The subject of technology heirlooming has come across often during my work at Microsoft Research’s Cambridge facilities. I’ve even discussed it in the odd paper or presentation — thank you if you’ve had the patience to either read or watch what I’ve referenced to.
Today, though, I’m going to stretch your patience further, since I thought it might be interesting to drill down a little into this area of research to give it some context.
Firstly, I’ll try to describe more generally some of our thoughts and ideas about technology in the long term. Then I’ll try and describe more specifically what we mean by a technology heirloom.
This idea of thinking about technology over extended lengths of time is a primary motivator for us. It seems quite striking how our relationship with technological objects and digital “things” has become quite fleeting. I no longer expect to buy a phone or an mp3 player and keep it more than a few years. I’ve become used to the idea that something better is just around the corner and I’m quite prepared to abandon what I have now to get it. This seems a little odd.
There’s a Green imperative here, of course, as there seems to be in pretty much everything we do now. It seems unsustainable to continue throwing these physical items into landfills, and we either need to change that habit, or find a way of making the cycle less onerous. In Cambridge we’re interested in this ethical dimension, of course, but more broadly we really seek to understand what it means to have an attachment with our things that extends beyond such short periods of time. There are items that we keep and treasure in our homes already, but these tend not to be technological, beyond the odd collection of ancient video games that a few individuals don’t seem to be able to part with. Why do we keep some things, and not others?
The Role of Objects in Our Lives
We’re trying to think about this more broadly because our relationship to the things we keep matters not only for physical items, but, we assume, also for the megabytes of data that we’re creating. It is common, for example, to keep and display printed photos in our home. They act as touchstones for us to people and events in our past. They tell visitors to our homes something about us through the choices we make of their content, where they are placed and the prominence they are given. And because these items are physical, their condition tells us something too. They acquire a patina of their own that tell us stories of use. Fingerprints on glass show that attention was paid to them. Nicks and scratches on the frame show how well they were taken care of.
So these items help us remember; tell others something about us through our environment; and tell their own story of use as objects. Is this true of the new digital things in our lives? Is this true, for example, for the thousands of digital photos that many of us are now taking every year? To some extent it may be too early to tell. Our relationship to digital content is still a relatively new one. So part of the work we’re doing in Cambridge is to extrapolate out to try and anticipate how our relationship with digital things will change once we ever get used to having them around over the long term.
As a designer, this is a tough space to design for. It’s impossible to predict what items a person will keep and put on display in their home. How can we know what’s likely to be precious to them? An object that seems worthless to one person may be charged with sentiment for another.
The Role of Objects Beyond our Lives
This question of the role of sentiment extends past our own lifetimes, just as the objects themselves are likely to outlive us. What happens to them at the end of our lives? Just as our physical things live on past us, sometimes becoming a part of the lives of our offspring, other family or friends, this will surely be true of our digital items.
The process through which objects are passed on through the generations is complex. Sometimes when we receive things from the deceased it’s through an act that was deliberate and thought out. They intended us to get an item. Sometimes, though, it’s entirely accidental. We may receive heirlooms from them simply through the process of their homes and lives being disassembled.
Sometimes the things that we inherit are welcome, and we’re happy to have them and integrate them into our own lives. We might even put them on display in our own homes. Other times we’re not so happy, and they seem incongruous with the ways in which we live. Maybe we don’t find them attractive, or they’re not very meaningful. Often, even though they are not things we would have chosen to own, they come with a sense of obligation that doesn’t allow us to part with them. We’d rather keep them in a box in the basement than dishonour the memory of the deceased by discarding them. In some senses they are burdensome.
Predicting which heirlooms we might actually feel sentimental about is a challenge. Our parents may THINK that they can predict what we would like to inherit, for example, but often the reality is different. The memories of our own childhood can be quite different from theirs, and therefore the artefacts we feel sentimental about can also be different.
So the role that inherited items play in the recipient’s life is complex, as is the job of planning to pass on your own items. We all hope, though, to understand something about how this happens in everyday life, and from that learn how this might apply to digital things too.
Beyond that, we also hope to be able to design for heirloom-ness. We’re not saying that we can design heirlooms. As I mentioned, I don’t think we can predict what may or may not be sentimental to any individual. But what we might be able to do is design objects and experiences that help mediate digital content or technological objects in a way that softens their edges, makes content more accessible and so on. This is what we mean by a technology heirloom.
Timecard, which has been shown publicly a few times in the last 6 months, is an early example of this. It’s a service coupled with an appliance that lets you create timelines around someone’s life. You might, for example, create a timeline of your baby’s development, or, in my case, my grandfather’s life. Once the timeline is created the content is displayed in a dynamic digital photo frame that you have around you in your home.
These kinds of devices allow you to reflect on someone’s life, and also create experiences that have great sentimental value to a family as a record of their history. I’d hope that the Timecard I’ve created of my Grandfather, for example, would be something that my daughter might want. This isn’t unlike the role that photo albums can take. Timecard is just exploiting the advantages of digital media in creating something expressive and dynamic.