The Future of Looking Back by Richard Banks

This book, The Future of Looking Back, by Microsoft researcher Ricard Banks is about how we deal with the digital file and technological things that are becoming our legacy, our heirlooms. It is about the art of reminiscing in an increasingly digital world. In the past we might have received jewelry, clothing, furniture, etc., from relatives as they pass away. Now it may be desktop computers, iPads, TVs, digital cameras and digital files and online profiles.

In contrasting the physical and digital Banks uses his own experience as a running metaphor throughout the book. He got a suitcase full of old photographs from his grandfather. These are physical things. He doesn’t know the whole story behind some of the photos, so now he must either research family history or revel in family mystery. By way of contrast, some of his own digital pictures have so much information automatically embedded in them it may be virtually impossible to not know the context of each picture.

Implied in much of the book, at least it seemed so to me, is the idea that the digital things are cheaper than the physical. While we are connected more and have access to far more information than other generations we are a “throw away” society. Stories and emotions are invested in those physical inheritances we receive whereas this does not seem to be the case with digital inheritances. Perhaps it is just the sheer amount of information. It is daunting to sort through the folders on a PC. It would be much easier to thumb through a picture album.

In addition to drawing these contrasts, Banks also poses design questions at the end of each of his chapters. He want computer engineers and software designers and their ilk to brainstorm better ways of preserving memories and legacy in digital form. He also mentions various inventions and services that already exist to aid digital preservation.

For instance, he points out a Twitter box that one writer used. This writer saved tweets for a year, printed them, and put them in a hardwood box for posterity. Banks mentions a service called the Wayback Machine which lets you look at web pages the service has archived over the years. (It even has some archived pages from my old blog, A Hand In The Act of Writing – I was shocked). You can see how a website has evolved over time. Sometime the book does feel like a commercial for Microsoft.

Banks raises some good questions about how we should deal with our digital domain. The book will make you consider what things in your life you may want to pass on, what things are really important. Therefore, it seems to be a book worth reading.

Sent from my iPad