House Memory: On Activity Traces
as a Form of Cultural Heritage
We visited 20 houses and conductedsemi-structured interviews with thehomeowners. Each interview startedwith several factual questions such as:When was your house built? How longhave you been living here? We thenasked participants what they knewabout the house’s history, who had livedthere before them, and how they learnedabout the house’s past.
We further situated our interviewsthrough a show-and-tell-style exercise inwhich participants gave us a home tourwith an emphasis on changes made tothe house over the years either by themor previous owners. When participantswere telling us about specific homerepair or improvement projects, weprobed how they dealt with the traces ofprior work (or lack thereof ) when theywere trying to modify or appropriate theplace to fit their own needs and tastes.
We asked questions such as: Was thereanything surprising or unexpectedin this project? What guesswork didyou have to do? What did you learnabout the house from this project? Ifparticipants had records about thehouse, we asked about whether thoserecords were useful in these projects.
The home tour and walkthrough ofartifacts and records also occasionallytook the conversation back to thebroader historical background of thehouse and the neighborhood.
Our fieldwork led us to a few insightsthat have implications for designingpotential ways of using digital traces leftin a place in the long term. We describethem here.
The traces passed on and the ones
left behind. What carries traces, and
where can traces be found? These were
As everyday places become more
aware of what we do, an enormous
volume of activity traces can be
captured and potentially amassed
over the long run. Yet the narratives
surrounding those technologies mostly
focus on short-term gains in efficiency
and comfort; few have considered the
long-term value of those captured
traces. We are concerned that traces
will be discarded prematurely, since
the perceived risk to privacy easily
outweighs the as yet unclear benefits.
Thus, it is important to ask: How mightwe, or rather our future generations,find digital footprints left in a placeuseful in the long term?
Our research and design work [ 3]suggests that activity traces capturedby everyday places can be a new form ofcultural heritage for people who comeafter us. Here, we will use several designconcepts to illustrate the idea that thosetraces, no matter how unremarkablethey appear to be, can potentially serveas resources for our descendants toconnect with us and our times.
Admittedly, it is difficult to
anticipate how people in the far
future might interpret, use, and
act on the traces their predecessors
left. Nonetheless, we believe today’s
designers can gain inspiration by
looking closely at comparable practices
of interpreting historical traces in the
present (which is, after all, the future
of the past). Accordingly, we examined
how people today make sense of and
make use of the traces they found in
the places where they live. What we
learned from our fieldwork inspired and
grounded our designs.
To be more specific, we studiedhow current homeowners interpretedand used previous occupants’ tracesof inhabiting and appropriating theirhomes in the Midwestern UnitedStates. We chose to examine houses—especially old houses—over othertypes of places for two reasons. First,every owner of a house leaves long-lasting personal and family markson the house through, for example,remodeling and reconfiguring thespace, and these marks often carrysignificant meaning. Second, thedomestic environment is becoming oneof the most instrumented spaces thatcapture and hold new types of traces.
Tao Dong, Mark W. Newman, and Mark S. Ackerman, University of Michigan
→ People find meaning in historical
traces in their houses even when
they appear to be unremarkable.
→ We need to design for both practicaland evocative uses of traces leftin places.
→ We must strike a balance betweennear-term concerns about privacyover traces and their potential valueto future generations.
This forum aims to offer and promote a rich discussion at the intersection of art, performance, and culture that expands theboundaries of HCI while broadening our understanding of how things of the past come to matter in the present.
— Elisa Giaccardi, EditorFORUM ON HERITAGE