You’re whipped by the time you get back to the hotel room. The conference has gone well, you did a ton of networking. But who was that guy who claimed he met you three years ago, the one who said he was keen to talk about business opportunities?
Pulling out your BlackBerry, you watch a video replay of the encounter, captured using the fish-eye camera concealed in the frame of your glasses, and watch as he non-introduces himself — ah, he said you’d met in St. John’s. With a couple of thumb taps, you’ve accessed a secure repository of still images on the web, searching all the people you’ve met in St. John’s. Touching the image plays back that first meeting. Gord is his name. And he does have some worthwhile connections.
This might seem like science fiction — and a little unnerving — but it is not so far-fetched. Technology is quickly advancing to a stage where it is possible to capture and preserve nearly every moment and detail of one’s life — everything that one does, sees, hears, says, reads, where one goes, even the subtle ebb and flow of one’s health during the day. As the cost of digital recording technologies and storage plummets, we will track more of our lives. What does that mean for daily life, for our productivity — for our sense of self?
In fact, people are already recording their lives more than ever before. Digital cameras capable of shooting video are carried everywhere, either as separate devices or as part of a mobile phone, and the captured images are transferred to swelling hard drives, or uploaded to the web. GPS tracks where you go, and e-mail, texting and instant messaging dialogues are rarely deleted.
As these technologies seep into our lives, at some point they will tip over from requiring an active, selective choice by the user and become a passive, pervasive recording of life. Then it’s not so much a matter of how a person collects those memories and information, but what he does with it.
According to Gordon Bell, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and co-author of Total Recall: How the E-memory Revolution Will Change Everything, such life recording is inevitable. Since 1998, Bell and his colleague Jim Gemmell have collaborated on an ongoing project that attempts to digitally record every last detail of Bell’s life. They scan every piece of paper he reads, track everything he does on his computer, record his phone calls, log his biometrics with an armband. And hanging from his neck is a SenseCam, a cigarette-pack-sized prototype device created by Microsoft that automatically snaps images all day long, especially when the infrared sensor picks up the warmth of another person nearby. All of it is logged into a digital corpus of his life.
Bell and Gemmell have identified three converging technology trends: the proliferation of recording devices, the availability of inexpensive storage, and software that can organize it all. The first two are obvious, and will only grow. For the $100 it costs today for a terabyte of memory, by 2020 you’ll probably be able to get 250 terabytes of storage — enough for tens of thousands of hours of video, and tens of millions of photographs.
But then what? As Bell notes, “the hard part is no longer deciding what to hold on to, but how to efficiently organize it, sort it, access it and find patterns and meaning in it.” Most obviously, our ability to recall events — good and bad, small or large — will improve, albeit electronically. Disputes will get settled like in professional sports, by going to the replay. It will get harder to lie, for better or worse.
But Bell and Gemmell have probed even greater possibilities for life logging, as they call it. For example, you could self-monitor your health and match it up with other aspects of your life, like your work calendar. You could objectively dissect how you use your time during your workday, making you more productive. “With the right software,” writes Bell, “you will be able to mine your digital memory archive for patterns and trends that you could never uncover on your own — graphing, charting, sorting, cross-sectioning, and testing for hidden correlations.”
Life logging won’t be for everyone. Of the nearly 5,000 people who responded to a poll on TechCrunch, a leading tech industry blog, 51% said they wouldn’t wear a life recorder. But almost as many said they would. Those who do will find themselves at the forefront of a whole new way of living — and it’s one that will never be forgotten.