Memories are made of disks
In the future every conversation, every emotion will be committed to our computers’ hard drives. But some people have already started
Dr Cathal Gurrin has been lifelogging for five years and finds it 'compelling' (HO)
Imagine everything you do being tracked, photographed and recorded; every person you meet, every conversation you have, every place you visit and even the exact route that you take to get there. A complete digital archive of your life, updated minute by minute and accessible at any time. It’s the dystopian future George Orwell described in his novel 1984, where “every sound you made was overheard and… every movement scrutinised”. But this isn’t fiction. It’s happening now, and guess what: you’ll be the person carrying out the surveillance and storing it all on your own home computer. Welcome to the world of lifelogging.
Unless you’re a technology expert you’re unlikely to have come across a lifelogger. They’re mostly software engineers, or computer scientists such as Dr Cathal Gurrin, a lecturer at Dublin City University’s (DCU) School of Computing. “It becomes compelling,” says the soft-spoken academic, “and it’s a difficult thing to stop doing once you start.”
Gurrin’s journey began as a two-week experiment in 2006 using a SenseCam, the lifelogger’s key tool. This is a camera about the size of a cigarette packet, which is worn around the neck and can be set to take photographs when triggered by such things as changes in the light, ambient temperature or body heat, or be primed to take a snapshot, say, every 30 seconds. It has no viewfinder or display, but is fitted with a fish-eye lens to capture almost everything in the wearer’s view. Gurrin’s snapshots are stored on a server at the university. His original fortnight of photographing has turned into a five-year odyssey.
Dr Gurrin’s “eureka” moment came when he met his new girlfriend in 2006. She recalled bumping into him in a bank months before they had started dating — and there in his digital archive he found the picture of the moment he first saw her. Now he wears the camera from the minute he wakes until he hits the sack. He says he wants to create “a detailed digital diary of everything; a diary of you, for you”. So he also logs his exact locations and movements — whether he is driving, sitting, standing, walking — and notes the Bluetooth devices, normally mobile phones, that he encounters.
Since he began he has amassed a collection of 8m photos, 2m GPS recordings of his locations, and 20m accelerometer recordings of his movements. So what does he do with all of this information? Gurrin’s digital archive is more than a massive exercise in narcissism. He is a human guinea pig for the research team he runs at DCU, which is developing the first fully functional search engine for lifelogs. Human memory is, of course, automatic. “In our brain it just works,” explains Gurrin. “You just recall things, but it is difficult to understand how people will recall memories on a computer.” It is imperative that Dr Gurrin’s team’s search engine actually mimics the brain, so they have been conducting experiments with cognitive psychologists at the University of Leeds on the ways the brain processes memories. Although it is “really, really challenging work”, Gurrin is confident that the first search engine will be ready by the end of the year.
Historians will have a complete record of your life. Imagine if we’d had this kind of record of Einstein, or Shakespeare, or HitlerThe overall aim is to create a perfect digital memory. Should you wish to pass it on to them, your children and grandchildren will have a complete record of your life. So, too, will historians. Imagine if we’d had this kind of record of Einstein, or Shakespeare, or Hitler. Eventually your lifelog will be automatically uploaded and stored on your computer for posterity.
Privacy, of course, is a big issue. “This is a research project, so I can’t possibly record everything in my life,” says Gurrin. “I switch it off if I feel that it would be inappropriate, or if someone might object to what is being recorded. It is their choice, they have no statutory obligation to get involved.” He draws the line at recording certain events that take place in the lavatory or in the bedroom.
“The logging process records 98% of life events — the other 2% would simply be embarrassing.”
There is a parallel, he says, with the advent of camera phones. When they first came out, people suggested that we would photograph everything, but we don’t. Rules as to where it is or isn’t acceptable to take photos have developed, and people tend to abide by these.
What is more, covert use would be impractical. “Remember that the SenseCam is actually a very visible device when worn, and we never try to hide it. It captures only two to three photographs a minute, which are not high quality; they are memory aids, not the quality of photos you would print for an album.”
The idea of a search-able personal archive isn’t new. It was first suggested back in 1945 by Vannevar Bush, the director of the US Federal Office of Scientific Research. In an essay for Atlantic Monthly, he set out a vision of a machine called a Memex, in which “an individual stores all his books, records and communications”. This could be accessed quickly and “is an enlarged, intimate supplement to his memory’’. The Memex would be a desk where material could be automatically photographed and placed inside. Bush also suggested that to get this information into the Memex “the camera hound of the future wears on his forehead a lump a little larger than a walnut. It takes pictures 3mm square”. He predicted: “As the scientist of the future moves about the laboratory or field, every time he looks at something worthy of record, he trips the shutter and in it goes.” Bush’s machine was designed with scientists in mind, rather like an iPad put together by Jules Verne.
