The latest issue of Fast
Company has an article about Gordon
Bell, who is running a project to digitize and record all of
the information he generates and encounters in the course of his life.
He calls the project MyLifeBits.
(The article is not openly accessible, but there are others
out there on the same topic, and at least one blog
So, you managed to create a system to digitize, store, and organize
everything, but what are you going to do with it?
There are other questions as well. What about privacy?
Is the time spent running the project and retrieving the data
worthwhile? Don’t you end up spending more time managing the
data, than you do creating it of using it?
Gordon Bell will never forget what I look like. He’ll
never forget what I sound like, either. Actually, he’ll never forget a
single detail about me.
That’s because when I first met the affable 72-year-old computer
scientist at the offices of Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) Research Labs, in
Redmond, Washington, he was carefully recording my every move. He had a
tiny bug-eyed camera around his neck, and a small audio recorder at his
elbow. As we chatted about various topics–Australian jazz musicians,
his futuristic cell phone, the Seattle area’s gorgeous weather–Bell’s
gear quietly logged my every gesture and all my blathering small talk,
snapping a picture every 60 seconds. Back at his office, his computer
had carefully archived every document related to me: all the email I’d
sent him, copies of my articles he’d read, pages he’d surfed on my
I have to admit, when I first heard about this, the first thing I
thought was “He must have OCD.”
I don’t think that is really the case, since he is managing
to remain productive, and what’s more, he is getting paid to do it.
So it is not maladaptive. Still, it does seem like
a strange thing to do.
The centerpiece of the project is the SenseCam. That is the
camera he wears everywhere. A description can be found in an
article in the IEEE
For the past two years, MyLifeBits has been capturing
real life with an unobtrusive miniature still camera that Bell [left]
wears around his neck, pendantlike. Clever sensors detect light, heat,
and position. Software tells the SenseCam, as the device is called,
whether to snap a picture. At day’s end, MyLifeBits grabs all those
images and the sensor readings too.
The position data come from a GPS unit. So he knows the exact
global position of every photograph. (Come to think of it, I
suppose that might come in handy if he ever needs an alibi, if he’s
been accused of a crime.)
He estimates that it would take about one to three terabytes to store
an entire lifetime of stuff. Not too long ago, that would
have been prohibitive. But, now, at less than $1 per
gigabyte, that would come to less than $3,000.
In addition to the SenseCam images and data, what does he store?
All his personal documents, medical records, emails, phone
concerts he’s attended (not quite legal, he admits), and every web page
In actual practice, he sometimes is able to find astonishingly obscure
things that could not be retrieved any other way. But
sometimes, the sheer volume of stuff is such that he is not able to
find what he wants.
Others at Microsoft are writing software to help. The current
project involves something they call Facetmap, a kind of
knowledge mapping software.
One advantage that is claimed for the project, is that by not having to
worry about remembering things, his mind is freed up to be more
creative. But others wonder if it is conducive to mental
health, or just the opposite. Does having such a
comprehensive storage system lead to self-consciousness, such that
creative could be inhibited?
In an article in The
Guardian, Bell reports another worry:
Dr Bell has now stored so much of his life on
computer that he is in danger of forgetting how to remember…
…An early insight into a weakness of the system revealed how reliant
Dr Bell had become on his “surrogate memory”. The hard drive of his
computer crashed, losing four months of data.
In a report on the project, he describes it as “a severe emotional
blow, perhaps like having one’s memories taken away.”
To me, the big issues are not so much the effect of the individual’s
psychological adjustment; I have faith in the ability of most people to
adapt over time. The bigger issue is the potential effect of
If enough people have these systems running, pretty soon there will be
no such thing as privacy. Worse, it could get the the point
where the desire for privacy is thought to be a sign of having
something to hide. It could get to the point that it would
generate suspicion if someone wanted to keep a secret.
The Department of Homeland Security would love it.