Lifelogging is the practice of capturing everything about your life on a continuous stream of information. The concept goes back to a 1945 essay in The Atlantic Monthly by Vannevar Bush, As We May Think, in which he envisioned a device, the “memex,” (memory index) that extends the mind and memory. The memex is often taken as the first conceptual model for the Internet.
Today, lifelogging is done by wearing a digital camera around your neck or behind your ear, or on your glasses, which shoots and stores the video for later use. The retrieval software may include full-text search, text/audio annotations and hyperlinks. Gordon Bell of Microsoft developed one type of software for this, and last year wrote the book Total Recall along with Jim Gemmell describing the project and future possibilities.
Gordon Bell’s version of this is called MyLifeBits. Kevin Kelly writes: “Bell wears a special camera around his neck, the SenseCam, which will notice a person’s body heat if they are near and photograph them, or snap a picture of a new place if it detected a change in light. Bell records and archives every keystroke on his computer, every email, every phone conversation transcribed, every face to face conversation, and of course every photo he takes, every movie he watches, every web site he visits, every window on his computer and how long it remained after – any and all data he can record he does.”
Capturing everything about your life is now a real possibility. If you could, would you record every conversation, every minute of every day? It is such a strange prospect that we don’t know what to think; it is like asking a medieval monk if he would like to have email. There’s no frame of reference to even begin the conversation. On first glance, it seems like a kind of info-hell, an ever-expanding dump of data, that someone would eventually be saddled with cleaning out, like a house after a hoarder moves out. This log is more like a journal than the average email – do you own it? Can it be copyrighted, as “my life”? Maybe there a virtue in forgetting – maybe letting go of detail is required for a healthy, normal life.
Lifelogging along with the rapidly advancing tools of language synthesis and summarization opens the possibility of creating an avatar of yourself, a copy that can speak for you, with your voice, after you are gone. It could have your “memories,” know your life better than you do, and perhaps converse with great-great-grandchildren, answer questions, interact with your descendants. Perhaps it could even speak better than you do – edit out the gaffes and burps of normal conversation. But then, it might no longer be you. It would be You 2.0. Along with an enhanced physical avatar (would be good to shave off a few pounds, wouldn’t it?), the personality could have an upgrade.
Further extension of lifelogging might be GPS-style tracking of where you are; sensors that record your internal body state; even recording your thoughts through fMRI and other emerging techniques. As Kevin Kelly writes in an essay, “the social, legal, ethical, and cultural consequences are gnarly, weird, unpredictable, over-the-top, controversial, and thrilling.”
But as the journalist Clive Thompson writes in A Head for Detail, having this much information creates its own problems. “It’s hellishly difficult to search, and Bell often finds himself lost in the forest. He hunts for an email but can’t lay his hands on it. He gropes for a document, but it eludes him.” And he also quotes Gemmell, when his hard drive crashed and he lost part of his archive, “It was like having my memories stolen,” he says. He was amazed to realize his backup brain was no longer some novelty but a regular part of his psychological landscape.”
Kevin Kelly poses some intriguing questions:
What part of your life is someone else’s privacy?
Is remembering a scene with your brain different from remembering with a camera?
Can the government subpoena your lifelog?
Is total recall fair?
Can I take back a conversation I had with you?
Is it a lie if a single word is different from the record?
How accurate do our biological memories have to be?
Can you lifelog children without their “permission”?
Hard questions — as with all technology, the tool is the easy part. The hard part is living with it, adapting to it, understanding the effect it has on us. Information tools will be arriving faster and faster, and some will have no precedent, no analogy. We are exploring unknown territory without a map. Beyond the edge there be…
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