At last week’s Research Now event, there was a fascinating, and sometimes quite touching, presentation from Richard Banks, who is an interaction designer with Microsoft Research.

Richard talked about his work looking at producing physical objects that will enable people to reflect and reminisce about digital artifacts in ways analogous to how photo albums and framed pictures have been used in the last hundred years or so. One observation that he made was that information in old written diaries that at the time would have been seen as trivial, now gives incredible insight into the day to day lives of our ancestors.

We have an example of this in my own family’s loft-based artifacts. My father inherited a large number of old copies of the magazine Punch, from the teens to the 1930s. As was the fashion of the day, the magazines originally had been printed with advertising on the front and back pages. At the end of each year, all of those adverts would be stripped from the body of the magazine, and then that content was bound into big volumes, fitting of a library shelf (or my parents’ attic). Looking through those bound editions, with the satirical political coverage and cartoons, it’s hard to really get a feeling for the spirit of the age in which they were published. There is incredible detail, but most is extremely difficult to understand without being in the moment or an in-depth scholar of the period.

My parents, though, also had a few unbound copies of the magazine that still had those adverts attached. Advertising, without doubt, gives a sense of the feeling of an age in a way that written copy simply can’t. It’s not that adverts tell the “truth” – but they certainly give a strong feel of the culture of an age.

Which brings us back to Richard’s talk, and the constant criticism of Twitter for being nothing more than narcissists letting the world know about the irrelevant minutiae of their days – “I’ve just had lunch LOL!”. It might be that, despite what some believe today, a valuable archive of contemporary life is being built on social networks that will give historians of the future unique and unparalleled insight into the world of 2013.

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