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19 August 2004Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Slices of life
New technologies that allow people to record the minutiae of their daily lives are a mixed blessing.

by Josie Appleton

The diary is dead. Even the weblog - a personal website in diary format - is old hat. They're being buried under a wave of new technologies enabling individuals to record the minutiae of everyday experiences, and to share these experiences with others.

There's Moblogging, courtesy of the site www.20six.co.uk, allowing you to upload pictures and text from your mobile phone to an online blog. Vlogs are short videos posted online, varying from reports on the US Democrat Convention to shots of people's living rooms. Nokia's new Lifeblog application allows you to save mobile text messages, photos and videos in chronological order on a PC, and browse at will (1).

More technology is in the pipeline. Microsoft is working on a project called MyLifeBits, pioneered by Gordon Bell, who has recorded his every telephone call, letter, email, presentation, home video, and calendar event in one database (2). SenseCam is another Microsoft project - a wearable digital camera that automatically takes an 180-degree shot when it senses a change in the environment (3). 'What Was I Thinking', by MIT media student Sunil Vemuri, records audio that it organises by 'memory triggers', such as the date and the weather (4).

These new technologies look like a mixed blessing. They can be useful tools to help individuals to organise their lives. But they also have the potential to be used for solipsistic and narcissistic ends, with people turning inwards to obsess over their everyday experiences.

In part, these tools can be seen as the latest stage in humanity's attempt to document experiences and develop memory aids. From notches on a stick to writing, from diaries to computers, people have sought to go beyond the 'day-to-day' quality of life. Technology can help us to overcome the fallibility of individual memory, in order to assimilate the results of our experiences.

Gordon Bell tells me that he sees MyLifeBits as practical - 'the technology has to pay for itself in terms of something you need in your daily life'. Before a business meeting you might want to check the last phonecall you had with somebody; or you might want to search for some fact that you read last week. This could help to catch some valuable bits of information that we ordinarily allow to slip through our fingers.

It also helps you to capture memories - cities we had forgotten we had visited and meals we had forgotten we had eaten. 'You record something when you think, "Gee, this was a really memorable experience, this was worthwhile"', says Bell. Nokia's Christian Lindholm sees a similar use for the Lifeblog application. Pictures can be annotated with 'diary notes' - then you look back by scrolling through the timeline, or searching for a term such as 'Julie's birthday'.

Part of this is about organising information on a central database. Most of us make records of our lives, but they're all sitting in different jumbled heaps, many of which we have forgotten about. The videos are in a cupboard; the child photos are in albums; our notebooks are on a bookshelf. 'People have shoeboxes full of stuff that they never look at', says Bell. 'We're going to make that stuff available.'

Meanwhile, Vlogging seems to be becoming something of a new artistic genre, with young filmmakers making short 'slices of life' and distributing them for free online. Many are banal - people arguing about a videogame, annoying their friends or having a paint fight - but some are accomplished. One Vlog on Vidblogs.com, 'Preachers' by Justin Johnson, provides a perceptive and visually striking account of three north American cities (5).

But just as these technologies can be useful, they also can be used for narcissistic ends. At a time of social fragmentation and individuation, these 'life recorders' could just be applied for the dull recording of everyday experiences.

What you ate, who you spoke to, what you saw - this has already become the staple diet of the millions of blogs that populate the internet. 'On Sunday we basically did nothing. I phoned my aunt Jenny in Scotland, I read about 200 pages of Harry Potter, Mel slept till 3pm whereas I woke up at 10am', one young blogger reports (6). Sociologists such as Anthony Giddens describe this self-monitoring as 'reflexivity', with individuals dwelling on the tiniest aspects of their lives. 'At each moment, or at least at regular intervals, the individual is asked to conduct a self-interrogation in terms of what is happening', writes Giddens (7). This includes questions such as 'What am I doing? What am I feeling? How am I breathing?'. This was taken to extremes recently by a man who wrote down every thought that he was thinking. 'You will be immobilised for the duration of your commitment', he warned other would-be recorders (8).

Bell tells me that machines attached to the body could be used to record every meal you ate, how much energy you expended, and other health facts. People who are already overly concerned about health would use this to monitor their own bodies, day in day out. Bell himself doesn't have much truck with this: 'I've never been a blogger. I don't have enough time for this kind of crap.' But he admits that 'we're enabling people to get obsessed'. Bell cited the example of a Japanese man who claimed to have scanned 18 times more material than Bell, but most of this material was stored in a way that would make it difficult to access or use. 'There seemed to be very little of value. He's got his own LifeBits - all he needs is a life!'.

In some cases, data is just being taken up in the raw - books, photos and videos all just shoved into the memory bank, without making an effort to categorise or use it. Recording your experience becomes a kind of replacement for really experiencing it; you can switch on the camera or the scanner, assured that you aren't 'losing' anything, but in the meantime you aren't thinking about it either. The SenseCam sits on your shoulder taking a photo every time the light changes, a blind eye that takes in everything, however trivial.

Yet inflated expectations are being invested in these technologies. There is an idea that they can provide people with a firmer sense of identity, at a time when people often find it difficult to see a coherent narrative to their lives, and experiences often seem insubstantial - not quite 'real'. According to Lindholm, this could be one of the attractions of the Lifeblog: 'You can see very clearly a narrative of your life; some sort of chronological sequence gives meaning to people. It really allows the user to go back and reflect on what a person's life looks like.' The idea is that this birthday or that holiday is photographed and ordered, month by month, and you can see it all before you.

But this is a flimsy form of personal narrative. A Lifelog can't give you a life - it's just a way of storing data from your mobile phone. A photograph of every memorable event of your existence wouldn't give you a 'narrative' if you didn't have one already.

These new technologies can be useful, if we apply them to practical problems. Or they can be used to categorise reams of meaningless personal data. Chances are that if you get a life, you're in a better position to take advantage of Lifeblog.

(1) See Nokia's Lifeblog

(2) See Microsoft's MyLifeBits

(3) See Microsoft's SenseCam

(4) See MIT's What Was I Thinking?

(5) See Vidblogs.com

(6) Twisted reality blog

(7) Modernity and Self-Identity, Anthony Giddens, Polity 1991

(8) See How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought You Think

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