The Meaning Of Ownership In An Era Of Digital Objects [PSFK London]

The Meaning Of Ownership In An Era Of Digital Objects [PSFK London]

Author and interaction design researcher Richard Banks shares his thoughts on the interaction between storing memories digitally and physically.

Timothy Ryan, PSFK Labs
  • 8 september 2012

We’re excited to have Richard Banks as one of our speakers at the upcoming PSFK CONFERENCE LONDON 2012. Richard is the Principal Interaction Designer at Microsoft Research‘s Socio-Digital Systems group, a team analyzing how families use digital and analog media and building technological objects in response. On September 13, Richard will discuss how look at how we value and share digital objects in our lives.

When we last spoke, you talked about your fascination with what happens when we die as far as digital artifacts and memory – and from there you went on to write the book The Future of Looking Back? What happened next?

For me, the passing away of my grandfather was the thing that drew me into the subject. In my book I wrote about the transition of physical things to digital, where we think of the desktop and folders as metaphorical (and quite physical) possessions.

A lot of the work since I published the book has been about digital artifacts in and of themselves. We’ve got a project at the moment that is looking at the nature of files as an artifact. Now we’re going through another, similar transition from our digital artifacts into an online world, where you can’t really point at the thing that is the file any more. For an offline digital photo I’ll have an icon that represents it, and I can drag that around with my mouse and I can stick it in a folder or a USB stick. As soon as I put that digital photo online I can no longer point at the file itself. It becomes this kind of fragmented part of a separate relationship to properties. For example, if I put a photo on Flickr, what it actually does is create four different sizes of photo for me, as well as metadata that relates that file to lots of hidden aspects of the photo.

And so although my book was about the physical to digital transition, in the digital world we have these issues of digital things changing nature. There are positives and negatives to that; putting a photo online means it’s part of a social web. It becomes much more accessible to other people.

Now I can go to Flickr and see every photo I’ve taken at a particular place, or with a particular camera; I can see that when someone comments on a photo and follow that comment back to the person who made it. That’s incredibly powerful compared to what I can do with a photo offline. But what it means is that I’m less certain about whether it’s mine anymore, or where exactly it lives. So that’s what we’re exploring at the moment, the question of what legacy means in a world where you can get digital things.


Richard Banks’ The Backup Box is a concept device that backs up a Twitter feed. It’s an object of reassurance that leaves the user with some confidence that the message being put online will also persist offline. 

What can you us about your work at Microsoft Research in Cambridge?

The team that I’m on is called Socio Digital Systems and it’s part of a broader group called Computer Mediated Living. Socio Digital Systems is a small team that uses ethnography and social science to study the home: We go into homes and watch people live their lives, in order to see how families use digital and analog media. My role is to build technological objects in response to what we’ve seen. We put those objects back into people’s homes and then study their reaction to using it as a real thing.


Microsoft Research’s TellTable, a system created in the Socio-Digital Systems group, utilizes Microsoft Surface technology to provide an interactive storytelling experience. Children create digital characters and sceneries on Surface from photos taken of real world objects as well as finger paintings.

In the future, how important will the notion of possession be?

People today have quite a different way of thinking about what somebody owns and whether they feel like they even own anything. In our research, they’ll say, ‘When I took these photos, I always imagined I put them online on Facebook, and that they belong to my friends as much as they belong to me.’ When they put these images online, what they think they are doing is a social contract with their friends that says, ‘These are yours as much as mine, and I won’t take these photos away: you can comment on them, you can tag them, and they are as much of a part of our friendship as they are my own objects.’

Is there a connection with this theme of the gift economy, where younger people don’t see the internet as a commercial marketplace – but a place of exchange? You have people that think ‘Once you put your music out there, it’s everyone’s music. Why would I pay for it?’

That’s definitely the sense we’ve gotten. It’s kind of like pooling everything with your friends and making sure that these things you create are part of your friendship. People presuppose that sharing and gifting is a default, rather than something that you have to think about doing. It’s similar to people feeling like they haven’t been to an event until their friends have shared all of their photos of that event online. That’s the point at which they say, ‘OK, we definitely did this thing.’

Thanks Richard!

Richard Banks / @rbtrends / The Future Looking Back

Come see Richard Banks talk more about the meaning of digital objects in our lives at PSFK CONFERENCE LONDON on 13th September 2012.

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