So who will be using the modern version when Gurrin and his team finally crack it? Pretty much all of us, if Gordon Bell is to be believed. Bell is the granddaddy, the guru of lifelogging. He started in 2001 and predicts that within a decade we will all be lifeloggers. His seminal book, Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything, written with a colleague and fellow lifelogger, Jim Gemmell, declares: “Society at large is on an inexorable path to total-recall technology and it is going to transform the world around us… and change what it means to be human.” Bell can’t be written off as some crazy futurologist. Now in his seventies, he is still a principal researcher at Microsoft. His boss, Bill Gates, calls him “one of the industry’s most original thinkers”. He is a man in demand, with technology start-up companies lining up to get him on board. When he and Gemmell, a fellow Microsoft researcher, wrote Total Recall in 2009, they set out to map the extreme lifelogging project — a huge undertaking, for which Bell started recording and storing everything he was currently doing.
His SenseCam would photograph every place he visited, every person he met. He began keeping records of the food he ate. He would record telephone conversations; make copies of memos and notes. He even wore a heart monitor and GPS tracker, which he used to work out that his angina was brought on by eating even a tiny amount of fatty ice cream. By 2020 he thinks this personal recording will be as commonplace as emailing is now. “I don’t think people realise we are part of a revolution,” he says. Integral to this revolution is the creation of what he calls our “e-memory”. He has said that these e-memories will be “objective, dispassionate, prosaic and unforgivingly accurate” compared with our “subjective, patchy, emotion-tinged, ego-filtered, impressionistic and mutable” biological memories.
In neurological circles such claims are treated with scepticism and thinly disguised disdain. “They are missing the point,” says Susan Greenfield, professor of pharmacology at Oxford University. “You can’t isolate memories; they are interrelated and upgraded and changed every time you visit that memory.” Baroness Greenfield challenges the belief put forward by lifeloggers that autobiographical or episodic memory can be improved and extended by e-memories, “They confuse memories with facts,” she says. “Imbued with every episode are other interrelated episodes. You’d have to download your whole brain.”
Less sceptical scientists have started to explore how data are affecting the way we remember and recall events. In July the journal Science published research by psychologists into the effect Google’s search engine is having on memory. It found we are less likely to remember information that we know we can find on the internet.
But could lifelogging help us to hold on to memories when our brains begin to falter? Researchers are already exploring the potential of lifelogging devices in neurological illnesses. In 2007 Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge conducted a study to see if a patient’s severe memory loss could be improved by wearing a camera to record and recall interesting events in her life compared with keeping a written diary. The results were encouraging. After a month the woman could recall 80% of the events she had captured on her camera but none of the events she had recorded in her diary. It led the researchers to conclude that the camera, “in addition to aiding autobiographical memory, has a number of other benefits for brain-injured patients”, and that it could help to answer such questions as, “How quickly do we forget?” and “How does our memory change with age?”
If governments got their hands on lifelogging data they would have a means to 'document every material event of an individual’s life'Lifelogging evangelists such as Jim Gemmell fervently believe the recording of all personal data will unlock some of the big secrets about our health. “That’s what excites me the most,” he tells me when I reach him on his holiday in Hawaii. He foresees a near future where our lifelogs will monitor our bodies through a multitude of sensors implanted inside us. These will continuously record data such as blood pressure, cholesterol and a host of other vital signs, feeding them back to our personal digital archive. These monitors will alert us or our doctors when they detect problems.
Of course, says Gemmell, lifelogging can be embarrassing if you share things. “A few weeks ago I had a friend prodding me about the potential negative impact on privacy of lifelogging. Then I looked on Facebook and found that she shared vastly more of her life than I ever do.
"She already had embarrassing things shared on the web, and I don’t. How ironic! So, for me, the way lifelogging might be embarrassing is if I appear in someone else’s lifelog and they share things I wish they wouldn’t. Gordon has logged the most about me, but he is even more private than I am.”
One lifelogger, says Gemmell, was embarrassed by the intrusion of the process. “He was sharing everything with his lab — note, the sharing that we would never do or advocate — and was embarrassed by shots taken in the men’s room. I asked him why. I’ve accidentally taken shots in men’s rooms, and you don’t see anything revealing. He explained that, although nothing X-rated is ever seen, he is embarrassed by shots taken from his point of view, seated — of his legs with his pants down.”
Being caught with your pants down could be the least of it. There is undoubtedly a potential dark side to lifelogging. This was explored by Martin Dodge and Rob Kitchin, geographers specialising in digital technologies, in a 2007 paper for the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London. If governments got their hands on lifelogging data, they warned, they would have “the potential for invasive profiling”, a means to “document every action, every conversation and every material event of an individual’s life”.
