This project is motivated by our ongoing frustration with the fact that our electronic devices are not as resilient and reliable as mechanical ones, and our digital imprints are not cherished like physical ones.
For example, current mobile phones and personal computers, along with software, are designed, marketed, and used assuming expected lifespans of a few years; while mechanical wristwatches, musical instruments, or tools in mechanical workshops (e.g. mills and lathes) are expected to last decades. Similarly, printed photos often become cherished possessions handled with care, while digital photos might receive attention for a few seconds only.
We consider this to be a design problem. In our work so fark, we have provided scaffolding for further research and designs for enduring computational artifacts by bringing together diverse knowledge streams: philosophy, design research, economics, and engineering.
Our initial design direction for realizing interactive computational heirlooms is based on a union of distributed, trustless, ubiquitous software and durable, physical, mobile devices. We propose blockchain-based software as a design material for enduring, precious digital imprints. Conversely, we recognize that the complexity and abstractness of software does not fully reflect the values we wish to capture. We argue that access management to such a system can be accomplished using purely mechanical mobile devices, similar in many ways to mechanical wristwatches, which can implement sentimental aspects of our intended design direction while addressing certain usability problems.
We define an heirloom as a possession that is meant to be cherished, preserved, used, and possibly maintained, throughout the lifetimes of multiple owners, while in some way embedding an "imprint" of previous ownership. As such, an heirloom enables its owners to store and experience both sentimental and material value, while also enabling the transfer of such value between owners.
Heirloom status is associated with software, and electronics only in exceptional cases; mostly when significant monetary value is of concern. Reasons for this include the rapid obsolescence, and (for software) a lack of affordances for ownership and its transfer. In terms of the functional, symbolic, and material qualities of posessions, articulated by Peter-Paul Verbeek in his 2005 book What Things Do, the implication is that the embedding of enduring symbolic value in digital materials is problematic. Our proposal is that the blockchain can be considered as a particular design material that can address this challenge. Conversely, enduring mechanical devices, rather than electronics, can be used to tackle issues of authentication and access control that are essential for the usability of blockchain-based software, while also providing affordances for ownership transfer.
Our work so far has focused on articulating and justifying this concept. To this end, we reviewed prior research on heirloom status in design literature; reconsidered the notion of “material” in interaction design; proposed blockchain-based software as a particular digital material to serve as a substrate for computational heirlooms; and argued for the use of mobile artifacts informed in terms of their materials and formgiving practices by mechanical wristwatches as its physical embodiment and functional counterpart. This novel integration is meant to enable mobile and ubiquitous interactive systems for the storing, experiencing, and exchanging value throughout multiple lifetimes; showcasing the feats of computational sciences and crafts; and enabling novel user experiences.
For a detailed articulation of the concept, please see our presentation (below) and research paper at the ACM’s 2018 Conference on Designing Interactive Systems.
Mehmet Aydın Baytaş, Aykut Coşkun, Asım Evren Yantaç and Morten Fjeld (2019). Appreciating Digital Materials for Longevous Computational Artifacts. Paper presented at the CHI 2019 workshop Towards a Responsible Innovation Agenda for HCI.
Baytaş, M.A., Coşkun, A., Yantaç, A.E., Fjeld, M. (2018) Towards Materials for Computational Heirlooms: Blockchains and Wristwatches. In Proceedings of the 2018 Conference on Designing Interactive Systems (DIS 2018). [Best Paper award]