Written by A.J. Jacobs and Originally Published in Esquire Magazine in January 2013
My brain is now wired to cameras and monitors of every kind. My limited attention span, laughable subjectivity, and weak memory have been replaced by eyes that see everything and hard drives that never forget. Fun.
There are a lot of unreliable things in this world — WiFi service on Amtrak, meth addicts, Tour de France winners. But the most unreliable of them all? The human memory. It's a disaster.
It's bad enough that we forget the vast majority of our lives. Study after study has shown that when we do recall an event, our memory of it is almost always self-serving, warped — or totally fabricated.
This hit home for me recently when I called my mom to ask her how old I was when she took me to Epcot Center — a trip of which I have fond memories. "We never went to Epcot Center," she replied. I'd patched together my so-called recollections from wishful thinking and TV clips of Disney World.
And then there are the chunks of our day that pass by practically unnoticed: How many Doritos did we mindlessly devour? How long did we waste time clicking through the Internet gallery of contorted tennis-player faces?
But does it have to be so? Perhaps not. For the first time in human history, all of us can record every moment of our existence. No more guesswork. No more Rashomon-like arguments about who drank the last Rolling Rock or who started the fight in the stadium bleachers. We can all be giant DVRs and simply rewind to see what happened. Life will be forever altered.
"Imagine how it could affect therapy sessions, friendly wagers, court testimony, lovers' spats," writes Gordon Bell, a seventy-eight-year-old Microsoft executive and the grandfather of something called "lifelogging," in his book Total Recall. "Imagine how easy it will be to prove that repairs were done, that a salesman went back on his word, or that the dog really did eat your homework. Think of how nice it would be to have recordings of childhood conversations with your best friend, or a complete audio library of the millions of priceless things your kids said."
You've heard of Google Goggles? In 2013, Google plans to release Internet-enabled glasses that, the company boasts, have the capacity to display data on the lenses and also to record every moment (including, presumably, those moments when you get beat up for wearing Internet-enabled goggles). Very spooky. But then Bell and a handful of followers have already been doing that for years.
Bell is the world's greatest information hoarder. Nothing is thrown away. For the last fourteen years, he has recorded every conversation. Saved every e-mail and phone call. Tracked every one of his movements by GPS. Scanned every receipt, handwritten letter, even the logos from all of his T-shirts. Around his neck, Bell wears a SenseCam, a wallet-sized camera that automatically snaps photos every thirty seconds. Current count: 195,000.
Give the technology a decade, Bell says, and most of us will be extreme lifeloggers. It'll be as normal as having an iPhone or popping a multivitamin.
Ha, you say. Who wants to record his life, potentially for everyone to see? A shockingly huge number of people, I say. We're already pouring half our lives into Facebook timelines. And every day there's a new YouTube video of humans caught doing — or proudly displaying — terrible things: screaming at Burger King cashiers, bullying a bus monitor, reuniting with Chris Brown.
I decided to sample this future world. Get a jump on things.
I just hope that I can erase the embarrassing parts.
First step is to get the gear.
Bell recommends a gadget called Looxcie — a $150 black video camera the size of a man's index finger. You wear it in your ear or strapped to a baseball cap, and it looks like the biggest, dorkiest Bluetooth device on earth. It holds an impressive five hours of video and has a five-hour battery life. I order two so I can swap them.
When my Looxcie cameras come in the mail, I hook one around my ear and press the red record button. Two things become clear quickly. First, the Looxcie beeps softly while recording, so I feel like I'm being followed all day by a backing-up UPS truck. And second, it is already shaping my behavior. It's my own private Big Brother.
Should I really be checking out the cleavage of that woman with the low-cut blue top? This is on tape. What if my wife sees it? I glance away.
And what about my laziest secret vice? Sometimes — and I'm sorry you have to read this, Julie — I'm too tired to bend down and lift the toilet seat, so I just pee in the bathroom sink. Urine is sterile, I tell myself. But do I want this on tape? No. No. No.
I wear my gadget out to dinner with our friends the first night. They notice.
"Are you listening to a live new feed?" asks my friend Candice as she sits down in her chair.
"No, I'm recording everything," I say.
"Are you really?"
"But I have some gossip."
She sighs and shakes her head. (Or, actually, she didn't. I just checked the tape and had remembered it wrong. She instead started talking to my wife.)
That's the first big thing you learn. Recording things changes the thing you're recording. Everybody sees this device — even as I become less and less aware of it myself — and it alters their behavior.
Over the next few days, my camera is the source of much confusion. I'm told it looks like a high-tech hearing aid, a communications gadget from a 1982 Russian submarine, a rocket launcher. When I tell people it's a video camera, reaction is mixed. Some ham it up. They wave, they dance, they mug. They stare at the lens instead of my eyes. One septuagenarian offered to take off his clothes.
Some are resigned, like my friend John, who said, "Well, we're constantly being videotaped by security cameras already. What's one more?"
Many are annoyed. Elderly women seem to like it least. My mother-in-law said, "I wish you'd told me. I would have fixed my hair." At a cocktail party, I try to join a conversation about a sex scandal at a New York school. "Go away," snaps my mother's friend. "Go, go, go." A woman on the street demanded a release form. A former classmate covered the lens with a magazine.
My friend Jeremy was furious when I didn't reveal my camera till late in the conversation. "I can't believe I talked about mom's urinary-tract infection." A colleague offered the sneering wisdom Warren Beatty gave Madonna in Truth or Dare: "If it's not on camera, what's the point?"
Or consider the time I took my kids to Coney Island and wore it into the public bathroom at the amusement park. Normally, I try to flip my camera off when I enter the men's room. Seems the decent thing to do. But this time, I forgot.
The big guy at the next urinal shot me a look.
"Is that a camera?" he asked, spotting the glowing red light.
My hands got sweaty. This man was going to give me a beatdown, and frankly, I couldn't blame him.
"That is so cool," he said. "How much did it cost?"
Point is, you can't predict.
In general, people eventually come to accept the camera, but it deforms their conduct. Most, like Candice, are reluctant to gossip. When they do trash-talk, they use code names. "I'm going to call this person Marissa," said Candice.
Asked about a play he'd seen, my friend David (who works in the theater) said, "It's not my..." Then, spotting the camera, "I like it a lot."
Or, as one friend put it: "I want to say things but I can't. It's so fucking annoying."
I'm annoyed, too. What juicy stuff am I missing? On the other hand, I feel cleaner, more righteous. The camera is like a ray gun of virtue. Maybe the future will be a kinder world, with far less malicious chatter and cheating. Maybe extreme documentation will make us a better-behaved, if duller, species.
Then again, there's an entire slate of Bravo reality shows that indicates otherwise.
At night, I plug in my device and load the videos onto my computer. I try to watch a few snippets before bed, which can be a disconcerting experience. I'm learning things about myself I didn't want to know. Turns out I'm a heavy breather — I sound like Garrison Keillor in a spin class. Even worse, I whistle. I had no idea. I actually whistle little tunes as I do my daily chores. Who whistles?
Another realization: My life is absurdly mundane. I spend most of my time in front of rectangular LCD screens. And this project is making that worse. I watch the videos. And record myself watching the videos. So now I can watch videos of myself watching the videos. A terrifying onanistic loop.
At least the footage sometimes makes me feel better. Calms my paranoia. Like the time I thought this dude on the subway gave me the finger. Actually, he did nothing of the sort.
On the debut episode of Chapelle's Show, there was a fake commercial for a "Home Stenographer" — a bespectacled court reporter who hides in your closet and types up everything your family says. It's promoted as the ultimate tool for he-said/she-said marital squabbles. Did the husband really tell his wife she was starting to look like her mom? The Home Stenographer will read your transcript back.
I realize I have a real-life version. This could be a matrimonial game changer.
