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Book Review: The Future of Looking Back by Richard Banks

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The Future of Looking Back is a small book that delivers a big message on how to preserve personal values in today’s tech society.

Part 1, Stuff and Sentimentality, considers why we keep things and how to transfer them from physical to digital objects

Part 2, A Digital Life, where we take technology for granted

Part 3, New Sentimental Things, is about how to capture things and how to let them go.

We wouldn’t have seen a book on this topic even just ten years ago. Ours is a time of unprecedented change, in a world of rapid technological innovation, and we are in charge of preservation.

We are reminded that the future we get is the one we design. We should give as much thought to the legacy we will leave behind as we do to the one we inherit. How will we create and preserve digital history? This topic is of special interest to those who create and can influence the design of all things tech.

Take digital images: they might seem like permanent archives but they are as subject to obsolescence as cassette tapes and VHS family home movies. For all its advantages this is still an impediment to true permanence. Just as we trash MP3 players year after year, and upgrade devices that blend our personal, social, and work history, we confuse upgrading with sliding too far past recovery. We may find our stuff is too far gone to allow us to catalog, sort, and find the relevant bits we want to preserve, as we run out of physical space for objects.

The need to adopt digital means to preserve physical objects and memories makes us think about what we keep out of sentiment, obligation, or a desire to preserve the past.

Author Richard Banks works as a Microsoft researcher and has written this guide after giving a lot of thought to preserving archives from his father and grandfather. We learn through his personal experiences, as he puzzles over what media of today can possibly serve as a record he can leave behind for his baby daughter.

Many of us have experienced the problem of storing old family photo albums and small boxes of memorable items our parents carried with them, from house to house, city to city, through their long lives. What are we to do with those, other than repeat the pattern? If we add their stuff to our stuff, are we only deferring the decision and possible burden of disposing of a generations memories. Our grandparents likely left no digital history. In our own time, we long to preserve phases of life; key moments that matter in our lives, much as our parents did by keeping a record of a first tooth, first day of school, first bicycle. In our digital world, are we even capturing and saving anything of memorable value today?

While our motives for preserving memories differ, Banks quotes five reasons to consider preserving our rapidly changing past:

Reminiscing, reflecting, recollecting, retrieving, and remembering.

Again, we are reminded that the future we get is the one we design.

The Future of Looking Back offers ideas and descriptions of new technology that can allow digital preservation of objects, even in three-dimensional models for artifact preservation.

And as for saving the masses of our digital life, have you ever wondered what would happen to all our online content? Consider our email, documents, music, photos, financial records, health records, for example. Do we even own those, or are we just renting space where they reside?  In Chapter 8, “The Things We Put Online,” Banks suggests four sane approaches to data preservation, including content mobility with cloud services. For many, this will be the most important chapter in the book.

The Future of Looking Back includes a rich reference section and design challenges to consider at the end of each chapter.

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