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Book review: The Future of Looking Back

You probably have an old family photo album with pictures of relatives you may or may not recognise. Perhaps you inherited knickknacks or heirlooms, holiday souvenirs, or bundles of old love letters.
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You probably have an old family photo album with pictures of relatives you may or may not recognise. Perhaps you inherited knickknacks or heirlooms, holiday souvenirs, or bundles of old love letters. Maybe you have your own keepsakes and memorabilia tucked away in the attic. But as we increasingly switch to digital photos, social networks and online memories, what legacy will we be leaving? Will this be one of the best-documented ages in history or a digital dark age where we share vast amounts of information that are, ironically, lost after our death? As technology becomes part of our real, personal, social lives rather than just a tool for work and organisation, how do we want to treat our own digital assets and those of friends and family when they die?

The Future of Looking Back is the first book in the 20th anniversary Microsoft Research series, and author Richard Banks explores questions of stuff and sentiment, reminiscences and remembering, legacies and memory in our digital age by reflecting on the suitcase memorabilia left by his grandfather, the questions of what he'll pass on to his own grandchildren and the projects his digital social team at Microsoft Research puts together to see how technology fits into our lives.


The details of MSR projects and studies should be some of the most interesting sections of the book, but there aren't always as many details as you might want. Banks spends almost as much time describing Last.fm and Nike+ as SenseCam, a camera worn around the neck that takes a photo every minute and is used by dementia sufferers, as well as Gordon Bell, a Microsoft researcher who is digitising his entire life.

From people who keep an old iPod just for Christmas music to artists who print collections of tweets and put them in presentation boxes, it seems we want to make some of these virtual, digital experiences into physical items as well. The Digital Slide Viewer is a box containing a handheld screen and a set of 'slides' that trigger slideshows of specific sets of photos stored on the viewer to use as a way of showing photos to people.

Banks's team created Timecard, a view of the photos and memorabilia in his grandfather's suitcase as a timeline on a digital photo frame as a way of exploring and telling stories about his grandfather. Backup Box is a touchscreen in a box that backs up your tweets — the idea is that you'd sit down years later and look back at the details of your past or pass them on to your descendants, like looking at a diary. But ironically Banks notes that the touchscreen isn't likely to last a decade, let along the centuries a paper diary could survive. On the other hand, making a PhotoSynth 3D collage of an environment like his grandfather's shed would let him carry on experiencing something that won't survive in the physical world (similar to the way the Salman Rushdie archive lets you read files — or write — on a virtual desktop of Rushdie's computer).

Banks also considers turning digital objects into physical ones as a way of commemorating an experience you might otherwise forget, because you won't see anything that reminds you. Like printing services that produce models of your avatar in games you enjoyed but no longer play, or taking 3D scans and photos as a way of preserving memorabilia like a conference mug that has sentimental value but that's not valuable enough to keep. When you pass items along to others, you could include some information via Tales of Things, an academic project for tagging items with barcodes; not just the adverts we're used to seeing, but items donated to charity stores, so the buyer can get a history of what they're buying.

There are some more outré ideas. Do we want to record smells, tastes or sounds? And would the sounds we want to keep be deliberate conversations or the background noises that families in one research project found far more evocative? Do we care about recording the feel of things so we can touch them virtually? Could digital devices show us more about the content we've put on them? Banks proposes a hard drive with a screen that displays the range of years from which it has content, and MSR Cambridge developed the Windows Media Center screen saver that turns photos on your PC into a TV-sized virtual journey.

The Future of Looking Back is aimed at both general readers and product designers. Experts may find that they know many of the services Banks mentions, and other readers may find the design questions at the end of chapters rather curious — they're a little like ideas for a book group discussion. Some of the discussions seem obvious (like the difference between interacting with physical and digital objects), but a thorough discussion like this brings up interesting questions. A physical heirloom can look dated or be a valuable antique, depending as much on fashion as its quality; will the same be true of digital services and objects? If we constantly track information, do we lose special occasions like marking a child's height on the wall?

Several times, Banks notes our ambivalent relationship with online sites and services. We may not really trust the internet as place to keep all our 'things' but we're inexorably drawn to it.

He also makes some interesting points about treasures and nuisances, like inheriting or accumulating so many digital photographs that they turn from something fun to explore to a burden we feel guilty about not organising and documenting. Equally thought-provoking is the discussion of how we document not just our own but our children's lives digitally (as much to celebrate a moment as to commemorate it), which covers some of the interesting questions about when sharing that is appropriate or intrusive.

And there's the usual awkward politeness we feel when considering mortality. Dealing with a digital legacy means discussing what matters to us and what we expect to have meaning to the people we want to pass it on to. Banks mentions a handful of services like Backupify, LifeEnsured, LegacyLocker, Deathswitch and MyWonderfulLife that aim to help you pass on digital assets or even passwords to your accounts.

Remembrances are going to be significant for other people, and even when sites like Facebook try to take that into account by locking and 'memorialising' a profile, there are issues — only people who were 'friends' before death can add comments.

Death, as Banks puts it drily, is hard to design for. This book is a thought provoking attempt to look at how we could do that in our distributed, disposable digital world, and it's probably right that it raises more questions than it answers.

The Future of Looking Back By Richard Banks Microsoft Press 158 pages ISBN: 978-0735658066 £18.99

Mary Branscombe

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