Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Lifelogging -- isn't this a bit excessive?

The cover story of this month's Fast Company Magazine -- Gordon Bell, a 72 year old retired Microsoft programmer, and his experiment in Lifelogging.

What, pray tell, is lifelogging? I'm glad you asked. As we've seen on the internet, people are recording and sharing their lives in intimate detail. Blogging, photo-sharing, IPod lists, YouTube videos, and cheap data storage all combine with rapidly advancing technology to create the capacity for archival and retreival of massive amounts of information.

I call my laptop my "portable brain" -- I have on it now about 7 years worth of notes, musings, writings, articles I've read -- all organized in an A-Z file cabinet that mirrors my hard copy file cabinets at office and home. When something tickles my brain, I can perform a few searches and voila, there is what I'm looking for (though it does at times take longer than "voila" -- Monday I spent about 20 minutes looking for a story that I'd used in a sermon).

Used as a memory aid, this technology can be wonderful -- it can assist us in making new connections and in producing good, interesting, and helpful work. It also naturally assists those of us who are collectors and connectors, but not necessarily organizers. Memory is a wonderful and delightful thing -- Biblically, memory connects the past generations of the covenant community with the future generations. How often are the Israelites told to remember the words that God has given them. How often are stories (particularly the Exodus) retold ad infinitum because memory of the mighty acts of God is a vital part of our faith. Consider Peter's words in his second letter: "So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have. I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live....and I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things." (2 Peter 1:12-13,15). In so far as we have technical assistance in remembering those things that are helpful, needful, and important -- so to the good.

But lifelogging is a bit different. gives us some help in understanding lifelogging (a trend they call Lifecaching):
Point in case: collecting! Human beings (fueled by a need for self-worth, validation, control, vanity, even immortality) love to collect and store possessions, memories, experiences, in order to create personal histories, mementoes of their lives, or just to keep track for practical reasons. And with the experience economy still gaining ground -- with consumers more often favoring the intangible over the tangible -- collecting, storing and displaying experiences is ready for its big moment.

Why? Well, thanks to the onslaught of new technologies and tools, from blogging software to memory sticks to high definition camera phones with lots of storage space and other 'life capturing and storing devices', an almost biblical flood of 'personal content' is being collected, and waiting to be stored to allow for ongoing trips down memory lane (see also our GENERATION C trend).

TRENDWATCHING.COM has dubbed this emerging mega trend 'LIFE CACHING': collecting, storing and displaying one's entire life, for private use, or for friends, family, even the entire world to peruse. The LIFE CACHING trend owes much to bloggers: ever since writing and publishing one's diary has become as easy as typing in, millions of people have taken to digitally indexing their thoughts, rants and God knows what else; all online, disclosing the virtual caches of their daily lives, exciting or boring. Next came moblogging, connecting camera phones to online diaries, allowing not only for more visuals to be added to blogs, but also for real-time, on the go postings of experiences and events. And that's still just the beginning.

Why do we think this trend is ready to take off? Well, the necessary enablers are now all in place: required hardware and software are ubiquitious, there's ample availability of affordable storage space, blogging mentality is hitting the masses, and some of the major 'new economy' brands are getting in on the game, promising mass LIFE CACHING products at mass prices. We're talking Nokia, Microsoft, Google, Apple, Samsung and many more. All of this is putting in place an infrastructure for LIFE CACHING that will soon have GENERATION C and 'Generation Digital' caching every second of their existence.

Did you catch that last sentence -- "every second of their existence" -- the folks at Trendwatching are engaging in a little hyperbole -- a little exaggeration to show the magnitude of data that can be archived. However Gordon Bell is taking them at their word. In the Fast Company Article, he demonstrates that he's trying to archive everything:
For the past seven years, Bell has been conducting an audacious experiment in "lifelogging"--creating a near-total digital record of his experience. His custom-designed software, "MyLifeBits," saves everything it can get its hands on. For every piece of email he sends and receives, every document he types, every chat session he engages in, every Web page he surfs, a copy is scooped up and stashed away. MyLifeBits records his telephone calls and archives every picture--up to 1,000 a day--snapped by his automatic "SenseCam," that device slung around his neck. He has even stowed his entire past: The massive stacks of documents from his 47-year computer career, first as a millionaire executive then as a government Internet bureaucrat, have been hoovered up and scanned in. The last time he counted, MyLifeBits had more than 101,000 emails, almost 15,000 Word and PDF documents, 99,000 Web pages, and 44,000 pictures.

Yep -- everything. And the article's author confesses a kind of awe at Bell's ability to dredge up tidbits from phone conversations and from other places. However, there's a dark side -- the article relates how Bell was conversing with his "significant other" one evening and she said "did you just record that?" he grinned sheepishly and said "yep". "Delete it! Delete it!" she yelled. Apparantly, she didn't relish the idea of her offhand comments being preserved for all posterity. Then consider college students who make the mistake of posting their hard partying stories on MySpace -- this is one of the first places potential employers go now in researching a candidate. Pictures of a drunken evening -- oops, maybe you don't want to remember that either. The article mentions confidential internal Microsoft memos that are a part of Bell's archive -- I'm not sure how the company will feel about that now that he's retired.

A part of wisdom lies in knowing what to save and what not to save. I have found that I must continually go through my files and pitch things -- not everything is valuable and helpful, and it distracts my attention to have to filter through unnecessary things to find what I need.

A dramatic example from David Shenk's book The Forgetting: Alzheimer's, portrait of an epidemic relates the case history of S (name omitted from the doctor's records). In the 1920’s, S was reporter in Moscow who got in trouble for never taking notes in staff meetings. His editor challenged him one day, and S repeated word for word everything that had been said in the meeting. The shocked editor sent S to Dr. Luria who tested him and found no limit to his amazing capacity for memory. He could look at tables of random numbers for just a few minutes and re-create them flawlessly. Once he looked at those tables, he could reproduce them at any time -- even 20 years later. He came about as close as it gets to Bell's ideal of total memory.

But because of his immense capacity to remember precise, he didn’t notice abstract things like patterns. He couldn’t understand poetry - the nuance and playfulness of symbol, allusion, and reference were lost on him. He had trouble connecting faces with identities because faces are so changeable. Every day there's a different expression, a new wrinkle, a change of haircut, different jewelry -- he couldn't abstract from all those things to see the consistency over time. Thus, he came across as unmotivated and dim witted. He couldn’t forget enough to form general impressions and derive meaning. He was literally lost in the details. (59-60)

The art of classification, abstraction, categorization, and yes purging information is a part of what we call wisdom. Another part is quite simply what do we do with information -- to what end do we save and archive all this data -- is it for self aggrandizement -- is it to be able to say "aha!" when we can one-up someone by dredging up a conversation from 10 years ago? If so, is the archiving worth the trouble at all. I'm all for using technological aides to memory (the above story of S was archived on my computer from my reading notes of Shenk's book). But surely there's a way wisdom is involved in the process as well.

Let me know what you think on this one -- it's an intriguing cultural trend.
Soli Deo Gloria