As lifelogs would record not just what you’re doing but who you’re with and where you are, they could identify and penalise “indiscretions, perversions and minor infractions of the law”. Dodge and Kitchin concluded that giving the state access to our lifelogs should be avoided at all costs, as it would encourage “an ultra-conservative society”.
This could be a selling point to large swaths of the community. Lyndsay Williams, the lifelogger and software engineer who invented the SenseCam, says only that what she calls “people without integrity” should fear scrutiny of their personal data.
If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear? This same old argument was used to defend ID cards and tougher counterterrorism measures, but we weren’t convinced that only the guilty need to fear surveillance. To provide the reassurance that personal data archives couldn’t be used for profiling, said Dodge and Kitchin, lifelogs would need to be able to forget.
They came up with the idea of “an ethics of forgetting” for lifelogging, which would mean, for example, designing software that would allow exact details of a journey to fade over time, just as it does in our memory. Gordon Bell calls the idea “nuts”. As with so many of the tough questions about the consequences of lifelogging, he believes “society will need to come up with a suitable answer”.
We may be able to stop the state getting its hands on our personal digital archives, but it will be up to us to decide on this great drawback of lifelogging, the further blurring of the boundary between the private and the public. Lyndsay Williams says we shouldn’t be worried, as “we have no privacy any more”. It was something she learnt during her years at Microsoft. At the same time, she is aware of how intrusive lifelogging devices can be. “The GPS can track not just which house you’re in but which room.” That could be bad news for the millions who cheat on their partners. Imagine that your partner got hold of your lifelog and saw that the innocent trip to a neighbour’s house consisted of an hour in the bedroom.
And it is not just “people without integrity” who have cause for concern. In the course of his project, recording all Bluetooth devices near him, Cathal Gurrin found that in hotels he would pick up Bluetooth signals from other phones being beamed through walls from adjacent rooms, or from floors above and below him. When his students looked through the data, it appeared to them that these devices were in the same room as him. Try explaining that one to a suspicious partner.
Conversations have the power to come back and haunt us far more than pictures do. If the two are combined they could be lethalDr Gurrin is optimistic that the next version of Bluetooth will rectify this particular problem. What technology can’t do is to stop people recording us when we don’t want them to. That will be up to us to sort out. As he says, rules are already developing on what is unacceptable to record for your lifelog. For him it was gathering audio. When he tried doing it, even in experiments, he found “people really didn’t like it and basically they stopped talking to you”. Pictures were fine but he found that people had concerns that audio “will be stored, archived, found again and used against them in some way”. A group of colleagues chatting together might make a boring photograph — but their conversation itself could be more interesting. Suppose they are actually bitching about the head of the department.
Conversations have the power to come back and haunt us far more than pictures do. If the two are combined they could be lethal.
Gordon Bell, too, found that videoing someone or recording their voice could unnerve them, so he came up with a solution. “They didn’t know,” he confesses with a chuckle. “I have a file called ‘conversations’ but I didn’t use it in any way.” But if others follow this example and record surreptitiously, as Bell believes many will, won’t it create fear and paranoia? A version of the 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s famous Panopticon (“all-seeing”) prison where the inmates would never see the “inspector” conducting surveillance, and could never tell whether they were being watched or not? Lyndsay Williams says with asperity: “You’ll just have to learn how to behave.”
Will this bother the ultimate target market for lifelogging: children and teenagers? I doubt it. After all, teenagers increasingly share most of their lives online in what Susan Greenfield calls “the solipsistic need to interrelate all the time with others”.
The technology being developed — mini video cameras, sensors for constant monitoring of your health — will mean teenagers will be able to share far more private and intimate details about their lives than the posting on Facebook of drunken photos in nightclubs or sunset holiday snaps.
Data about your whole life could be collected and stored online. This will be a valuable commodity, and companies are starting to realise the potential of personal digital archives. The food company Danone recently used lifelogging for research into demand for some of their drinks brands. And media companies are thought to have used it to track how audiences behave at weekends.
Cathal Gurrin has noticed recently that big multinational companies have “suddenly pricked up their ears and thought, ‘Hey, there’s something happening here. We’d like to get our hands on this.’” He is regularly meeting with big technology firms — although he won’t divulge which ones — who are trying to get into lifelogging.
Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell are firm in their conviction that by 2020 lifelogging will have entered the mainstream. Cathal Gurrin says it “can’t be stopped”, for the simple reason that “the technology is already out there”.
So what kind of society will this encourage? Gordon Bell calls it “Little Brother”. A democratised surveillance, carried out not by one omnipresent authority but by millions of individuals. Let’s hope this isn’t the case. Unless, of course, you really want the future to be a version of the Big Brother House broadcast directly onto Facebook.