On the 10th of April I helped host a workshop session at this years Computer Human Interaction conference (known by the shorthand “CHI”) in Atlanta, Georgia, with Mike Massimi (who really did the bulk of the work), Dave Kirk and Will Odom. I’m a little late getting this out, but I thought I’d write up some thoughts about the experience, as well as use this blog post as a place to write up the notes from my breakout session during the day, which was on “artefacts”.
Workshops are run before the conference proper begins, and are a chance for groups of like minded people to get together to discuss and learn more about a topic area. Our topic was “Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) at the End of Life”.
Lunch at Max Lager’s
The term HCI is getting a little outdated in this context, really. It’s a term used in our industry as shorthand for “people using technology”, although it sounds way more geeky than that. What the 11 of us who met were primarily interested in was how technology is being used, or might be used, during the difficult period towards the end of a persons life and after.
Mike Massimi’s original call for participation gives you a good sense of the themes in more detail, and the position papers we received from participants show the variety of work going on in this area. These are all downloadable from the site and worth a closer look. For example, some of the participants had studied activity on social networking sites such as Facebook after someone in a community had passed away. Others looked at how technology might make decision making easier for those approaching the end of their lives. A few papers dealt with the use of digital media in this space, from creating personal chronicles of a life, to photographing people after they had passed away. My own interest was through the work I’ve been doing on Technology Heirlooms, looking at the process of passing digital things on at the end of life.
It all sounds very morbid, but actually wasn’t. I think we had a very thoughtful, thought-provoking and insightful day, with some great discussion and some practical next steps. We spent quite a bit of time doing introductions, and giving each participant time to explain their work. It’s always great to hear first hand accounts of motivations and outcomes.
Then after lunch we did a classic post-it note exercise, developing a grouping the different themes we had picked up during the day. We found 4 themes that emerged:
- The Temporal – about the process before, during and after bereavement. Something we called the “Narrative of Dying”.
- Identity, Ethics and Social Networks – around issues of online identity. How control of someone’s online identity comes about after their death and the ethics of then managing someone else’s online presences.
- The Ethics of Research Practice – dealing specifically with how researchers should do their work sensitively in this domain.
- Artefacts – around issues of dealing with “stuff” before and after bereavement.
ARTEFACTS. PROS AND CONS.
I joined the group (consisting of Angela Riechers, Jim Kosem and Daniela Petrelli) that took on the last of these topics, on Artefacts. We really felt like this was an issue of the tension between digital and physical things, that somehow we didn’t understand what we might be losing as heirlooms shift from being ‘real’ to ‘virtual’. We decided to use the time listing out the positives of each.
There was a suspicion in our group that our relationship and sentimentality towards physical things was a generational thing. That new generations, who spent more time with the digital than the physical, wouldn’t feel the same bias as some of us towards the physical.
There was also a sense that physical things were losing their value, as they become transient and temporary holders of digital content. An example of this kind of object is a mobile phone, which is typically replaced every 14 months.
An interesting outcome of these lists are that the positives of one form of artefact are inevitably a negative for the other. And in many cases the reverse of a positive of one artefact type was a positive of the other. So, for example, the ‘uniqueness’ of a physical thing was seen as a positive – the fact that there’s only one of each physical thing makes it somehow more precious. So somehow the fact that digital things are easy to copy and therefore can’t be considered unique cheapens them. At the same time, the fact that a digital thing can be so easily duplicated is also a positive. It makes a digital thing shareable amongst family members, for example, with no arguments over ownership.
So here is the list of positive attributes of physical things:
- Physical things are unique.
- Physical things are precious.
- Physical things have a “smell” – subtle qualities of being physical.
- Physical (particularly old) things have an aesthetic that comes with time.
- Physical things have to be curated because they take up real space. You can’t keep a limitless number. They force decision making.
- Therefore, physical things have been ‘selected’, which makes them more meaningful.
- Physical things have stories associated with them about their physicality.
- Physical things get a patina through their knocks that also tell their story.
- Books exemplify a special example of the physical. They have attributes that it’s hard for the digital to match (such as browsability, portability)
- Physical things can be personalised and changed.
And here’s the positive attributes of digital things:
- Digital things do not take up space – there’s no cost associated with keeping them and they are very portable.
- We can have a serendipitous relationship with digital things that can be delightful. I can put all 60 gigabytes of my music collection on random, for example, and find songs I haven’t listened to in decades.
- Digital things can have rich interactions, motion etc.
- Digital things can be easily duplicated and shared.
- Digital things do not crumble.
- Digital things can be augmented with metadata – objects can carry their stories, for example.
And a few things we found that both shared:
- Both physical and digital things need to be maintained to make sure they persist.
- Both digital and physical things make us guilty if we don’t sort them out.
- We feel delight when we randomly come across lost or forgotten things, whether they are digital or physical.
- Both need curating, but for different reason. For physical things we need to decide what to keep in order to keep our environments sane. For digital things we curate to make special, in order to elevate the “best” for sharing for example.
This feels like a useful list, for me at least, as we continue to think about the digital and physical forms that we reminisce with through the things we keep. Relevant to the Technology Heirlooms work, anyway.