You Must Remember This (Gordon Bell's lifelong lifelog)
I have a pretty good memory. Nowhere near photographic, but more than serviceable. I tend to have a particularly good recall of social details, even those of people I don't know all that well: where someone's husband went to college, the name of their long-dead dog. I have a lot of "important occasion" clothing memories: what I wore the first day of kindergarten (a brown and yellow striped dress); what I had on the day my period started (blue plaid skirt and orange "middy-style" blouse); what I was wearing when, at age four, I was the first one to spot the grassfire burning in the field next to our house (gray wool skirt with suspender straps, and with navy and dark red stripes).
I have pretty good recall of feelings, too - like how upset I got on that first day of kindergarten when the patrol line exited from a different entrance than I'd come in. I was panicked that I wasn't going to able to find my mother and brother Tom, who were coming to escort me home on the first big day of school. When I realized we were going out a different door, I tried to rush back up the stairs. A "big girl" neighbor (Yvonne LaChapelle) grabbed me and assured me that she'd help me find my mother and Tom. She did. Overwhelming feeling of panic turned into relief.
An imperfect memory, but pretty darned good, and I rely on it. One reason that I rely on it so heavily is that I don't save much stuff. Oh, I have a few things - some pictures, my diplomas - but no heaping cartons full of the pictures I drew in first grade, my First Communion veil (which was probably borrowed, anyway), and my eighth grade autograph book. Let alone my college notebooks, grad school papers, and all the memos, documents, plans, and PowerPoints I accumulated at work over the years.
Sometimes I wish I had hung on to more of life's detritus, but my attitude has always pretty much been that my memory is a good enough repository. Plus I live in a not-so-large condo with very little storage. There'd be no place to keep this kind of junk, even if I wanted to.
So I read the article on Gordon Bell by Alec Wilkinson in The New Yorker (May 28th), and listened to him interviewed on NPR a bit after that, with definite interest.
For those for whom his name doesn't, well, ring a bell, Gordon Bell is an engineer - and not just any old engineer. While at Digital Equipment Corporation (a.k.a., DEC), he "was among the first engineer to fashion computers in a network; and [he] led the National Science Foundation effort to link the world's supercomputers - the Internet". He now works as a researcher for Microsoft, focusing on projects that require a genius.
What Bell is noodling around with these days is putting his life on line.
This involved scanning:
...all the papers in his file cabinets and in the boxes crowding his garage...his scrapbooks and photographs, the business cards he has saved, the posters on his walls, and his many commemorative T-shirts...his interesting coffee mugs, which were first photographed, [and] the manuals for his appliances...
Bell's now also contains a hundred and twenty-two thousand e-mails...thousands of recordings of phone-calls...every Web page he has visited and instant-messaging exchange he has conducted since 2003.
The archive also includes books Bell has written and wine bottle labels. Definitely someone who's hell-bent on going paperless.
Bell also wears a small camera around his neck that takes pictures at set intervals during the day, capturing a photographic record of what he's seeing - or not seeing, if he happens to be paying attention to something else when he walks by, say, a dog peeing on a hydrant.
Bell and his collaborator, Jim Gemmell, "believe that everyone will eventually store [this sort of stuff] on their computers. (By 2010, a typical life, they feel sure, will fit on a cell phone.)"
I'm 100% certain that the minutiae of my life is nowhere near as valuable and interesting as the accumulations of Gordon Bell. (I sure wasn't the one who figured out that connecting computers was a cool idea.)
But I'm also 100% certain that I don't like the idea of my life, in its entirety, fitting on a cell phone. Nor do I like the idea of the care and feeding that archiving my life would require. Forget about getting everything to date in there to create a baseline. I've pretty much minimized that particular task by not saving all that much stuff to begin with, although I do have a couple of old corporate mugs that I could photograph...
What Bell is engaged in with this project is called "lifelogging."
Although Bell's photographic logging is done automatically, we've all seen examples of lifelogging in action. Think of all those folks taking videos of their kids being born rather than squeezing their wife's hand. Think of all those cellphone pictures ("Here I am at Fenway Park."), which can oh so easily be accompanied by recordings of cellphone conversations ("Here I am at Fenway Park."). Think of Twitter: "just flushing the toilet." Think of blogging. (Although I and my blogging buddies, of course, engage in the far superior form of blogging - the personal essay, the opinion piece - rather than doing all that lowbrow, 'who cares' cataloging of what we ate for breakfast. Which, if you must know, was cottage cheese and a plum.)
Occasionally, [Bell] feels encumbered by the project. "There's a number here," he says. "I'd like to say that I'm living ninety-five per cent of the time, keeping this system five percent. I want to live a life, not be a slave to it."
Meanwhile, Bell et al. are searching for applications for all this stuff. There are clearly some that sound pretty useful - like having your medical information, including real-time observations, on hand. One use (not mentioned in the article, but which I recall from the NPR interview) would be having your life stuff available as a memory jog (or memory replacement) for the elderly whose recall is not as sharp as it once was.
So far, so good with my memory, but maybe I'll regret not having saved all my personal Rosebuds someday. But 99.99% of the things I've thought-seen-said-done. No thanks. Most of it's beneath interest to me, even, let alone to anyone else. And, frankly, there's plenty of stuff I'd just as soon not have captured for posterity.
And the thought of devoting 5% of my life to "keeping up my system?"
That sounds like way too much overhead.
Blogging's bad enough!