1913.

F2Figure 2. The Family Memory Radio, constructed from an old radio, can browse and play personal sounds. Here, two siblings contend for access to the device.

F3Figure 3. The Memory Bauble for images: A photo show on a small digital photo frame can be seen through the viewfinder.

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