As I See It: Life Logging
May 3, 2010 Victor Rozek
For all its remarkable properties, the brain is fallible and forgetful. Its formidable powers decline with age. Memories fade, knowledge retention is fleeting, and recall is unreliable. Interpretation of distant events is likely to be incomplete or inaccurate. Painful memories dwarf happy ones. Events are reduced to impressions. Time is compressed. Many people cannot even remember vast portions of their past, as if decades were torn from the fabric of their lives. Memory drifts, and over time the splendid minutia of our lives is forever lost.
While that may be the cheerless reality for most of us, technology is now making it possible for people to record everything they see, hear, learn and experience over the course of a lifetime.
Think of it as creating a comprehensive digital memoir. Punch a few keys and replay distant events, recall forgotten faces, and retrieve lost conversations. Record your relationships. Births. Deaths. Celebrations. Family reunions. Chronicle your work history, successes and failures. Your leisure activities; spending patterns; travels and adventures. Document your health history, exercise regime, and eating habits. Record lectures you’ve attended, movies you’ve seen, books you’re read, music you love, photos you’ve taken. Save every birthday card, every ticket stub, every phone call, every email. Recall where you went, how you got there, what you did, who you met, and what was said. All of it saved, filed, indexed, cross referenced, and instantly retrievable. It’s the antidote to impermanence; a virtual, fully documented you.
As opportunities go, this one is paradoxical. It has the potential to be glorious but also grisly. I mean, a lifetime of being recorded; what could possibly go wrong, Mr. Woods?
Gordon Bell isn’t worried. He insists that Total Recall (by happy coincidence the name of the book he co-authored with Jim Gemmell) will be “a very private matter” with universal encryption, and e-memories “stored in Swiss data banks.” With regard to privacy, Bell might be dreaming, but that’s what dreamers do. As a principal researcher at Microsoft, Bell gets paid to dream stuff up, and he boasts a list of credentials as long as Windows boot-up time. Certainly his former boss Bill Gates is impressed. He calls Bell “one of the industry’s most important original thinkers.”
Bell’s idea isn’t necessarily original (it’s been used in fiction), but it is timely. Most of the tools needed to get started are either readily available or already a part of any household that aspires to modernity. A smartphone with PDA functions; a GPS unit (one may be included in your phone but will require special software to retrieve your travel itineraries); a digital camera (because phone cameras take poor quality pictures); a personal computer with as much storage as possible, including an external drive with at least 500 gigabytes for backup; an Internet connection; and a scanner.
Start by digitizing the things cluttering your life, advises Bell. The paperwork: insurance files, banking statements, medical records, bills, correspondence, photos, etc. Then, you can start recording yourself. Or you can record yourself recording yourself. The possibilities are endless. To some it may seem narcissistic, but for kids weaned on Google, who live half-time in Second Life, the notion of Total Recall is an unquestioned fact of life. Like gravity, they only notice it when it hurts. File sharing, text messaging, camera phones, MySpace, Twitter, and living amidst ubiquitous surveillance cameras, has prepared them for a life without the expectation of privacy. Besides, if you voluntarily pose for embarrassing photos that later show up on somebody’s Facebook site, your objections will be noted and dismissed.
Given the means and opportunity, creating a world of Total Recall is perhaps inevitable. One day we’ll all end up walking around with little lapel cameras, recording others who are recording us. Big Brother move over, Little Brother is here. Bell notes that “the technology stream is gushing toward ubiquity and saturation.” And he says that like it’s a good thing. “Indeed,” Bell writes, “we are headed toward a world where it will require a conscious decision (or a legal requirement) not to record a certain kind of information in a certain time or place.” Of course, legal restrictions haven’t stopped the government; but if this catches on it will likely spawn a cottage industry of sophisticated countermeasures that prevent unwanted recording.
To be sure, there would be some upsides. Legal issues need not depend on testimony. A record of what was said and done could readily be provided by Total Recall. Frivolous lawsuits should decline. Alibis could be established; guilt and innocence would be easier to prove.
Healthcare could also be revolutionized. So much medical information is guesswork. When did you first notice that pain? What did you eat just before you got the migraine? Do you use drugs? The whole premise for the TV series House would collapse: the doctor would no longer rely on lying patients but could reference e-memories to find accurate answers.
In the workplace, institutional memory could be passed on, without dependence on ancient employees. Bell uses the Presidency as an example; a job with a steep learning curve and potentially unthinkable consequences for being a slow learner. It would, for example, be nice to know–nearly a decade after the event–just why the hell we attacked Iraq?
“As you get older,” Bell argues, it would no longer be inevitable that you would “forget more and remember less.” Sounds reasonable, even desirable. Making accurate recall the norm rather than the exception is a laudable goal. As is the prospect of reliving our memories and having the ability to pass on much more than a cardboard cutout of ourselves.
But as usual, there are likely to be unintended consequences.
Forgetting is both curse and blessing. An argument can be made that, in the human operating system, forgetting is more feature than bug. What is unimportant or what the system can’t handle, the brain forgets. A molested child needs no reminders. An abused spouse wants only to move on. Of course, legally actionable behavior would probably not be recorded, but there are many embarrassing and humiliating moments that are best forgotten.
Then there is the issue of technology becoming obsolete. A lot of work would be required to keep changing file formats and storage technologies to ensure your life story remains readable. It’d be nice to get to know Grandpa, especially if he died before you were born, but what if he’s stored on the future equivalent of VHS? How much time will users spend salvaging their past, rather than living in the present, and creating their future?
Total Recall is a great idea for people who lead exemplary lives. People who have no quirks and never sing off key. Most of us, I suspect, would neither endure nor enjoy total scrutiny. As in quantum physics, the very act of being observed would change us. But if the camera was only on for the highlight reel, what’s the point?
On balance, I would be curious to know if Total Recall would discourage bad behavior, or send it farther underground? Goldman Sachs probably wishes email didn’t exist since the disclosure of its aren’t-we-clever-for-screwing-our-clients emails. Imagine, the truth of who you are, always available to be recreated. It’s both daunting and delicious. Daunting if you’re being reviewed; delicious if you’re reviewing the lives of others.
Total Recall is one of those ideas that’s more appealing from a distance. If the technology existed back then, wouldn’t it be fascinating to watch the construction of the pyramids, or to stroll through Versailles with Louis XIV, or to witness the deliberations of the Second Continental Congress. Someday, perhaps someone will find us equally fascinating.
As for me, much as I would like to see a replay of my college theatrical career, I suspect that my acting skills have vastly improved over the years thanks, in large part, to my defective memory. Come to think of it, so has my athletic prowess. Perhaps accuracy is overrated.
For now I find comfort in the fact that Paris Hilton will be able to relive her 15 minutes of fame, over and over again.
So I won’t have to.