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Lifelogging is dead (for now)

Mike Elgan | April 5, 2016
A funny thing happened on the road to capturing everything: Hardware failed to keep up, and social media made it redundant.

The name Gordon Bell has become synonymous with lifelogging.

Bell is the legendary engineer and researcher emeritus who recently retired from Microsoft.

Bell started wearing a camera around his neck in 2000. But not just any camera. He wore an automated one that took pictures every 30 seconds. He was the main subject in a long-term experiment called the MyLifeBits project while a principal researcher at Microsoft.

gordon bell 2
Gordon Bell: lifelogger and retired Microsoft researcher.

The idea was to record, capture and store every last bit of data that would later help him have a machine-enhanced photographic memory. In addition to the camera, Bell captured all his articles, lectures, presentations, memos, academic papers, home movies, IM transcripts, phone calls and more.

The idea was based on the work of Vannevar Bush, who in 1945 envisioned a machine called the Memex (a portmanteau of "memory" and "index"), a kind of desk that would scan, link and instantly retrieve everything from snippets of information to entire books.

Bell's vision built on Bush's, with the addition of the camera and the capturing of what we now call "quantified self" data -- measurements of heart rate and other variables in the human body.

I recently talked to Bell about his lifelogging project and the camera he wore around his neck, and I was shocked to learn that he no longer wears the camera.

The whole lifelogging project "wasn't something that was bringing a lot of value to my life," he told me.

The original vision for the project in 2007 was this: "We'll put all this stuff on my hard drive," then use software to index and retrieve it rapidly.

But Bell's foray into the kind of all-encompassing lifelogging he attempted was too early. In the future, he said, we could see the price of memory come way down, as well as breakthroughs in battery technology and artificial intelligence (A.I.). But for now, it's not possible to automatically record everything using a mobile device. And it's hard to manage and use the terabytes of data generated.

Meanwhile, Bell said, we do have a version of Bush's Memex: "It's the smartphone."

The combination of the sensors in the phone, the connected smartwatches and fitness wearables, the location tracking, the apps that harvest data and, above all, the social media oversharing, together constitutes a lifelog. It's just that we don't look at it that way.

Ambivalence about lifelogging by the industry and the public means all this data isn't being gathered up into anything resembling a cohesive view of one's life or a handy way to recall the past, for the most part.


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