Expert Insider: Richard Banks

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Richard Banks, Microsoft Research Socio-Digital Systems group

A trend we are tracking throughout this Curve report is the nostalgia/retro obsession that has featured in all markets and segments, from the Instagram pioneers to Volkswagen car buyers watching ads that drip with the period feel of the 1970s. So when it came to exploring how new technology is shaping our current obsession with the past, and how it is changing how we relate to images and image-making, there was one person we were needed to talk to – Richard Banks.

Richard Banks is an Interaction Designer in the Microsoft Research Socio-Digital Systems group, part of the Computer Mediated Living group in the Microsoft Research Cambridge facility. His recent book The Future of Looking Back explores the changing role of memory, technology and images in our digitized lives.

The Curve: What’s your background Richard?

Richard Banks: I’ve got a design background and a broad product development background. Microsoft Research is primarily computer science research, an element of academic outreach as well as trying to figure out new developments for Microsoft. We talk to people about why they chose to make their homes the way they are. We have explored issues like analogue and digital photography in the home. We look at how people manage their digital photos and research around communication and tools, family uses, the politics of the family, how technology can invert roles within the home.

The Curve: Can you give an example of how technology changes roles?

RB: We build technology and introduce them into the homes to study how people really use it and one of the deployments was electricity-monitoring tools which are common now. What we are looking for interesting patterns in how they change peoples’ behaviours. So in the case of the electricity monitoring tools we started to see kids following parents around nagging them about turning the lights off.

Suddenly they had these tools to make a ‘game’ of the home because of the way technology exposes the elements of the home. A lot of the research around memory in the magazine comes out of that and how families constitute their history together,  surrounding themselves with things that remind them of events in their past.

The Curve: You also highlight the idea of family artifacts as vehicles for storytelling.

RB: We are very interested in artifacts like photo albums which are about the things which people can’t bring themselves to throw away and don’t want to lose the connection through. The book that I wrote comes out of that, asking people to get the boxes out their lofts and telling us the stories of these things which connected them with the past.

A lot of those things, such as images, are switching to digital rather than physical so there’s the question of what will legacy mean once a lot of that shift has happened? How do new kinds of digital things like Tweets and Facebook status updates affect a person’s relationship to the past, and the way future generations interpret a person’s life.

 

The Curve: Your book explores how the shift to digital shifts our relationship to memory.

RB: Some of the recent research has touched on things like ownership so with legacy, an estate there is a clear sense of ownership. What we are finding with Facebook is that often when somebody takes a photo with the goal of putting it on Facebook they never really feel like the photo is theirs. They say, “Well it never really belonged to me, it belongs to my friends.” What they are doing is almost like a social contract when they put something on Facebook. It belongs to the community of friends that it becomes a part of.

The Curve: So photography helps make it a social memory first before it’s a personal memory?

RB: Even that sense from people that they didn’t really go to an event until they share the pictures from it. It brings up some interesting questions about what the role is, particularly of photography and making things ‘fixed’.

The Curve: There is a history of sociologists who are wary about the increasing impact of the image, of a ‘society of the image.’ You mention the Facebook phenomenon, that the event doesn’t happen unless it’s mediated, captured in an image. We are currently using more imagery than ever, what does your work reveal about the status of the image in our lives?

RB: There’s a shifting sense of the tools you would use. Part of this for example is the role of the camera, a sense that when you go to a concert and everyone is holding up their cameras taking pictures, the act of taking a photograph is no longer about the image at all it’s about participation. It doesn’t really matter about the quality of the image it’s more that you are participating in the event by taking a picture of it.

I was at SXSW in March and I went to see a panel that was all about making images. The panel was called “Are we creating a world of magic or mediocrity?” It was very clear that everyone was a fan of Instagram and there was a bit of a discussion that went on about physical versus digital images. But no one went deep on the motivations for people to make their images look like they were taken like a Lomo camera from the 1960s. It’s about the image and image-making more than about the subject matter.

Instagram adds this other element where it’s the manipulation of the image that ends up being interesting, rather than a snapshot of a situation. It raises the question of what is an ‘authentic’ version of a digital image if people feel the need to scratch them and make them messy.

The Curve: I got the sense in your book that photography is becoming as much about storytelling as it is about documenting?

RB: I can’t decide. I was reading this article in Domus about visiting architecture virtually – there are so many images of architecture around the world that you can really get a strong sense of the object architecture without ever having to go there. Like the Photosynth technology that came out of Microsoft. They have this great demo where they show, for example, the Notre Dame cathedral. They can show through algorithms loads of photos of the cathedral that people have taken from lots of positions around the cathedral and figure out exactly how they overlap and where the photographer was standing at the point the image was taken.

What they end up doing is recreating almost a 3D version of the Notre Dame where you can click from image to image and go out and see the whole building, all the way in to small pictures of details in the stonework.  It does end up feeling like a record of things rather than being a story of the visit or the story of the building. There are some people for whom the image is the graphical quality the crop, the framing, the colours, the lines. For others it’s the sense of the participation with the image as an aside and recording. Then there’s that example of taking photos of a child and watching them evolve.

The Curve: At one end there are people fascinated by the aesthetic and the plasticity of the image, the digital image as something you can make something with, and then at the other end there is the image as story-teller as in Jonathan Harris’ Cowbird project, using the data with the image to find and tell human stories.

RB: We look at the photo album as an object which allows us to sit down with a set of images and reflect on the content and arrange them. One of the devices we build is a timeline so I put photos of my grandfather on the timeline and got a sense of where he was and how he had changed, which I would only have got from sitting down with the stuff I had about him.

There’s a lot of emphasis online at themoment on chronology, on the most ‘recent’ – Facebook and Twitter are about narrative and how it happens. Cowbird is all about taking the time to sit down and think through the story. Storify as well is another example of pulling in the status updates and tweets and Flickr which happened in real time, and tell a story to stamp the reality of the story. I do think there need to be more examples of Cowbird and Storify that allow people to sit down and reflect in the same way that a photo album allows you to – things that you have to construct.

The Curve: ‘Construct’ is a good word. People do talk a lot about ‘curation’ at the moment, but it’s a very different idea to what curation used to be, which would have been closer to a domestic form of curation we would all have practiced with the photo album.  Curation as telling a story, rather than curation as ‘a bunch of stuff I like’.

RB: That’s right. Retweeting to me is a very in-the-moment form of curation. That’s what’s interesting about a site like Pinterest is that you make themes and then you start in the moment adding to those themes and hopefully you end up with something that in retrospect is a very interesting set of curations. And I wonder if people will go back to the little collections of images they are putting up on Pinterest and cull some and think well this doesn’t belong anymore and think what the whole story is here?

THE TAKEOUT

Firstly, the sheer scale of the impact of apps such as Instagram will have one obvious result. While still responding to high-quality, beautifully shot photography in advertising, consumers will respond to different kinds of images that look ‘imperfect’, look as if they are taken in the moment by the hand of an individual – images that feel immediate, and feel part of a ‘story’. It’s likely to drive a new vernacular form in professional image-making and image usage by advertisers.

It is also likely that a generation of people whose family memories are likely to have been captured in digital form, rather than analogue, will increasingly be attuned to issues of ‘archiving’ and ‘memory’. The current nostalgia trend will evolve as people explore how they curate their own personal and family history through images. Advertisers who work with ideas around narrative and storytelling in their visual communications will find a receptive audience.

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