Capturing Every Moment

Whether in the name of fun, fear, or scientific inquiry, people are digitally logging their every move with photos, GPS trackers, and digital recorders.

| March 15, 2007

What were you doing at 5:57 p.m. on Tuesday, January 9, 2007? Most of us can't remember that far back. We could wager a guess, check a calendar, call a friend, but pinpointing our exact location and activity might be difficult. Hasan Elahi, on the other hand, not only knows what he was doing, but has the photographic evidence to prove it.?

Anna Weinberg reports in Good, that Elahi, an art professor at Rutgers University, started his self-tracking project out of fear for his safety. In 2002, he was accosted at a Detroit airport and interrogated by the FBI about his whereabouts on September 11, 2001. The calendar on his PDA provided him with an alibi, but the FBI continued to question him for six months. He started to worry, Weinberg writes, about 'a midnight abduction to Guantanamo,' and so he began Tracking Transience: The Orwell Project in the winter of 2002. The website features a GPS map giving his exact location at all times, photos of every meal he eats, every urinal he uses, every place he visits, and bank statements to corroborate his claims. Part art project, part security measure, Tracking Transience allows Elahi to take comfort in the fact that, 'If I do disappear, numerous people from all over the world will notice that I'm missing.'

Writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Scott Carlson describes a series of similar endeavors -- dubbed 'lifelogging' -- around the world. Microsoft Research appears to be one of the frontrunners in personal recording technology. The company has recruited a 72-year-old computer engineer to record his conversations, save his emails, photograph every event he attends, and track himself using GPS. The project is called MyLifeBits and is an attempt to find ways to archive and search through vast amounts of lifelogged information.

An assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University is using SenseCam, a camera invented by Microsoft Research, to help Alzheimer's patients. The device hangs around the wearer's neck and snaps a photo every minute, much like a stop-action film. The purpose is to 'figure out which visual cues are useful in prompting memories,' Carlson reports. Researchers at Dublin City University are also using SenseCam, but their goal is to figure out how to navigate lifelogged information. They're working on video software that can scan through the photos and find interesting activities, such as action sequences.

Carlson reports that some researchers see lifelogging as the way of the future and believe that it could eventually become as popular as blogging or MySpace. 'I fully believe that we will all be wearing this stuff all the time,' Mark T. Bolas, associate professor at the University of Southern California, tells Carlson.

Some of the benefits are tempting: reliable alibis for every situation, recordings of good memories and valuable ideas, history to pass on to one's children. But the creepiness of pathologically documenting one's words and actions might turn some people off. Carlson decided to conduct his own personal recording experiment. He hung a digital audio recorder around his neck with a sign that said, 'Warning: This conversation may be recorded.' He found that, not only were other people uncomfortable being recorded, but the device affected his own behavior and captured moments he wasn't sure he wanted to remember. 'One weekend I got tired of wearing the recorder and put it in a drawer,' he writes. 'I felt liberated in way that is hard to describe.'

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