Monday, February 16, 2009

The Dullest Person I've Ever Come Across

I’m not particularly interesting.
Gordon Bell

I was at the National Library in Wellington this time two weeks ago for a forum on the National Digital Heritage Archive, a project that I’m going to write about in some detail in the coming weeks and months. It was a very enjoyable occasion, and the library needs to be commended for opening it to the public free of charge, as well as for putting the presentation materials online. I’m not going to discuss any of that today, though, I just want to share with you a phrase that Penny Carnaby used in her introduction to the day's proceedings:
We live in a ‘press delete’ generation.
It’s a point I heard her make before, and it’s always struck me because it’s the exact opposite of how I’d characterise our default setting in relation to the digital products of our culture.

How to preserve born-digital objects is of course an important issue in these relatively early stage of the age of bits, and in her capacity of chief librarian of our National Library Ms Carnaby has a right as well as the duty to be concerned. But it seems to me that what is being lost for the most part is not being actively deleted, but vanishes rather due to lack of care, both cultural (digital objects need to circulate in order to remain viable) and technical (to combat the obsolescence of hardware and software, as well as the physical decay of the storage media). I also happen to think, not unrelatedly, that the act of pressing delete has in fact a lot going for it.

For there is another threat our efforts of preservation, and it’s the rate of content generation. I’m waiting for the next HMI report from the Global Information Industry Center to tell us how much information there might be in the world, and just exactly how staggeringly fast it might be growing. As of 2003, the year of the last report, the estimate included the following take-home points:
Print, film, magnetic, and optical storage media produced about 5 exabytes of new information in 2002. Ninety-two percent of the new information was stored on magnetic media, mostly in hard disks.
We estimate that the amount of new information stored on paper, film, magnetic, and optical media has about doubled in the last three years.
An exabyte equals one quintillion bytes, which is to say ten to the eighteenth power. It really is impossible to contemplate a figure like that other than by going ‘wow, that’s loads’. And besides I have all sorts of problems with measuring the information in the world in bytes, as if it were all digital - but I’ll leave that for another rant. The more meaningful and human-readable conclusion is in fact the second one: the amount of new information annually produced doubled between 1999 and 2002. Now ask yourself: has this situation changed in the last six or seven years? Are the cultural and technological conditions in which new information gets produced and stored substantially different, in a way that is likely to have slowed down this rate of increase? If anything, I would say it’s probably the opposite. Blogging, Twitter and Flickr alone would have made sure of that.

So we could equally be saying: we live in a ‘press save' generation, for Save is in fact the default behaviour, when in any sort of doubt, of a computer system in relation to a digital object. Want evidence? When you instruct a computer to delete a file, you are generally asked if you’re sure you want to do it, but when you go to save it, whirr, it just happens.

If you equate information with knowledge, as so many people do nowadays, you may of course opine that none of this constitutes a problem. I will come back to this in a future instalment, and take issue with astute commentator Manuel Castells on whether the talk of an information glut is legitimate and what some of the cultural ramifications of that kind of thinking might be. But today I want to be less subtle and deal with a limit case that perhaps we can all agree upon.

Meet Gordon Bell, IT luminary, former Microsoft executive and dedicated lifelogger. I didn’t seek permission to use the friendly-looking picture on his home page, so kindly navigate to the link above for a glimpse of how he rolls. You’ll see he’s carrying two devices around his neck: one appears to be a voice recorder, while the other is a SenseCam, an experimental Microsoft camera that operates in permanent stand-by mode and wakes up to take pictures every time it sense the heat likely to be emanated by a human body transiting in front of Mr Bell or a change in the lighting conditions suggesting that its carrier might have moved to a new location. This is all part of MyLifeBits, a project initiated by Bell in 1998 but whose origins could be traced back not so much to the visionary genius of Vannevar Bush - as he maintains - but rather to something that Bell’s employer wrote in 1996 in The Road Ahead:
[T]he highway will also make it possible for an individual to keep track of his or her own whereabouts--to lead what we might call "a documented life." Your wallet PC will be able to keep audio, time, location, and eventually even video records of everything that happens to you. It will be able to record every word you say and every word said to you, as well as body temperature, blood pressure, barometric pressure, and a variety of other data about you and your surroundings. It will be able to track your interactions with the highway--all of the commands you issue, the messages you send, and the people you call or who call you. The resulting record will be the ultimate diary and autobiography, if you want one.[1]
Bell wants one, and he’s doing just that. It started with a lot of old-fashioned digitisin’ - of books, scrapbooks, collectibles, papers - and is continuing nowadays with the recording of every waking moment of Bell’s life. As of May 2007, when The New Yorker wrote a piece on MyLifeBits, the archive included, besides the non-born digital objects
a hundred and twenty-two thousand e-mails; fifty-eight thousand photographs; thousands of recordings of phone calls he has made; every Web page he has visited and instant-messaging exchange he has conducted since 2003; all the activity of his desktop (which windows, for example, he has opened); eight hundred pages of health records, including information on the life of the battery in his pacemaker; and a sprawling category he describes as “ephemera,” which contains such things as books he has written and books from his library; the labels of bottles of wine he has enjoyed; and the record of a bicycle trip through Burgundy, where he tried to eat in as many starred restaurants as he could (he averaged 2.2 stars per meal—“I do a lot of measuring,” he says).

