Anyone who has made fun of Facebook and Twitter and the comic level of hyper-connectedness they represent also has asked themselves: Where is all this mass digitization of our lives headed? The best answer yet may come in a new book out this month that represents the culmination of a 10-year experiment delving into the future of digital living: a Microsoft research project called MyLifeBits.
As part of that project, legendary computer scientist Gordon Bell has spent the last decade digitizing and archiving as much information from his daily life as possible, scanning documents, recording conversations, and snapping pictures every few minutes with a camera the size of a cigarette pack that hangs around his neck. He describes this experience, called “lifelogging,” and its larger implications in the book, “Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything.”
As society steps further into what Om has called “an increasingly narcissistic phase, enabled by web technologies,” lifelogging seems simultaneously like the premise of a Philip K. Dick sci-fi novel and the logical extrapolation of current trends. We already share photos, videos, tweets and status updates in ways that would have seemed obsessive only a few years ago. We record our lives with web services like Evernote and devices like Livescribe.
If Facebook and Twitter are symptoms of narcissism, lifelogging could well be viewed as a sign of (or treatment for) a new kind of severe personality disorder. Which is not to say it won’t catch on. Although it could be confused as an extension of Twitter’s real-time reporting, lifelogging would be most useful as a searchable archive and memory aide (or substitute), as the title of Bell’s book suggests. But making it easy to use in that way will be its own challenge. If I want to recall the face of someone I met, how would I find it? Would I need to know the date or time of that meeting? Could I search for the image using key words in the attendant conversation, if the audio of it had been transcribed? That organizational technology may be starting to flower along with the rise of social media. HP, for example, has been developing software that intelligently organizes online photos into albums, having noticed how many people are averse to doing it themselves. In addition, the technologies needed to record all this information — speech recognition, digital documentation, mobile data, storage and cameras, for example – have advanced a great deal since Bell began his experiment. Others have been working on making lifelogging a reality, including Reqall, and some startups are reportedly developing a new generation of cameras suited to the task.
Obviously, the threat to privacy is one of the most troubling aspects of this proposition. And that threat is arguably biggest for those around lifeloggers. Police and civil litigants would presumably be able to search these life records whenever the need arose. I’m not sure where the line is drawn between the “e-memory revolution” and the gestalt surveillance state. I just know that I have already sworn off dancing at weddings and parties after having seen too many photos of myself in Vanilla Ice-like poses taken by friends with smartphones and shared among crowds of potentially thousands on Facebook. I’m likely to avoid lifeloggers for as long as I can. And its pioneers may succeed in collecting terabytes of images of folks scurrying in the opposite direction.