A life archived

In this month’s Scientific American article A Digital Life, Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell describe their Microsoft MyLifeBits project. It’s an experiment in which Bell wears an automatic digital camera (a “SenseCam”) around his neck, and records every minute of his day digitally.

This is a logical progression of Vannevar Bush’s Memex (Memory Extender) proposal from 1945. The idea being that human memory is fallible, so we can use technology to record every aspect of our life. You even see it today among journal bloggers who record their lives in exquisite detail – and share it with the rest of us.

Of course, there’s a lot of potential problems with this effort. People’s privacy concerns are the most obvious ones. Most people, when told they’re being recorded, will ask that the cameras be turned off. But the project is dealing with some big technical difficulties as well. Bell generates about 1GB of video, photos, audio and document data every month. The MyLifeBits project struggles to archive, index and search through it all.

The idea of Lifeblogging holds a lot of appeal to me, since I don’t think I have a very good memory. I fear that I may forget some of the best experiences of my life, or some hard won lessons. But would capturing email and web logs and taking minute by minute photos help me retain it? Years from now, will wading through gigabytes of data really help me remember how I felt at the time?

When I moved recently, I uncovered boxes of old photographs. Some of them brought up instant associations. But I found myself gazing at other photos and wondering where and when they were taken. What was I doing there? What was I thinking? I’m afraid those memories are gone for good.

A Digital Life, Scientific American, March 2007.
Lifeblogging: Is a virtual brain good for the real one? Ars technica, 2/7/2007
On the Record, All the Time, Chronicle of Higher Education, 2/4/2007
Digital Diary, San Francisco Chronicle, 1/28/2007
The Persistence of Memory, NPR Radio “On the Media” show, 1/5/2007

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