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Free University of Bozen-Bolzano

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Digital memories and the cracks they fall into

Letizia Bollini explores the phygital memories of Bolzano and the present-day history that’s lost to the spaces between storytelling mediums.

In the year 2623, what kind of proof will historians have of our blip on the timeline? How will they describe, for example, the buzzing Via dei Portici / Laubengasse in Bolzano? And if anything survives over 6 centuries, will it be interpreted the way we anticipate?

These are the mind-bending questions designer and researcher, Letizia Bollini, explores with her interdisciplinary work. It’s easy to assume future historians will have more data than they can handle: blogs, websites, geo-tagged selfies, Google Maps, emails, social media content, and the World Wide Web. However, while digital media might not rot like paper, it’s lost in new ways.

Letizia Bollini, an associate professor at the Department of Design and Art at the Free University of Bolzano, knows that our history isn’t as set as it’s assumed to be. Her work explores how we tell, access, and preserve the human story in technologically evolving mediums. “We are still reading manuscripts from the Middle Ages but we cannot access data stored in the 90s,” explains Bollini.

“Lots of applications developed back in the late 80s or 90s aren't accessible. If you developed an animated or interactive website with Flash technology, you cannot access it. Adobe killed Flash indefinitely in 2020”. Bollini works on multimodal user interfaces, interaction and user experience design; visual design; and socio-spatial representation. She takes a human-centred approach to accessibility within the evolution of technology, working with historical documentation, primary sources, environmental evidence and traces of current-day stories or narratives.

Bollini started her career as an architect when there was no formal educational tract for graphic design in Italy and no Photoshop. Next year she celebrates a wildly transdisciplinary 30-year career that’s overseen increasingly rapid cycles of design technology and various fields: architecture, design, industrial design, web design, computer science, human-computer interaction design and psychology.

“The focus is still almost always on the cultural intangible landscape, and the materiality is digital. It sounds weird because we tend to think about digital technologies as something virtual, but they are the materiality through which we tell and showcase stories,” she says.

Monopolising access to our digital memories

“We take technology for granted, we think we have some sort of magic,” she says, explaining why we assume, without much thought, that whatever's digital lasts forever. While digital media is more resistant to natural elements, it’s a sitting duck to every unnatural element. The digital mediums we use to create, store, and organise our stories are designed with expiry dates. If you don't keep up with the latest software and hardware updates you might not be able to read your own data in a few years. “You can reallocate or migrate digital artefacts, information, or digitalised material to a new release to a new technological digital frontier, but it requires an investment you need to be aware of compared to analogue documentation,” she says.

Digital media often consists of a network of elements - videos, video players, text, and content management systems - each vulnerable to the preservation of the other. “That is why we have new departments and museums devoted to preserving digital collections, where they maintain PCs, computers and old electronic machines to access these digital memories - otherwise, they are not accessible.”

The risk of preserving false history

If we do invest in preserving more digital memories over the coming centuries, we need to ask whether what’s left behind will tell the full story. Many digital artefacts are already lost to link rot, subject to tweaks or false memories. “We are kind of tweaking history - also without bad intentions. We are manipulating parts of our history,” Bollini explains. Link rot happens when a webpage is overwritten, erased or simply moved from one web address to another. Unless you know where to look, it’s lost. “You can have a blog that you edit in the future because something happens, and then you decide to add a source.” Future historians, however, will see the last version of the repository without knowing there were previous edits.

“With artificial intelligence, we are also creating, what a photographer called, paramnesia. Paramnesia refers to how we create false memories with artificial intelligence, or memories that seem very similar to actual memories, but in a way they are fake,”  she says. “We take pictures with artificial intelligence, where it is the actual person, but you create a different background environment with artificial intelligence. So, it’s really a false memory.” Beyond preservation lies the need to culturally discuss how we interpret art, artefacts and documents.

Preserving phygital stories of Bolzano’s recent history

Since 2021, Bollini’s been working on a project called ALICE, funded by the Free University of Bolzano. It’s an acronym for A-maz(e)-ing: phygitaL storytelling in desIgn for Cultural landscapes & hEritage. Although still in its infancy, ALICE, aims to create a digital artefact that tells the story of the recent transformation of iconic places in Bolzano. It includes mapping the signage, the way-finding visuals, and shop signs in the Via dei Portici / Laubengasse as a way to understand and read the gentrification of the city centre.

Phygital refers to physical plus digital, because we experience things in situ, but also through digital technologies like Google Maps, which add layers of communication to our experience of Via dei Portici / Laubengasse. She uses new, archival, Google Street View and user-generated images. “If I read the landscape through the typography of the landscape, the graphical memories and evidence, what is the image that comes back? You discover a lot,” she explains. “The Laubengasse is considered one of the symbols of the city, part of the urban brand of Bolzano, but, if you carefully look at the places you see that there are a lot of international brands… You are losing the original culture which is overwritten by tourism through the transformation of the city. It is happening in other cities too.”

Bollini hopes the impact of her work creates an interest in the digital history we overlook. “Although I'm talking about digital technology, it is never about technologies. It is always about people and the mediums they happen to use,” she says. “We need to crystallise some ideas now because otherwise we also lose the possibility to look back because of a lack of documentation.”  In the year 2624, if people see Bollini’s well-preserved work about the Via dei Portici / Laubengasse, what impact would she like her work to have? “A turning point in research, an impact, or a presence that suggests they stay open to some new possibilities, some new nuance…”

Iske Conradie