Friday, November 24, 2006

4 Days, 4 Blogs: MyLifeBits

I experienced a number of reactions to Clive Thompson's provocative article, "A Head For Detail", in the November 2006 issue of Fast Company. The article explores the MyLifeBits Project, an experiment by Gordon Bell of Microsoft Research Labs that attempts to digitize, collect, and make sense of a lifetime of memories; literally, everything one encounters in life on a daily basis. Mr. Bell's tools: a digital audio recorder, a modified phone tap, a Microsoft SenseCam that hangs around his neck and snaps photos of everything, a tool like Slogger that stores a copy of every web page Mr. Bell looks at, a scanner to digitize every piece of paper, and experimental search tools developed by Microsoft.

The innovative side of me immediately understands how this project must be driving incredible innovation in search tools (and according to Microsoft, obviously developed on top of SQL Server). It's estimated in the article that a 72-year-old person would require 1 to 3 terabytes of space for an average MyLifeBits instance. Obviously that much personal data is useless without tools that help one make sense of it. Tools that no doubt will in some way enrich our lives in the future. The article also mentions DEVONthink, the information manager for the Mac that attempts to augment thinking. Likewise, concepts and technologies surrounding MyLifeBits are actively being pursued and utilized by psychologists because they have shown true promise in improving mental health; both in "normal" folks and in people who have experienced trauma.

But the human side of me (my gut, specifically) says that this kind of technology is just
wrong as a standalone and widespread entity. Mark Federman, former strategist for the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology points out that "We'd all be on our best behavior. Reality would become reality TV." Mr. Thompson then goes on to ponder what happens to Microsoft's sensitive corporate memos when Mr. Bell leaves the company... Mr. Bell quips, "I'll need a lobotomy."

Granted, the point is made that we're already doing this in so many ways. We're storing our photos with tags on Flikr, we're uploading movies with tags on YouTube, we're keeping all of our email with Gmail, we're blogging our thoughts here. Yeah.
At our discretion.

Part of me says this is just another form of hoarding, or the pack rat syndrome that I witness seemingly more and more. To that point, perhaps unintentionally, Mr. Thompson quotes an engineer on a related Research Labs project called Lifebrowser; a tool that lets you train it by rating different things. The engineer poignantly states, "No one ever needs to remember what happened at the regular Monday staff meeting." Exactly.
So why keep it? The point was made that freeing our brains from trying to remember all of these miniscule events actually helps us to be more productive and creative. Remember the chord that Fight Club struck? Throwing it all away is refreshing too. In fact, Mr. Thompson describes some of Mr. Bell's more frustrating moments when he grasps for emails that just don't seem to be there or tries to find photos with tags that end up returning all sorts of documents that are not relevant to what he's looking for. That sounds like an episode of the Twilight Zone. Mr. Bell observed that the more he used the tools to replace his memory, the more he relied on them and the weaker his natural memory seemed to become - just like anything else that atrophies in our bodies.

My final thoughts:

Hope you don't forget your password.

Memory hacking. Sounds interesting.

Memory "enhancement" sounds more interesting. That strikeout you made as the last out... try game-winning hit! That strikeout you made with Sara... try...

person 1, "I didn't say that!"
person 2, "LET'S GO TO THE TAPE!"
(As if politics could get any worse) - $10/mo. to filter and remove all traces of her

"August 29, 2033 After 7 delays in as many months, Microsoft announces that its new operating system will no longer support the .mem format ..."

No comments: