Object Histories

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If walls could talk

I have a vivid memory of a particular moment in 2019: it was a sunny spring day, and I had just picked up the keys to my new apartment in West Village, NYC. I ran up the stairs and stepped in. I remember feeling excited by the emptiness, about the memories that I’d create here. And then, as many people must do, I thought about the past.

While finalizing the lease, I had learned that the building was built in 1920. It was one year short of a century old. As I stood there, the potential of the empty rooms moved me with a sweet melancholy – I wondered about the people who had lived here in those years. What were they like? What beautiful and complex lives did they lead? I suddenly had a deep longing to have some way of accessing those stories.

The third floor of this building contained my life, for a time.
The third floor of this building contained my life, for a time.

Was there a public record that saved people’s histories based on where they lived? I entertained the inquiry and found a post that showed how to access the record of pictures for any New York building from 1940. I loved it, gladly looking at the five buildings I had lived in in the city and seeing how they had changed. But this look into the past just increased my desire to know what was happening to the humans there and then. What were their names, their routines, their favorite places in the neighborhood? I was yearning for the stories.

This kind of archive is a simple idea but hard to implement. It wouldn’t make sense for a centralized institution to track it, and besides, who would want to chat with the local archivist? It could be an open-source, public project, but how would you prove that someone lived where they said they did?

Back then, I had a nagging feeling that blockchain could offer a solution. It was already useful for onchain archiving of digital histories and cultures, but the practicality of using it for memories fixed in space didn’t quite make sense. How could we ensure that only others who were in the exact location at that moment could see what was written?

Some years later, here now, I think we may have a solution. It brings the physical world onchain in a real and strange way. And sometimes strange is good.

Location-bound digital diary

Here’s the idea. We put a simple blockchain-enabled NFC chip on the wall in the inner hallway of our living spaces. They don’t record or do anything until you want to add a journal entry for whoever comes after you. When you’re feeling inspired, maybe on the day you’re moving out, you tap it with your phone and share your thoughts with future dwellers. Wish them well. Tell them about your cat. Share your stories about being locked down in this small apartment for so many months in 2020.

The messages are encrypted and uploaded to the blockchain, and they can only be unencrypted by someone who stands in that room and scans that same chip. Decades from now, someone whose parents are not even alive today might read your recollections. Make them good! We can’t rescue the stories from the past, but we can leave a meaningful memory for the future.

Leave a journal entry with her
Leave a journal entry with her

If apartments are too personal, we can start on the street. Put NFC-chipped stickers around the city for this purpose. What conversation would you want to have with every person who will one day be in the exact same location as you? What puzzles or riddles would you gift them? Each chip is a digital time capsule bound in space, an airdrop waiting in escrow.

There is a bigger idea here: these tiny chips can fit everywhere, so every physical object becomes a possible archive. As people pass on their objects, they can leave messages for posterity. You can read stories bound to the family heirloom passed down from your great-great-great-grandmother. Or hear about the countless nights of laughter spent on the sofa you bought on eBay. Or relive the tales from the front porch of the first house in your network city.

And then just imagine, every object we interact with suddenly brings a rich history. How much more interesting would that be compared to mass-produced things? I don’t want the cheap factory thing, I want the one with the anecdotes! Things capture memories that were once vivid reality for someone. They have always had tales to tell; the humans that nurture them are humble messengers and scribes.

Earlier this year, I visited New York and needed to swing by the village, so I reached out to the people who moved into that apartment after me. We had kept in touch, and they were glad to invite me over for coffee. The place was arranged differently, but the memories and emotions came flooding back. Over our chat, we reminisced about our experiences in that space, two different timelines converging in the same location.

Such encounters remind me of the profound connection we share with places and things. And we can now imbue objects with story, highlighting their significance in our lives. Share that they really mattered to someone, for a time.

Thank you to Austin and Yancey from Metalabel for inspiring me to write again. Thank you Alice Sholto-Douglas, Rafa, Jon Hillis, Cameron, and Yun for thoughts and feedback.

What are we if not messages to others?
What are we if not messages to others?


Entry: #00001

Date: October 10, 2023

Author: T

Hey, I don’t know who you are, but I hope that you are smiling as you read this. I just set this thing up in my apartment. Pretty weird, huh? Or maybe not to you.

I don’t know how many years, decades, or even centuries from now you’re alive, but I hope things aren’t too crazy then. I imagine they probably are. But oh well, at least you have a nice apartment!

A lot has happened for me here. I’ve made this place home with my partner N. We usually hang out on the rugs in the living room, around our circular table, laughing and discussing the world. We talk about how we don’t want to leave this place, but I imagine eventually we will. If you’re reading this, I guess we did.

Maybe as I get more used to this, I’ll share more stuff.

Ciao for now.

Entry: #00002

Date: July 20, 2025

Author: T

Hey, me again. We’re moving out next week, so I wanted to leave a note. It’s so wild to read my notes from two years ago. I can’t believe how time flies. It feels like it was yesterday, but also like it was a different lifetime.

We’re thinking about starting a family, and N’s job is moving us away from the city, but we’re definitely sad to leave this place. So many lovely memories. I hope you enjoy it.

Take care, all the best <3

Entry: #00003

Date: March 8, 2030

Author: R

Hey! R here. This apartment was my little sunlit haven. Nothing beat the warm morning rays streaming through those windows.

I stumbled upon the previous notes early on. They were like mini time capsules. I love the feeling of being part of this shared history, it added an unexpected layer of depth to my time here. I wish there were more from further back in the past.

Btw I love the coffee at Pinky’s. They’ve been around forever so I imagine they’ll continue. The neighborhood has definitely changed in the past five years, but everywhere does, I guess.

It's been real. Hope you create as many fond memories here as I did. Cheers!

Entry: #00004

Date: August 9, 2037

Author: S

Hey people from the future. This apartment is a dream. To be honest, my time recently hasn’t been so easy. I won’t get into it. But I found my peace here, and I’m grateful for that.

I agree with the person above that I wish there were more of these entries. They were lovely to read. I’ll try to write a few more before I leave

Wishing you joy, laughter, and countless cherished moments in this home.

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