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?

7 Replies to “Historic iPhones: Personal Digital Media Devices in the Collection”

  1. Great post Trevor!

    It reminded me that almost all mobile software development is done using emulators as the hardware used for mobile devices is significantly different to that used for doing the software development. To test code for mobile devices on a development PC the code has to be run on an emulator.
    Android, for example, comes with QEMU, WebOS requires Virtualbox and Apple includes a “simulator” in the iOS SDK.

    This ought to mean that preserving snapshots the storage on mobile phones should be straightforward (though not necessarily easy) using those same (or similar) emulators. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find anyone who has tried doing a forensic image of a mobile phone’s storage and attempted to boot that image on one of the associated emulators, so I have no idea whether it would be possible out-of-the-box or whether there would need to be some work involved. I will keep looking though.

    Given all of that, I personally think it would be great if cultural heritage organisations were able to provide access to the software environments from donated/acquired mobile devices using emulators. As you point out, some of the software included on them may be unusable due to requiring access to remote servers for parts of the experience, but a lot of the experience aspects would still be there and it would give a lot more context than just accessing individual files from the devices would. Also access could potentially then be provided remotely through something like the bwFLA project’s web-based access to emulation interface.

    Another concept I’ve been thinking about is the potential use of 3D printers to print physical interface devices for replicating the physical experience of old digital objects in the future. For example, the shells of old video game controllers could be printed and generic (but context-configurable) buttons and joysticks could be put inside them. The same approach might be usable for mobile devices; generic electronics with access to emulated snapshots of real user’s devices could be put into custom-printed shells in order to get close to replicating the original physical experience along side the preserved digital experience.

    I’ve also been speculating about the possibility of acquiring some of the software that runs the major web services of today, e.g. gmail, office 365, twitter, facebook. It would be great if some institution could run old versions of that software in order to support the preservation of other data that was used in those services. It seems like a very aspirational approach right now, but if it were possible it might mitigate some of the issues mentioned in your post and above in my comment.

  2. Trevor,

    I am in the process of planning a focus gallery show about all of these issues at the BGC going as far back as the Commodore 64 (yay for eBay). I’m investigating the development of personal computing devices as an interface intersection of hardware, software and ephemeral experience that at its core is really about materiality. Hope to have old tech running new software made explicitly to be interacted with by gallery visitors in order to tell a story about those objects as they are placed in a particular historical context. I also want to gather a lot of old mobiles and interaction peripherals to highlight the physicality of them (the dirt and broken cracks and chips of glass and plastic) that will be touchable by visitors and highlight rapid obsolescence and techno-waste.

    Hope you can make it up for it, and maybe there is even some intersection with some of the projects mentioned here.

  3. Trevor — That’s an interesting discussion-raiser.

    As I donated my iPhone to The Newseum in November 2012 (http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/mediawire/195707/wtop-mojo-pioneer-donates-iphone-to-the-newseum/) I wondered how it might be displayed. As you suspected, the “soul” of my 4s was transferred to my iPhone 5, and the physical carcass was proudly handed to the museum, which holds many journalism artifacts and tools of the trade.

    Clearly museums can’t preserve everything created/shared/consumed on an iPhone. Then again, it can’t memorialize every click, bell, and shudder of an historic teletype machine that spit out breaking news. A museum can’t preserve every image that passed though a still camera. Or every word uttered through a desk microphone.

    I often remind people in speeches and seminars that an iPhone is just a tool, and that to make it work to its fullest, it must be operated by a journalist who reports with accuracy, context, and perspective.

    I trust that’s why Andy’s phone will join the Smithsonian.

  4. Great post, Trevor. Fortunately, when I first met with the Smithsonian they expressed interest in getting a copy of my tweets from the Arab Spring so I’m going to supply them with a copy of my entire Twitter archive. I don’t believe there are any plans to include the archive within the exhibit, though, but at least they’ll have a copy of it.

  5. NMAH also has in its collection a Blackberry that was used by an attorney on 9/11 to contact his staff who were still in their offices when one of planes hit the World Trade Towers on 9/11. (See http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1029411) In the past the museum had an online exhibit that included a transcript of all the communications this individual had with his staff using this device on that date, (trying to see if they were alive and on their way out of the Tower.) The transcript, with the physical object, was quite compelling. In the end, it is the stories that objects tell that make them compelling, not the object itself.

  6. Last night I was playing around with an iPhone app called Tweet Library. It’s basically a Twitter client that archives all of your tweets on your phone. Like other Twitter clients it can only go back a few thousand tweets because of Twitter API rules, but if you’ve downloaded a .zip file of your archive from Twitter, you can import the entire thing into your phone. I’ve had mixed results with it; I’ve managed to archive around 70k tweets on it so far, but that’s less than half of my entire archive. It also has a hard time parsing early tweets that had ID numbers shorter than the numbers used currently by Twitter, which has led to problems recognizing the timestamp on each tweet. Assuming the developer of the app could fix these things, it’d be a pretty amazing app to have, as you can search your local copy of the archive in a variety of ways, make collections out of different sets of tweets, and then export them.

    More about the app here:


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