Archive for December, 2009

In Search of the Perfect Librarian

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009
Young people's librarian and students, 1938.

Young people's librarian and students, 1938. New York Public Library Visual Materials.

In a simple, primitive way, many people are already “life logging” at the office and don’t realize it. Each year they find themselves saving a greater volume of e-mails than the year before to remember what was said when and by whom. The volume of information is so great, that they back up their brain with e-mail to alleviate the fear of forgetting something important.

I think if there were a product available today that could efficiently capture and organize not just e-mails, but all kinds of digital information in our daily lives, the demand would be huge. So when the Microsoft researchers behind the MyLifeBits project say, “…it is not clear whether this capability will always be desired,” I think consumers would get over any concerns they have with the technology rather quickly. And although critics raise a number of valid issues about “lifelong capture,” the opportunities created by this technology outweigh the risks.

One of the opportunities created by this technology is “a freeing, uplifting and secure feeling–similar to having an assistant with a perfect memory,” say Jim Gemmell, Gordon Bell and Roger Lueder in “MyLifeBits: A Personal Database for Everything.”

Improves mental health

Psychologist and memory expert Martin Conway at the University of Leeds argues that life logging can actually improve mental health by making our brains more productive and creative.

“It’s rather like the way Google has already become an indispensable part of how people think about things — sitting at their desks, constantly tapping into the world’s massive trove of information,” Conway told SmartCompany magazine. “Your real memory becomes a sort of executive manager for all these other technological abilities.”

Relieves anxiety

One of the biggest sources of anxiety for busy professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, CEOs and others, is the need to store large amounts of information in their memory and retrieve it instantly. Data capturing technology could address this anxiety.

“We sit around anxious about our to-do lists because we can never entirely remember them (while we’re at work) or entirely forget them (when we’re not),” says David Allen, a personal-productivity guru.

Stimulates short-term memory

Alan Smeaton, a professor of computing at Dublin University, borrowed from Microsoft the same kind of cameras that are used to capture video in the MyLifeBits project. His students wore them all day. They discovered that if they spent a minute at the end of the day reviewing a high-speed replay of the photos that were taken, it had the effect of stimulating their short-term memory.

“You see somebody you met in a corridor and had a two-minute conversation with that you’d completely forgotten about,” Smeaton says. “And you’d go, ‘Oh, I forgot to send an e-mail to that guy!’ It’s bizarre. It improves your recall by 100%.”

Geography map librarian. London School of Economics. c1970s

Geography map librarian. London School of Economics. c1970s

Clearly there are critics who argue about the downside of life logging as well.

Forgetting is necessary

German computer scientist Frank Nack, who published a critique of life logging in 2006, says that forgetting is “how we make sense of life, how we interpret things. Everybody is building a life story; we all need to forget certain stages. I don’t want to be reminded of everything.”

Nack says that forgetting is essential to our concepts of forgiveness and nostalgia. However, couldn’t a life logger simply choose not to re-visit those sections of the record that are disturbing to remember? If you don’t like the program, change the channel.

Series of ‘gotchas’

If everyone has a record of everything that’s said and written, skeptics say you would be hounded by annoying people who bring up something you uttered, say, three months ago. “There — gotcha.” But doesn’t this already exist with e-mail? In my work life in corporate America I’ve been the target of gotchas many times. People are used to this sort of thing. It also exists already with employers scanning applicants’ Facebook pages for less-than-flattering photos. And yet Facebook continues to gain more subscribers everyday.

Chilling effect

We will be less spontaneous if we all know that someone’s SenseCam is recording every second of our actions, say the skeptics. That’s a valid point. So why couldn’t the technology be adapted to let the life logger turn the SenseCam on and off? Maybe there could be an indicator light, like on a regular camcorder, which would let everyone know it‘s recording. Or perhaps the life logger could just find out which friends and co-workers are comfortable with the technology and which aren’t.

Court and police use

Whether and how life logging records could be used by law enforcement and in court proceedings is a complex issue. For example, can a person be incriminated by something recorded by their own data capture device? Legislators would have to look at these concerns closely and create laws that regulate the issue with common sense.

Privacy rights

If life logging captures everything and everybody, what are the privacy rights of those who are in view of the camera or logged into the record? Scientific American in its March 2007 issue notes that “new technologies can help minimize the potential dangers. When recording others, for instance, it may be possible to obscure their images or speech to avoid illegal recording.”

Identify thieves and the government will no doubt have an interest in the massive amounts of personal data that this technology will produce. Protecting the security of this information is obviously a chief concern. On the other hand, people already are becoming more willing to share sensitive personal information in everything from online shopping to Facebook.


The perfect librarian, circa 1956. The Library of Virginia.

The perfect librarian, circa 1956. The Library of Virginia.

The Perfect Librarian

The biggest challenge for life logging, and something I still can’t get my head around after reading and watching the assigned materials about it, is how this technology can efficiently organize such a vast amount of data. As Scientific American puts it, “Most of us do not want to be the librarians of our digital archives — we want the computer to be the librarian!” I guess that building the perfect librarian is the key.


Some efforts have met with success in this regard. These include “Facetmap,” which is based on the idea that we organize our memories by time and people, and “Lifebrowser,” which aims to automatically identify the most important events in a person’s life.

The Perfect Audience

As with most technologies, life logging has issues to address as it evolves and becomes more efficient. But the stage is set for a new generation of computer users to evolve with it, people who already are blogging their daily thoughts, storing their e-mails and posting their photos on Flickr. This generation believes not just in recording and expressing itself digitally, but in sharing this creativity as well.

Skeptic Mark Federman, formerly of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology, says that life logging will put us “…all on our best behavior. Reality would become reality TV.”

That may be so. But in an age when reality TV is the hottest form of entertainment, maybe Federman is also acknowledging the reason why life logging is a trend that will grow more popular with time. Can’t you see it? The new generation of computer users who’ve grown up with instant YouTube capability will have a massive personal library of digital material with which to create their own personal reality series. They’ll upload regular episodes and send them out for all their friends to view and comment:

“Dave’s Life, Tuesday, December 4. Scene one: Our family was quietly eating breakfast when Mom asked Dad where he was last night. Watch this video clip to see if you think Dad is lying…”

Who knows? It could be much more entertaining than MTV’s Real World.