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ATPM 18.01
January 2012





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Book Review

by David Ozab,

The Future of Looking Back


Author: Richard Banks

Publisher: Microsoft Research

Price: $29 (Daisy, ePub, Mobi, PDF e-book); $25 (print); $30 (print and Daisy, ePub, Mobi, PDF e-book); $10 (Kindle)

Trial: Cover, table of contents, forward, first pages, and index at


As I sit at my laptop writing these words, I am surrounded by objects: a bookcase full to overflowing, pictures on the walls, photo albums tucked into a file cabinet, and a closet full of clothes. A room filled with stuff—some practical, some sentimental—and at least some of it will last long enough for my daughter to have to sort through someday.

Yet will these objects be the most important things I leave behind decades from now? What about the thousands of photos my wife has taken? Or the hours of video we’ve recorded? What about all the words I’ve written and will write—millions I hope—before I die? All these “objects” are just as real to me, and will be just as real to my daughter, as the items that fill this room. But they are not real in the same sense. They are data—an uncountable string of zeros and ones—that reside on one or more hard drives, some in this house and others on remote servers. What about them?

In The Future of Looking Back, Richard Banks discusses the difference between real and virtual artifacts and how our acts of reminiscence will change as more aspects of our lives become digitized. He asks several intriguing questions: What will replace the shoeboxes filled with photos and the collections of vinyl records and CDs? What kind of heirlooms will we leave behind? How will we reminisce about our lives and the lives of those we love when we no longer have physical objects to hold on to?

Physical vs. Digital

In Part I, “Stuff and Sentimentality,” Banks explores the difference between the physical and the digital and the advantages and disadvantages of each. He contrasts the aging of physical objects, and how the scruffs and scratches they accumulate over time add to their history, with the perpetual perfection of digital data. He also discusses the planned obsolescence of digital devices and wonders if the computers, cameras, phones, and MP3 players we treat as disposable carriers will ever be viewed the same way as vintage furniture, old record players, or transistor radios. And what about the digital files themselves? With the ability to perfectly duplicate text, photos, video, and music, is there any point in distinguishing between originals and copies? Will this cheapen the way we look at an e-mail stored on multiple devices or a series of tweets spread across the Internet versus a handwritten letter or diary?

Stages of Life

In Part II, “A Digital Life,” Banks looks at the way each stage of life intersects with our digital environment. Like many parents, I have hours of video tapes of my daughter, chronicling all the milestones of her young life. I’ve edited a few of these in iMovie, but the bulk of them still sit on DV tapes and may remain there for years. Will they still be viewable decades from now? Maybe I should transfer them while my DV camera still works.

The section on adolescence gave me pause. I recall the immense embarrassment whenever my dad would haul out the 8mm projector and show the movies he made of my first year, and as much as I love to talk about and write about my daughter now, I need to keep in mind that in a few years she may not appreciate the attention on her as much as she does now. That said, I now own a VHS tape of my dad’s home movies and have shown them to my daughter. The embarrassment fades in time.

I also related to the section on adulthood—recalling how my wife and I have kept all the e-mails we exchanged from the beginning of our relationship—and wondered about the section on seniors. My own parents never kept up with the digital age—they never even owned a computer. Everything I come across that belonged to my mom while she was alive—and everything of my dad’s that I will one day have to sort through—is physical. Most of what my daughter will eventually inherit won’t be.

The last stage of life, of course, is death, and the chapter “A Digital Death” gives this difficult topic a sensitive treatment. How do we grieve, how do we honor, and how do we maintain a continuity of relationship with the deceased through the legacy they leave behind? How does legacy change when it resides mostly in the virtual world?

Physical From Digital

In Part III, “New Sentimental Things,” Banks speculates how “radically different the digital things of our future might be.” He talks about capturing real spaces in virtual environments and bringing virtual objects into real space. He shows different ways in which people make artifacts from digital data, such as jewelry that captures the patterns of binary code or the shapes of sound files. And he wonders about the things we put online and where these things are—if they can even be said to have a “place.”

The book asks many critical questions regarding the act of reminiscence within a digital world, and in each chapter Banks offers numerous examples of products developed by the programmers, engineers, and designers at Microsoft Research that attempt to bridge the divide between the physical and the digital. For me, on first reading anyway, these suggested solutions were the weakest part of Banks’ presentation. In most cases they seem artificial, like they’re trying too hard to graft the characteristics of older objects on their newer equivalents. Any real, lasting solutions to these issues will need to grow more organically out of the problems they attempt to solve rather than being imposed from the outside.

That said, this book’s greatest strength is that it starts a conversation that could very well lead to the organic solutions I find myself longing for as I read. Banks includes insightful discussion questions at the end of each chapter that are sure to inspire minds far more suited to solving these problems. The challenge has been extended. We await the reply.

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