Lifestreams: Archives for the Digital Age?

On October 27, 2010, in Research, by Chris Prom

Most archivists would argue that our profession’s major contribution to information science has been the development of specific techniques to preserve the context under which analog records were created and used.  The wide range of appraisal, accession, arrangement, description, and access techniques that we use seek to preserve and make known a single record’s relationship to other records created by the same records producer—as well as records produced by other individuals or groups.  When repositories succeed in preserving provenance and original order, those who use archives and personal papers are able to answer several questions that pertain to all aspects of research:

  • Are  the records are what they claim to be?
  • Do they provide high-quality evidence concerning a person or organization’s activities?  If so, how does that evidence compare to evidence in other, related records?
  • Is the information contained in the records accurate?
  • What external or internal factors may bias or otherwise affected a record’s veracity?

How can archivists ensure that future users will be able to answer these questions?  A person or group scatters digital traces of their activities across many dispersed and heterogeneous systems, including local hard drives, personal and work computers, mobile devices, blogs, social media accounts, and cloud storage devices.

I began to ponder this question several week ago when I leaned that Apple had lost a huge patent infringement case.  Digging beyond the New York Times story, I discovered that Apple was judged by the jury to have infringed on the “Lifestreaming” patents held by a company founded by Unabomber victim David Gelertner and his student  Eric Freeman.  So, I began to read more about lifestreaming here, here, here, here, and here.

As a concept lifestreaming seems to mirror common archival concepts.  As Gelertner described it in his Think Big interview:

[Lifestreaming] was a time-based versus space or surface-based organization of information. The idea was that every electronic asset you had, every piece of information, whether it was an email or instant message, whether it was a file or spreadsheet, whether it was a photo or am MP3, it would appear in a single time ordered stream that mirrored the evolution of your life. So, in principle the first thing on the stream would be my birth certificate, a little electronic version of that, my parents would put my school records, health records, whatever of their child onto the stream. And the stream continues to flow forward through time. I can deal with the – the future is available to me as well as the past. I can search in the past to find whatever I want and everything is fully indexed. If, when I schedule things when I know things are coming up, I put them in the future. When I have something I need to return to that I don’t have time for now, I put it in the future.[. . . ]

[T]he basic idea was to assemble just a chronological time-line heterogeneous with just absolutely everything on it.

While this vision seems utopian, Gelertner and his students developed a formal model (in publications) and computer code to implement lifestreaming.  The concepts have subsequently been incorporated into many successful commercial projects, including, allegedly, Apple. (The case is currently under appeal.)

Regardless of the merits of the case, there are several ways that this concept and lifestreaming tools could be applied to archives.  I previously noted the need for a Coverflow-like application to conduct rapid records appraisal.  But more to the point: what if archives began offering a lifestreaming/aggregation services similar to those listed on the lifestreaming blog?  It would help people and groups organize and control their digital lives in the present, while building a long-term repository of provenance-based research materials–that is unified in location and deposited under a standard deed of gift form.

Over the next few days, my graduate research assistant Liz Schlagel will be testing one such application, and we’ll post more as her experiments move forward.


As an aside, the ways in which Apple implemented lifestreaming is the reason I like my Mac so much better than a Windows or Linux desktop computer.  For example, the idea is at the core of both spotlight and the search function in Mail.app (Apple’s Mail client built into OSX). Mail.app’s search works flawlessly across the four accounts I use on a regular basis, as well as my sent mail archives.    Speculating a bit, I would say that the only reason it was not included in the patent infringement case is that Mail.app is not as heavily used as the other technologies over which Apple was sued.  In any case, it will be interesting to follow this case as it works through appeal.