Entering the Seventh Decade of Lifelogging
Now that is the face of a lifelogger. One of the earliest lifeloggers, in fact. That’s Gordon Bell, lately of Microsoft but before that of DEC, with a couple of other mildly important stops along the way. A 3pointD reader reminded me of Bell the other day by linking to Microsoft’s MyLifeBits project, which I’d last thought about before lifelogging started taking up so much of my brainspace lately. A project of Microsoft’s research labs (not still known as BARC, I believe), MyLifeBits is essentially an experiment in logging Bell’s life in as much detail as possible, with Microsoft developing logging and storage tools along the way. For much more on this, read the long piece by Bell and colleague Jim Gemmell in the latest Scientific American. What I was particularly happy to be reminded of, though, was the fact that lifelogging — which we tend to think of as an outgrowth of MySpacing — in fact has its roots more than 60 years ago, at the dawn of the computing age, in or at least around the time of this July 1945 article in Atlantic Monthly by computing pioneer Vannevar Bush. Interestingly, the problems Bush was grappling with are not so different from those we ponder today: “The difficulty seems to be, not so much that we publish unduly in view of the extent and variety of present-day interests, but rather that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record.”
The MyLifeBits project is lifelogging large. As Bell and Gemmell write:
MyLifeBits has also provided Bell with a new suite of tools for capturing his interactions with other people and machines. The system records his telephone calls and the programs playing on radio and television. When he is working at his PC, MyLifeBits automatically stores a copy of every Web page he visits and a transcript of every instant message he sends or receives. It also records the files he opens, the songs he plays and the searches he performs. The system even monitors which windows are in the foreground of his screen at any time and how much mouse and keyboard activity is going on. When Bell is on the go, MyLifeBits continually uploads his location from a portable Global Positioning System device, wirelessly transmitting the information to his archive. This geographic tracking allows the software to automatically assign locations to Bell’s photographs, based on the time each is taken. To obtain a visual record of his day, Bell wears the SenseCam, a camera developed by Microsoft Research that automatically takes pictures when its sensors indicate that the user might want a photograph.
That’s a lot of logging. And Bell has been doing this since 2001. But the big challenge is what Bush mentions, which Bell and Gemmell describe as “devising software that can enable computers to perform useful tasks by tapping into this gigantic store of collected knowledge. The ultimate goal is a machine that can act like a personal assistant, anticipating its user’s needs.”
That’s the ultimate value of lifelogging. It’s not the ability to read about what your friend had for breakfast; it’s about having access to information about yourself (whether you choose to publish that information or not), in a way that will enhance your experience of life. As we enter the seventh decade of (modern) lifelogging, it’s good to know that someone is at least working on the problem in a comprehensive fashion — though of course it remains to be seen whether or not this will be the decade in which a solution emerges.