Digital Artifacts as LegacyDesign & Field Study

Legacy is the meaningful and complex way in which information, values, and possessions are passed on to others. As digital systems and information become meaningfully parts of people’s everyday and social relationships, it is essential to develop new insights about how technology intersects with legacy and inheritance practices. To investigate further how digital materials might be passed down in the future, we designed three fully functional interactive systems: BlackBox, DataFade, and BitLogic. 

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BlackBox, DataFade, and BitLogic (from left to right)

BlackBox is a file and photo archiving site. Users are prompted to upload documents and photographs, which are organized by the system. The user selects which of these files they would like to upload, and drags visual representations of those files into a large box on the right hand side of the screen. Upon hitting submit, any files that have been dragged into the box are then processed by the system, and the user is given a link they can use to “re-visit” their files. Unlike a traditional archiving service, however, users who visit the link provided to them when they uploaded their files do not have the ability to access the files. Instead, they are greeted by a message describing the uploaded files and providing information about how long the files have been there. In presenting only data about the files, this system plays on the idea of “purging” through storage. People often place objects in a box, and store that box out of sight, as a way of reducing clutter, keeping things safe, and fulfilling obligations to hold on to mementos. BlackBox intentionally pushes this idea to an extreme, provoking users to contemplate how they view the ownership, lifespan, and safe-keeping of their digital files.

DataFade is a photo archiving site that allows users to upload a picture and watch it decay over time. Upon visiting the site, users are invited to upload a photo, and to select from a number of agents of decay. These agents are the weather at a zipcode of the users choosing, the number of online visits to the photo, and time. If a user chooses to have a photo decay in accordance with the weather, the system tracks the number of sunny and rainy days in the zip code provided. If the user chooses page visits, the system keeps track of how many times the web page is loaded. Finally, if the user chooses time, the photo will decay at a steady rate over time. Each of these agents was chosen as a digital approximation of a physical process. In the physical world, for example, a photo will decay due to exposure to the elements, through handling, and through chemical changes over time. In designing DataFade, we chose particular visual effects to represent each of these processes. These effects are demonstrated in the image of the flowers to the left. Sunshine increases the brightness of a photo, rain decreases the saturation, visits decrease the opacity, and the passage of time changes the colors of the photo to a more sepia tone.

BitLogic is a photo archiving site that allows users to upload a single photo at a time. The photo will, over the course of 30 days, decay along a digital spectrum that we devised. In contrast to the process of physical decay, which generally occurs in a familiar manner through exposure to various agents, digital decay is a less familiar process. Digital files typically exist in one of two states: either they are accessible or not. With BitLogic, however, we wanted to explore what it might mean for digital things to decay over time and to exhibit signs of decay without relying on affordances from the physical world. Photos uploaded to this system decay from their original state, in which they have evocative and personal meaning to the user, to digital data, which is far more meaningful to a digital system. We designed two stages of digital decay into BitLogic. In the first stage, the photo is increasingly distorted by noise and loses opacity. In the second stage, as the noisy photo nears transparency, the photo is slowly replaced by a field of binary 0s and 1s, representing bits.

We conducted in-home interviews with ten parents using the systems to provoke discussion about how technology might support or complicate their existing practices. Sessions revealed parents desired to treat their digital information in ways not fully supported by technology. Findings are interpreted to describe design considerations for future work in this emerging space.


Rebecca Gulotta, William Odom, Jodi Forlizzi, and Haakon Faste. 2013. Digital artifacts as legacy: exploring the lifespan and value of digital data. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’13). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 1813-1822. (Local Copy, ACM Link) *Best Paper Honorable Mention Award*