Mary Galvin

Mary Galvin

Autobiographical Narratives: The Potential of Digital Media to enrich the experiences of and explore the relationship between Memory and Identity


Existing research on memory and digital media overlooks the aesthetic experience (McCarthy and Wright, 2004) of artifactual forms of ‘memory’, and the potential of digital forms to play a role similar to, or distinctly different from, corporeal objects in personal and cultural remembrance and hope (Assmann, 1995). To address this, the current project proposal’s aim is to understand the aesthetic experience of participants in memory ritual, particularly digitally-mediated memory rituals. It will employ ethnography to explore experience and practices around the creation of memory, identity and autobiographical narrative, the relationships between them, and the potential of digital media to enrich such experience.

Evocative Objects – An Artifactual Form of Memory

People’s everyday experiences are shaped by and shapes an external environment that habituates and prompts us (Miller, 2010).

Things that are important to people become part of their experience: and evoke and elicit experiences and autobiographical narratives, which play a significant role in self development and personal identity formation (Bruner, 1996).

….autobiographical memory is the recalling of personally experienced past events …it plays a central role in the individual’s sense of self, in emotional experience and in all those attributes that define a person and it evolves with age and context (Conway, 2005).

….as objects elicit this autobiographical memory, cherished belongings can be seen as an artifactual form of memory.

The social interactions between the individual and their cherished objects as well as the interactions between these objects and individuals family members are a pivotal aspect to this research proposal.

The Evocative Potential of Digital Media

Although digital media are moving into the space in memory rituals also occupied by cherished and evocative objects, little is understood about the potential of digital forms to move people, to evoke the aforementioned aesthetic experiences appropriate to the memory ritual, or to connect past and future in memory ritual.

Functional aspects of digitally-mediated memory can readily be seen, for example, in how one uses a calendar on their mobile phone to set a reminder, however, although not excluding the functional as an important aspect of the aesthetic (Dewey, 1934) the particular focus of this project will be on interpreting aesthetic experience of categories such as memory, identity and autobiography.

The focus therefore will be on people’s narratives of their felt and lived experience with cherished objects, both those they already own and those they might imagine in an experience-centred co-design process that they would engage in with the researcher.

Focus of Proposed Research

The proposed research will explore aesthetic experience in two contexts that evoke a sense of beginning and end, construction and decay.

One of those contexts is the decay of memory in dementia, which implies a challenge to sense of self and identity (Surr, 2006). In this context, the proposed research will build on research on the design of digital support for personhood in dementia based on artefact-mediated reminiscence.
The second context in which aesthetic experience will be explored is that stage of development in which personhood and identity is ‘naturally’ developed between parents and children often through the use of cherished objects such as teddy bears. The proposed study will make use of existing theoretical work in developmental psychology and psychoanalysis on infants’ relationships with cherished objects (Winnicott, 1990, Klein, 1998 and Bowlby, 2005) to inform its ethnographic and design-led exploration of the construction of memory, identity, and autobiography between parent and young child.

An ethnographic approach will be in employed collecting and analysing experiences of participants in autobiographical memory, memory ritual and designing for memory ritual. In the design aspect of the project, the researcher and participants will also co-design evocative digital forms for autobiographical memory construction. Collaboration with artists and designers will be available in developing and carrying out the project. The designs will act as novel elicitation probes aimed at understanding the practices around the creation of memory, identity and autobiographical narratives to develop a richer understanding of the relationship between them and the potential of digital media to enrich these practices. For example, in the case of early childhood, this could be through parents creating Facebook profiles for their toddlers or creating playlists of their favourite childhood songs. In the case of dementia sufferers this could be done through the displaying of digital photographs of loved ones or indeed through the design of digital jewellery pieces (Wallace, Wright, McCarthy, and Olivier (submitted). Experience-centred design of new digital media such as these creates an opportunity to engage imaginatively with the categories of memory, identity, and autobiography.