There is a flash in the last sentence of my beloved Georges Perec, who amongst other self-archival activities at the very border of what others would call sanity attempted an ‘Inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by [Him] in the Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-Four’[2], but without any of the poetic self-examinations and reflections that accompanied those endeavours. I saw Bell speak at Victoria University in May of 2006, in front of an audience of information technology students, and not once did he pause to consider the staggering ethical and philosophical implications of the project. Come question time, it was all that he was asked about, and he proceeded to politely deflect the questions, in the apparent hope that the next one would be about some aspect or other of the software architecture.

Let’s examine some of these questions. Is Mr Bell in fact authorised to record other people? What is the usefulness of all this data? How could it be accessed, except ultimately by replaying the subject’s life? (And whilst recording the act of replaying, presumably.) How might carrying recording devices around one’s neck influence one’s behaviour, outlook, attitudes towards others - not to mention theirs towards us? Wouldn’t you be very careful of what you said and how you looked in the company of Mr Bell?

I’m sure you can think of several more questions besides. But here’s one I find particularly intriguing: for this project Bell employs an assistant, Vicki Rozycki. Now if Ms Rozycki wanted to document her own life, would she need her own assistant? And what does this say about class, status and memorability?

Not only the Bill Gates of the roughly hewn The Road Ahead, but also the far more sophisticated and compelling thinking of Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital needs to be borne in mind here if we seek to shine a light on the ethos behind Bell’s project. Negroponte’s understanding of technology is unwaveringly utilitarian, and strictly at the service of business and progress, but with a curious whiff of old aristocracy about it. He talks of the digital butler and of electronic cufflinks communicating with each other via low-orbiting satellites, and you can imagine him typing those words in the executive suite of an hotel somewhere in Asia while the permanently over-excited Brit who covers the business world for CNN brays about something or other on the telly. Indeed, while Negroponte proclaims that we are all digital, Bell chimes “I am data”[3]. But no matter how frustrated one might feel at the shallowness of their thinking, there is a significant extent in which it is also true. The executive of a transnational corporation or the high-powered consultant who advises the rich and powerful and sits through corporate meetings in which minutes never fail to be taken; who regularly consumes in-flight entertainment and receives daily emails in the hundreds – this is the kind of person who has an ‘output,’ whose words are always recorded, who is data.

At the same time, Bell undercuts this narrative by eschewing Negroponte’s constant reminders of his own status and (self) importance, claiming instead:
I’m not particularly interesting. I’m just typical of what you should be able to do.
Isn’t this then also a case of the ‘lowering of the threshold of description’[4] that Foucault so ably describes? It used to be that only the rich and powerful could aspire to have their lives documented. When Winston Churchill was born, for instance, his (aristocratic, powerful, connected) family duly began to collect and record all manners of information about him in the very reasonable expectation that he would one day be biographised, and the Churchill biography by his son Randolph and Martin Gilbert contains indeed a truly phenomenal amount of documents about the man. But Bell proposes to bring a Churchill biography in every home, one for every member of your household in fact. And you should be excited about this, because... because...

Because why? I honestly couldn’t tell you. Bell and his collaborator Jim Gemmell open a paper on MyLifeBits by claiming that ‘[h]uman memory can be maddeningly elusive. We stumble upon its limitations every day, when we forget a friend's telephone number, the name of a business contact or the title of a favorite book.’ And yes, I too get frustrated when I forget a phone number. But surely the answer is not to record everything - that way lies the paranoiac hypermnesia of Funes - but rather to make a note of the things that seem important, including phone numbers.

I am convinced that Bell’s solution is in fact the answer to a whole different question. And perhaps a clue can be found here, in a document that reveals his involvement in another project at Microsoft Research: Digital Immortality. The abstract, from October 2000, reads in part
Both one-way and two-way immortality require part of a person to be converted to information (Cyberized), and stored in a more durable media. We believe that two-way immortality where one’s experiences are digitally preserved, and which then take on a life of their own will be possible within the this century.

Please wait: the saving of Gordon Bell is in progress.

(To be continued.)

[1]Bill Gates, The Road Ahead (New York: Viking, 1996), p. 303.
[2]In Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, translated by John Sturrock. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997, pp. 244-250.
[3]Slide of Gordon Bell's presentation at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, on May 29th, 2006.
[4]Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish – The Birth of the Prison (London: Penguin Books, 1997), pp. 77-78.

Gordon Bell, Jim Gray. 'Digital Immortality'. Association for Computing Machinery, 2000.
Gordon Bell, Jim Gemmell. 'A Digital Life.' Scientific American, February 2007.
Vannevar Bush. ‘As We May Think.’ Atlantic Monthly. July 1945, pp. 101-108.
Michel Foucault. Discipline and Punish – The Birth of the Prison. London: Penguin Books, 1997.
Bill Gates. The Road Ahead. New York: Viking, 1996.
Nicholas Negroponte. Being Digital. New York: Knopf, 1995.
Georges Perec. ‘Attempt at an inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy Four.’ In Species of Spaces and Other Pieces. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997, pp. 244-250.
Alec Wilkinson. 'Remember This? A project to record everything we do in life.' The New Yorker, May 27th, 2007.