Historic iPhones: Personal Digital Media Devices in the Collection

What should a library, archive or museum do with an historic iPhone? The National Museum of American history recently acquired journalist Andy Carvin’s iPhone. The announcement about the acquisition piqued my curiosity and a set of questions.  I imagine this is something we will be seeing a lot of. The iPhones and black berries of politicians, journalists, digital artists & activists are increasingly the tools of their trades.

So, what should cultural heritage organizations do when presented with acquiring rather locked down personal media devices like this? What follows is a few of my initial strands of thought about it and a set of questions I’d be interested in hearing from others about related to this. What is it about these physical and digital objects that is significant and needs to be attended to?

"NPR’s Andy Carvin has donated the iPhone he used during the Arab Spring to the American History Museum. Photo by Andy Carvin"
NPR’s Andy Carvin has donated the iPhone he used during the Arab Spring to the American History Museum. Photo by Andy Carvin

My first thought regarding the acquisition of Andy Carvin’s iPhone: are they going to preserve the contents of the device, or is it the idea just to hold on to the physical artifact? That’s more or less what I asked the museum. (Erin Blasco from NMAH and I  chatted a bit about this over twitter). As I suspected, the idea is to basically to just hold on to the physical artifact.

So. What exactly is it that they have? Yes, it is his phone.  Those are scratches on it that he made, and it has his stickers on it. You can put that physical artifact on the shelf and pull it out to examine it. But if you were to ask me what my iPhone is I would mean the stuff inside it. The stuff on it. That is what my phone is.

What is your iPhone?

Is my phone the cracked one in the picture or the one I took the picture with?
Is my phone the cracked one in the picture or the one I took the picture with?

I have bad luck with iPhones. I’ve twice shattered the screen of my phone. If you’ve ever swapped out one phone to another you’ve likely had the same slightly surreal experience I’ve had. You back up your phone in iTunes. You plugin the new phone and restore it from the backup. You pop out the sim card from the old phone and stick it into the new one. Then you power up your new phone.

At that moment, you sorta have two identical digital phones. All your apps are there, all your settings come over, the wallpaper. Last time I changed out my phone I took a picture of the old cracked phone with the new one. I’d moved the ghost in the machine over from one shell to another. I guess more accurately, I’d made a full identical copy. Part of the whole idea of the iPhone as an artifact is that the physical device is supposed to disappear in user experience. It’s got almost no buttons, and the entire UI emerges through software. You’re supposed to feel that the it’s the interface, the pictures under the glass, that are the real device.

So what does that have to do with Andy Carvin’s iPhone? Well, I’d imagine he still has his phone. That what NMAH received is sorta like the cast off phone I had there in the box. He migrated his device forward and what remains is more of a time capsule. A historical moment of Andy Carvin’s iPhone. Just like I can go power up that cracked phone in the box on my shelf and see what my phone was like from 7:38 PM – 22 Aug 13, 2013 if you turn on Andy’s phone in the collection (assuming he didn’t delete everything on it before giving it) you would be able to see a moment in time of his phone. Exactly what it was like right before he transferred it’s contents to another device.

The iPhone's NAND memory
The iPhone’s NAND memory

In any event, as far as I’m concerned, a device like an iPhone is first and foremost a digital object. It’s the data on the NAND memory in there brought to life by the software in it that is what the phone is. Which leads to a bit of consideration of the digital object of the iPhone.

The Digital Object of an iPhone

Where someone can make a disk image and emulate Salmon Rushdie’s old laptops, the contents of Andy Carvin’s iPhone are  more illusive. If you have a power supply, you’ll likely be able to power this thing up and see what’s on it. Now and into the future. But getting things off of the device is itself would be more of a challenge. You could (for the time being) boot up a computer and read it like a drive to, say to get copies of all the photos and videos off of it. Or, if you had the skill set, you could go ahead and get into mobile device forensics and actually capture a full disk image of the device.

The Tweets he made from the phone aren’t in there

Much of the content of iphones, and similar devices, is pulled in over the network. So if you aren't connected, or when those services turn off eventually you won't have access to that content.
Much of the content viewed on iphones, and similar devices, is pulled in over the network. So if you aren’t connected, or when those services turn off eventually, you won’t have access to that content.

One of the points of this artifact, what matters about it, is about what Carvin did on twitter. His use of twitter as a medium for reporting. While he used this particular phone to send out those tweets, the device itself does not have copies of those tweets in it. If you booted it up and opened the twitter application on it there is a good chance that you could read his tweets, and the tweets of those folks he follows. However, you would be reading those via the device logging into twitter and downloading that content. So if you were interested in collecting his tweets, you would actually want to go out and ask him to download a copy of his twitter archive and send it over to you.

The other Smithsonian iPhone

As a point of comparison, there is at least one other iPhone in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution. Writing about the acquisition of an iPhone app, Seb Chan from the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum wrote about the iPhone they have in the collection and the inherent limitations in thinking about how to make use of that device.

The iPhone in our collection is neither powered on nor has it been kept up to date with newer software releases. Eventually the hardware itself might be considered so delicate that to power it on at all would damage it beyond repair—a curse common to many electronic objects in science and technology collections. How then do we preserve the richness and novelty of the software interfaces that were developed and contributed equally if not more than the industrial design to that device’s success?

Some open discussion questions:

This is all me just thinking out loud here. Or I guess, thinking out in bits. I’d love to hear thoughts and comments from folks on what this acquisition prompts. In particular, on any of the following four questions.

  • What should archives and museums presented with iPhones be doing with them?
  • How would you even go about attending to the digital object of the iPhone? I’d be curious to hear some ideas for how one might go about ingesting preserving and eventually providing access to the digital contents of the physical device but I’d love to hear some other folks think through that?
  • Do you know of any other examples of acquisitions of personal media devices like this? If so, I’d love to hear about the who, what, where, why of that.
  • What analogies can we draw between different kinds of artifacts museums collect and Carvin’s phone? If the guts of it die and you can’t power it up, is it like a folder that once contained a set of notes? If you can power it up, is it like a fly trapped in amber that we can study as it was preserved in a particular moment in time? Since it doesn’t have a copy of the tweets in it is it like the red phone from the white house, which would have been used to make particular calls but has practically no trace of the content of those calls in it? What other connections or parallels might you draw?