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.