Envisioning the Whole Digital Person

Beautiful Information

Discovering patterns in knowledge spaces

A column by Jonathan Follett
February 20, 2007

Our lives are becoming increasingly digitized—from the ways we communicate, to our entertainment media, to our e-commerce transactions, to our online research. As storage becomes cheaper and data pipes become faster, we are doing more and more online—and in the process, saving a record of our digital lives, whether we like it or not.

As a human society, we’re quite possibly looking at the largest surge of recorded information that has ever taken place, and at this point, we have only the most rudimentary tools for managing all this information—in part because we cannot predict what standards will be in place in 10, 50, or 100 years.

In the public sector, the information glut has risen to the point of crisis. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal from December 29, 2005, “Oh, Has Uncle Sam Got Mail,” “the White House is expected to turn over more than 100 million emails to the National Archives” when President Bush leaves office. The article goes on to describe the bottleneck at the National Archives, where they cannot easily convert the information they receive to searchable, retrievable formats. The National Archives has retained Lockheed Martin to solve this data storage fiasco, and Lockheed Martin has recommended using HTML as the standard document format—and using digital adaptors to translate that into a new language when it becomes obsolete.”

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As difficult as the public sector finds archiving, there is at least a concerted effort to address the problem and a budget for developing a solution. Likewise, businesses have the resources to deal with the similar surge in private sector data. But for individuals, whose lives are slowly becoming collections of bits and bytes, coping with this rapidly growing problem places them in largely unfamiliar territory. As ’80s new wave rockers Duran Duran put it, “It’s too much information for me.”

A Scattered Information Environment

All aspects of our lives, from the amazing to the mundane, are now subject to digitization. Online services are storing and using our everyday communications in ways we could not imagine even a few years ago. What was once transient information is now persistent. Online email services with generous storage, like Google™ Gmail™, allow you to save pretty much every message you send and receive.

Our evolving digital existence has made it difficult to keep track of and control all of our information. People are executing more and more transactions online, but entities other than users govern the terms of many of these transactions. Within the digital world, there are items we might choose to share—like our videos, blogs, and playlists—and other items we would prefer to keep private—like our medical records, our financial transactions, and our personal communications. Our personal knowledge assets are scattered, haphazardly organized, and growing rapidly. As a result, we are struggling to access our data, organize it in a meaningful way, and interact with it.

In addition to our online information, we also collect data on our personal computers’ hard disks. Today, we can purchase storage media for one dollar a gigabyte or less. However, while we have the capability and capacity to save our data, that doesn’t mean we do so with any set purpose in mind. The full impact of our having unlimited digital storage has not yet become apparent, because its existence as a commodity has so far been relatively short. But there is no doubt that a massive amount of personal information is accumulating on people’s hard disks everywhere. The greatest piece of unmapped territory for the search industry to index may not be the dark data that resides on corporate servers, but rather people’s rapidly growing personal archives.

The Digital Life

In the coming years, our ability to interact with the information we’re so rapidly generating will determine how successfully we can manage our digital lives. There is a great challenge at our doorsteps—a shift in the way we live with each other.

As designers of user experiences for digital products and services, we can make people’s digital lives more meaningful and less confusing. It is our responsibility to envision not only techniques for sorting, ordering, and navigating these digital information spaces, but also to devise methods of helping people feel comfortable with such interactions. To better understand and ultimately solve this information management problem, we should take a holistic view of the digital person. While our data might be scattered, people need to feel whole.

The components that make up our digital lives largely fall into five categories—each presenting its own set of information management challenges:

  • identificationIdentification, whether it be a text password, encryption key, or biometric authenticator, makes possible all our connections and transactions. Because identification is so important to e-commerce, efforts to standardize identity systems are in high gear. For example, the practice of federated identity management—a one-step, integrated login system for allied vendors—is a popular solution to enable a streamlined user experience. Our digital identification ensures that we are who we say we are and may be the key to organizing our personal knowledge assets.
  • possessionsBecause e-commerce is a driving force in virtual life, we have the least difficulty in establishing our legitimate ownership of digital items we have purchased—software, e-books, photos, drawings, fonts, music, and videos. Activation codes and other security features make these digital possessions easy to track—although not necessarily easy to organize.
  • contentWe all create digital content, whether it be photos, text, videos, graphics,  drawings, or code. However, attributing authorship of these assets out of context can be difficult. For example, once a photo has left the confines of a Web site, it is—more likely than not—devoid of any identifying data. There are solutions to this problem: We can use the Properties and File Info panel or the Extensible Metadata Platform (XMP), the labeling protocol from Adobe, to add authorship data.
  • preferencesWhen vendors are feeling generous, they let us export our preferences, lists, and other information they have preserved in third-party databases, in XML formats. We have limited control over this information, however.
  • recordsOf all our personal knowledge assets, we have the least amount of control over many of our most important records—be they medical, financial, educational, or other types of records. In many instances, our access to them is severely limited.

