August 26, 2016

Have you ever wished you could Google your own life experience? Have you worried about what you’d find if you could? In our Cult-of-Information age, it turns out that the technology to achieve this—also known as lifelogging—isn’t far off from total market saturation.

In May 2016, Sony made waves after it received a patent for a smart contact lens that records what you see. Narrative, an independent brand, sells a wearable camera with a 30-hour charge that takes a picture every 30 seconds. Kapture, a startup based in Cincinnati, Ohio, sells a Bluetooth-connected bracelet that continuously records audio with a 60-second buffer. At the speed these and other lifelogging technologies are improving and gaining users, it’s difficult to pause and ask, is this actually what we want or need?

One such pause came in 2011, when the UK’s popular Channel 4 series, Black Mirror—an unofficial 21st century update of The Twilight Zone—aired its now well-known episode, “The Entire History of You.” The episode takes place in a contemporary reality where people have capsules implanted in their heads recording everything they see and do, with a user interface allowing for memory searching and playback. Suspecting infidelity by his spouse, the episode’s protagonist replays and obsesses over particular memories until he destroys all of his relationships and goes insane. Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone would be proud.

While sensationalistic, the technophobic anxieties laced into “The Entire History of You” are common at times of technological change. People were scared of cars, record players, and telephones, too. But fears of technology aren’t like fears of spiders and heights; they’re often grounded in uncertainty around ethical and ideological freedom. This is especially true when the technological innovations are no longer focused on reducing physical limitations—as bikes did for transportation—but are instead enhancing mental and psychological abilities, where the limits, and the dangers of exceeding those limits, remain vague.

“We know deep down inside that not everything needs to be remembered, not everything we want to remember, and not everything needs a piece of technology to be remembered,” said Kapture co-founder Mike Sarow in a recent phone interview I had with him.

Like the implanted capsule in Black Mirror, Kapture is a physical device that captures everything, and it’s up to you if you want to archive it. If you’re a songwriter and get struck by a hook, or you just heard your boss say something quotable in your weekly team meeting, you can send the audio to an app with a tap of your Kapture bracelet. So far, reviews of Kapture say the hardware is clunky. Moreover, hearing Sarow’s visions of Kapture’s eventual transformation into a total platform technology, always recording from everywhere, the bracelet seems almost anachronous. But as an entrepreneur, Sarow also understands that the physical device softens the market to a more disruptive change. “With technology like this, you struggle with being too early or too provocative,” Sarow says. “You need to struggle with the storm until people actually become okay with it, and realize that it’s helpful.”

Sarow came up with the idea to develop Kapture because he wanted to remember something one of his friends said. These days, however, he focuses on its value for business—specifically, its potential usefulness in meetings where everyone seems distracted. “These days, there’s a decrease in value of what it means to pay attention to people,” Sarow says. Kapture is designed to correct this devaluation by using technology to compensate for a perceived deficiency in communication and interpersonal interest.

As McLuhan famously said, all technology is an extension of ourselves. While on one hand Kapture is an extension of listening and paying attention, it also extends the function of memory, like photographs and video do. But what makes Kapture different, and part of a new evolutionary wave in lifelogging technology, is that it’s A) always listening and B) extending a sense—sound—most people still prefer to keep to themselves. Modern culture is visual and the image reigns supreme, which is a relatively new historical development in a global human culture that used to prioritize oral tradition above all else. Kapture hearkens back to this tradition, but through a modern, mediated lens, designed largely around a perceived deficit in our mental ability—or interest in remembering—what we’re hearing.

This perceived sensory deficit is based on a broader and more primordial philosophy of mind that sees the mind and the brain as distinct, and views the brain’s function as a gatekeeper between everyday cognition and the paralysis of absolute consciousness. If memories “live” in the mind, it’s the brain’s job to keep this organized, chronological and usually inaccessible. Anyone who has experimented with mind-altering chemicals, or who has had a near-death experience, can attest to the strangeness of what happens when something “extends” the brain. Your memory expands, your emotions deepen, your meaning and self-perception shifts —but only temporarily, because the brain can’t handle sustained awareness of the mind without impacting our productivity and even our linguistic abilities.

Some people have the blessing of a photographic memory, and lifelogging technologies have the potential to bring average people up to at least that level. But when the process of remembering is mediated, along with the memories themselves, whose memories are we actually collecting and accessing? What about when these memories can be hacked, altered or simply deleted? These questions are central to the core idea of lifelogging technology. And as this technology eventually reaches a Malcolm Gladwell-style tipping point: If you can envision intellectual property lawyers and philosophers answering the same questions, you know you’re running into unexplored ethical territory. As such, there are two main ethical considerations would-be lifeloggers and developers should pay attention to with the growing Gospel of Re-Do:

  • Lifelogging is the next logical step in the evolution of everyday technology. Even automobiles had their early deniers and skeptics, but after enough people started using cars, the early naysayers eventually needed to acquiesce or literally be left in the dust. Lifelogging has its skeptics, and while many of their questions don’t matter to producers for anything other than sales strategy, their desire for pause is grounded in good sense. Designers and developers would do well to listen.
  • Lifelogging needs to account for the digital divide. Already, there are dramatic gaps between the technological haves and have-nots. While this dividing line is becoming less economic, as technology becomes increasingly affordable, it is nonetheless directly tied to education and digital literacy. Those with both money and education will of course lead the early adoption of new lifelogging technologies, but what happens to everyone else? Surely the person who can run a search of every interaction they’ve had with their boss will have an advantage over someone who can’t.

Most importantly, developers and marketers need to ask which parts of our lives deserve to be “extended,” and which should be left alone. Once they have an answer, they need to ask, according to whom? Lifelogging and other technologies are engineered based on what we perceive as limitations—in this case, with memory—but without a holistic view, we can’t really know our strengths and weaknesses; we can only guess. The limiting power of the brain over the mind seems like a weakness, but it may actually be strength; it keeps us focused, it forges will and determination and so on. Technology-as-extension forms a perceived bridge between these weaknesses and so-called strengths, but makes it hard to see what’s on the other side. With lifelogging, at least we can remember what we’re seeing along the way.

Benjamin van Loon
 is a writer, researcher, and communications professional living in Chicago, IL. He holds a master’s degree in communications and media from Northeastern Illinois University and bachelors degrees in English and philosophy from North Park University. Follow him on Twitter @benvanloon and view more of his work at benvanloon.com.