Gordon Bell is not a man who does things halfway. When a colleague asked the computer-industry pioneer to scan some of his books in 1998, he obliged -- and then went on to digitize all the significant documents from his long, prolific career.
Bell’s 'obsession' now comprises the MyLifeBits project, the development of which he wrote about in this publication in 2001 and 2006.
Today, Bell continues the project as a researcher emeritus at Microsoft's Silicon Valley Lab; it currently contains more than a million document pages, 125,000 photos, and similarly large stocks of audio, video, and correspondence items.
Bell's collection is unusual in that it digitally preserves the parts of life he's already lived. He's also active in "lifelogging," actively capturing his daily life through a combination of sensor devices -- and attempting to make sense of it through new archiving and analysis techniques.
Lifelogging has grown enormously with the availability of cheap storage and wearable digital cameras. More than 250,000 people are members of the lifelogging site glogger.mobi, with uncounted more in other forums; the resource list at lifestreamblog.com includes dozens of relevant sensor devices, software applications, and web services.
Some lifeloggers are like Bell, motivated by a desire to become "librarians of our lives." Others create a "quantified self" by tracking sleep, eating, and activity patterns in an attempt to improve their body's performance. Still others practice "sousveillance" to monitor their environments, much as surveillance monitors the environments of others. Whatever their purpose, these extreme memoirists are challenging notions of storage, data organization, and the life examined.
Although lifelogging is a recent phenomenon, its seeds can be found in a 1945 article in The Atlantic Monthly (now The Atlantic) by Vannevar Bush, titled "As We May Think." There he described the memex, "a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory."
Both the memex concept and lifelogging start with data collection. Bush was prescient in predicting a forehead-mounted camera that's "a lump a little larger than a walnut": today's Looxcie and GoPro audio/video cameras have a similar form factor. (Google Glass and the experimental EyeTap are worn as glasses; Memoto and the Microsoft Research SenseCam that Bell wears are pendants.)
Other environmental data, along with communication records, can come from portable devices such as smart phones. One Android app that captures such data is the open-source AIRS, which tracks over 60 items. About two dozen factors are selected for the "lifelogging" template, including location (via GPS), ambient noise level, and air pressure; these data are compiled into "digital stories" through the AIRS' companion app, Storica. Dirk Trossen, AIRS contributor and senior researcher at the Computer Laboratory of the University of Cambridge, explains how such stories could be useful: "Noise levels and air pressure changes are perceived as causes for stress or headache," he says. "So when your doctor asks you, 'how have you been?,' Storica gives you the basis for a more evidence-based dialogue."
Data points for noise levels and air pressure are fairly compact, but storage needs for photos, audio, and video add up quickly. Makers of the in-development wearable automatic camera Memoto assume that a year of photos would be the equivalent of "up to 1.4 terabyte of data," with 2,000 two-megabyte photos automatically captured every day, at 30-second intervals.
Memoto co-founder Oskar Kalmaru believes the actual amount of data generated will be much less: "If you're sitting at the computer for the next three hours, you'd lower how often the camera takes a picture."
On this point Cathal Gurrin, investigator in the INSIGHT Centre for Big Data Analytics at Dublin City University, disagreed. "I don't think that people will turn things like Memoto off," he says. On the other hand, Gurrin's research found that "40 percent of autocam pics are rubbish, as in blurred. They can remove those."
Indeed, much of today's challenge for lifeloggers is not in data storage per se, but in consolidating all that data into meaningful moments. Kalmaru says, "In your day, you go to work, go out to lunch, go to a friend's, and go home. All these events are experienced as moments in your memory. Our algorithm tries to mimic your memory in how it groups these photos, using GPS data, the type of light in the photos, and so on. If you're out in a green park having lunch, that's a different moment from walking down a tarmac road."
As Bell put it, "My daughter started recording her life. And I told her, 'don't ever delete anything.' But I haven't yet come to the point where seeing and hearing everything is that critical. It just doesn't have a lot of value until we have a lot more software that will make it more useful to us."
In the process of collecting and consolidating, however, lifeloggers are bound to capture the private moments of other people. Kalmaru said that privacy questions arose quickly when Memoto launched a crowdfunding campaign for its camera. "One of our biggest concerns is in how to let you capture your life, but in a way that doesn't intrude on someone's privacy. Those are hard to make compatible."
Gurrin believes that these privacy issues are quite old, although devices such as Memoto introduce a new twist. "When Kodak brought out the portable camera about 130 years ago, there was big concern about 'Kodak fiends' -- people going around taking photographs in public. The difference with today's devices is that you don't have to do anything to take a picture. I think that's what's exercising people."
Steve Mann, a professor at the University of Toronto who has documented his life via a wearable camera since 1978, believes lifelogging devices and techniques can combat potential oppression. "Surveillance is necessarily political: it's from above, and implies a political hierarchy," he says. "Sousveillance is what happens when you put the sensors on people. And there are a lot more people with sensors these days: compare the numbers of camera phones and street cameras. When you enter into a typical room now, most of the sensors are sousveillance. So it's kind of symmetrical."
Bell fears that such questions could distract from the greater benefits of lifelogging overall. "One lifelogging mantra is found in the 1995 Bill Gates quote, 'someday you'll be able to record everything you see and hear.' And when people talk about lifelogging, they often migrate immediately to Google Glass, which does exactly that. But the other lifelogging mantra is, 'we're going to build memex.' And we did, in fact, build memex."
Tom Geller is an Oberlin, Ohio-based science, technology, and business writer.
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