In the coming decades, as digital media ownership issues become more complex, as the number of application user interfaces we use daily grows—along with their accompanying preferences—as the number of secure digital transactions we make increases, and as the quantity of our personal data held by third parties multiplies, our society will likely face a digital reckoning. We will be forced to sort out who has access to and ownership of what data, and user experience designers will help make that data more universally accessible.

The Future Virtual Life of Everyday People

We are only beginning to come to terms with our virtual lives, and the legal, personal, and social issues that have come with this transition to a new way of living. Not only must we manage, organize, and protect our information on a day-to-day basis throughout our lives, we must now also plan for the administration of this data after we die. A June 30, 2004 article in the Baltimore City Paper, “Ghosts in the Machines: What Happens to Your Online Self When You Die? delves into some of the thorny issues that arise when people have no legal directives in place to manage their virtual lives after their deaths. What do you do with loved ones’ online accounts and information—from their Flickr™ photos to their Second Life® avatars to their AIM® (AOL® Instant Messenger™) accounts?

Previous generations left behind little or no personal digital information, but we will have a substantial digital legacy. In many ways, we will be leaving behind traces of our personalities—in our writings, videos, photos, and audio recordings. It’s likely that all of the thoughts I’ve shared on everything from graphic design to surfing to electronic music to cooking will be accessible to future generations, whether they want it or not.

For what purposes should we keep all this personal information? What would we ever use it for?

The field of medicine could realize great benefit from aggregating personal health records that are currently scattered across providers. Family medical histories could become more detailed and accurate.

For many, the preservation of personal and family history in digital assets and the ability to interact with data their ancestors accumulated or produced would be a priceless treasure. For example, my grandparents were both artists, and their beautiful watercolors and pen-and-ink drawings, which reside in various relatives’ houses, are not easily accessible to myself or my sister, who are both designers. My grandfather’s music collection is long gone, probably sold off ages ago at a yard sale. And his writings and letters are similarly inaccessible. I never spoke to my grandfather about his World War II experiences, but I sure could use his perspective now, with the United States engaged in armed conflicts on multiple fronts.

From a historical perspective, there are endless possibilities for our personal knowledge assets. If iTunes® had existed in his time, what jazz aficionado wouldn’t want to know what songs were on John Coltrane’s playlist? Or what music Miles Davis was listening to the day he wrote “Kind of Blue”? Similarly, if Flickr and Netflix® had been around in their time, what artist wouldn’t be interested in seeing Picasso’s Flickr portfolio or Fellini’s Netflix queue?

Will the semantic Web, bigger and better search algorithms, or the tagging and labeling formats of some content management system we can’t yet imagine solve these problems of organization and management? What the solution for controlling our personal knowledge assets will be is as yet unclear.

But, as user experience practitioners, we can advocate for data portability, accessibility, and standardization and prepare ourselves and our customers to manage our new digital lives. It will be important to establish that these digital pieces of our lives are indeed personal assets that have long-term value, beyond that of an immediate transaction. Because, the way things look now, our digital selves may be around far longer than we are. 

Principal at GoInvo

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Jonathan FollettAt GoInvo, a healthcare design and innovation firm, Jon leads the company’s emerging technologies practice, working with clients such as Partners HealthCare, the Personal Genome Project, and Walgreens. Articles in The Atlantic, Forbes, The Huffington Post, and WIRED have featured his work. Jon has written or contributed to half a dozen non-fiction books on design, technology, and popular culture. He was the editor for O’Reilly Media’s Designing for Emerging Technologies, which came out in 2014. One of the first UX books of its kind, the work offers a glimpse into what future interactions and user experiences may be for rapidly developing technologies such as genomics, nano printers, or workforce robotics. Jon’s articles on UX and information design have been translated into Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Polish, and Portuguese. Jon has also coauthored a series of alt-culture books on UFOs and millennial madness and coauthored a science-fiction novel for young readers with New York Times bestselling author Matthew Holm, Marvin and the Moths, which Scholastic published in 2016. Jon holds a Bachelor’s degree in Advertising, with an English Minor, from Boston University.  Read More

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