07 Aprile 2008

DIGITAL MEMORIES and LIFELOGGING. An interview with Daniela Petrelli (University of Sheffield)

Memories New technologies have made it possible to "lifelog" our existence, collecting and storing digital pictures, videos, text, copies of Web sites, and so on... But will this be as meaningful as the traditional process of keeping tangible memories of our life?

Daniela Petrelli (Sheffield University) and her co-authors discuss about it in the paper they have presented this morning at CHI 2008. I've talked with Daniela about their findings and you can find the answers below:

The amount of digital memories we are collecting (photo, video, audio, text,...) is rapidly growing. Will this be meaningful for people when they will look back to this big collection of data?

"People already have collections of digital belongings that are precious and worth preserving for future memory. Besides the obvious photos and videos, there are personal communication (e.g. email and text message) and digital artefacts (e.g. photomontage or website). However current technology does not help organization and management of this heterogeneous collection in an organic and natural way. The perception of the value of digital memories fades while they lay forgotten in the PC.
The major difference between the physical and the digital world is the perception of “clutter”, a collection of things laying about in an untidy mass. When the amount of clutter in the physical space (being that home or work) increases people start clearing, selecting what is worth keeping and discarding what instead is less significant. What survives years of clearing is a distillation of the owner’s life that is worth preserving and is emotionally powerful when looked at.
With digital memories there is no perception of clutter and the process of sorting and selecting does not occur. As a result files are just stored, the most precious with the less significant. This diminish their value in the same way as people don’t dare to open a big box of old memorabilia as it will take ages to sort. A search engine for personal memories does not seem to be the right answer as people forget what they have unless they periodically revisit valuable objects."

Based on your research, what are the main differences between digital and tangible memories?
"We have studied memories in the family home, a shared space between closely related people. As such many of the memories are shared via the common space. Digital memories are in the computer, a device designed for an individual use and ill formed for social settings.
Secondly is the lack of immediacy: picking up a souvenir from a shelf to tell a story of our last travel to a friend visiting is much simpler and engaging than 'let me set up a photo show of our holidays', a phrase we all fear…
Everything that is digital is perceived as transient, not lasting. Physical mementos are reassuringly persistent. Many participants in our study showed objects that where passed to them by they parents or grandparents. Who knows if our grandchildren will be able to see our digital photos? We are still in the infancy of digital memories, but it is not too early to start thinking of preservation of personal digital memories for future generations."

How did you reach these findings with users? Did you find any surprising behavior?
"The study was ethnographic, done in the participant’s home: they toured their house selecting the most important mementos and talking about them. Findings emerged from their stories that were systematically classified and analysed.
We were surprised by the variety of objects people collect as mementos and the relatively minor role of photos.
We did not expect to find mundane objects in daily use to be invested with memory value. Autobiographical memories are not composed by exceptional events only. Objects like an old mug, a teapot, a cookery book, a ladder, become autobiographical objects by virtue of the time and energy people spend on and with them.
A great surprise was to discover the range of idiosyncratic objects people keep as mementos, the most bizarre were a pregnancy cast, a jar with the hashes of the dead father, the child’s first nose bogies, a hand-made led bullet."

© 2008, Il Sole 24 Ore. Web report from CHI 2008.