Saving and Sorting Lives

October 10th, 2011 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

sA Microsoft researcher in England has thought more about our life traces than the rest of us have. In The future of looking back, he interweaves the pluses and problems of personal artifacts from his grandfather’s photographs to current digital and online tools we use to the newest stuff around his Microsoft Research in Cambridge UK.

The book is as much philosophic as technical. For his work and avocations, Banks understands collecting, analyzing, storing and retrieving artifacts of human lives. The result of all that could have been a huge, turgid work, but is not.

In 141 pages, plus supporting references, he presents the qualities and uses of our photos, data, video, audio, journals and more. He uses simple declarative sentences, which makes even the complex concepts easy to follow. Coupled with his clever design questions at the end of chapters, the reader ends up thinking about how to make the fullest, safest uses of inherited and current material. We shall be better librarians of our lives after reading this.

He’s straight-ahead in dividing the book into three sections — Stuff and sentimentality, A digital life, and New sentimental things. Those would be the nature of the objects we use to remember, the hows and whys of reminiscence, and new and pending tools for doing so. I’m fairly observant, but he bring in details, down to the weight and texture of photographs. He catalogs our now-digitalizable range of artifacts. I considered my many objects like they were suddenly laid out before me.

That would be enough, but his design questions are truly thought provoking. For just one example, he asks, “How might we design ways that allow parents to clear out or archive their child’s digital things when they leave home?” These chapter enders did slow me down, in a good way. I am thinking of my own set of several generations of objects with these in mind.

How might we design ways that allow parents to clear out or
archive their child’s digital things when they leave home?

I only have one complaint. He seems to assume that more is always better, and to let the future users draw on technologies to sort and prioritize. I think instead that as we complain of information overload, storing many millions of artifacts would work only for someone with a team of biographers to reconstruct the life and times. I vote for selectivity and subsets in what we store.

Richard Banks
Microsoft Research, Cambridge, UK
The future of looking back
Microsoft Press, Redmond, WA, 2011
184 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7356-5806-6
$24.99 paper, also available in Kindle editions, O’Reilly or Amazon
Review Shtick: This starts a series of book review on technology and other topics that interest me.

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