I test it out on a summer Sunday a couple of weeks into my experiment. My wife and I had a Category 5 fight over a typically stupid thing. She thought I had ordered Mexican food for dinner, and I thought she'd placed the order.
The argument had metastasized into a war about who does more around the house, and an accusation that I take her for granted. "It's fucking unbelievable. I do everything around here! Everything!"
I didn't relent. I knew I had never said I'd order the damn burritos. But there was no de-escalating the battle now. A couple of days later, I convince my wife to watch the footage. We can see who was right. Plus, "it'll be good for our marriage," I say. "It'll teach us how to argue in the future."
I fast-forward to Exhibit A: According to her version of events, she got home and said, "Did you order the food?" and I responded "Yes."
But the video shows that she really said, "Is the food here?" and I responded "No."
As I pressed pause, I felt a petty little thrill. Victory. My version was closer to reality.
My wife wasn't smiling.
That doesn't go back to the big problem, she said. Namely, that I had ignored her texts and just assumed she would place the order. My so-called evidence was irrelevant.
I nodded. I clicked to some footage of her screaming at me, her eyes afire: "Get out! Leave me alone! You're infuriating me."
I'd hoped that this might show my wife that maybe she'd overreacted a bit.
I paused and turned to see what she thought. Her mouth was pursed, her eyes watery.
"You think this is helping our marriage?" she said. "I lived through it once — I don't need to live through it again. You know to give me some space when I'm angry. You've known that for ten years."
She had a point. My childish glee evaporated. I was officially the asshole. I won a minor skirmish, but lost the war.
When I started, I thought I would be entering a bold new era: the End of Lost Things. Misplaced my keys? Just search my video and they'll pop right up. Oh, the saved time!
So far, the method hasn't been flawless. Consider: I spent an hour one afternoon hunched over my screen hunting for footage of my lost wallet. I finally took a break. At which point my wife searched the traditional way and found it in my nightstand within minutes.
This, of course, is the biggest snag with lifelogging. Too much data. We don't yet have a search engine that recognizes objects inside images. I want to be able to say, "Where's my stapler?" then have my computer scan the footage and say in a gentle, English-accented voice, "In the second drawer near the microwave."
This may be coming. There are smart people cranking out code on this problem as we speak. "Visual search is a big challenge to be solved," says Cathal Gurrin, a lifelogger and professor in the School of Computing at Dublin City University. "We're working on it, but it'll be a while."
And yet, even without a search function, I had a breakthrough today.
I left my kids' scooter and bags in the back of a cab. I'd been distracted. The driver was showing rare enthusiasm for my oversized ear camera — and he told me he was going to buy one so he could bust fare skippers and embarrass bullying cops. I was so thrilled, I forgot to tell him to pop the trunk as I got out.
But wait! I realized I can scour my footage and freeze on the taxi's ID number. I went to my computer and there it was, on the cab's roof light: 9L64.
I filed a missing-items report online, including the all-important taxi ID number. I pressed "submit'" and felt like a champion.
The next morning, a man with a heavy Indian accent called. Yes! That is my stuff. Yes, I'd love it if he dropped it off by my building.
"So you got my message from the lost-and-found department?" I asked as I took it from his trunk an hour later.
"No," he said. "I found your cell-phone number written on your kids' bags."
Maybe it's delusional, but everywhere I look I see proof that a lot of people are doing at least some version of what I'm doing. An article in the paper about bikers who wear video cameras to get the license plate of anyone who cuts them off. A pickpocket on the subway busted because someone filmed her with an iPad.
I've been lifelogging for six weeks, and it's become almost ordinary. My wife has nearly forgotten the camera is rolling. She's back to gossiping, and never asks me to turn it off (except for those rare occasions when we have marital intimacy). As for me, I've returned to peeing in the sink.
I can understand a bit how The Bachelorette contestants can act like brazen half-wits. You get to a place of resignation — this is who I am, let the world see and judge.
The downside of this new normal is that I often forget to change cameras when the batteries die. My supposed total record is spotty, filled with gaps and hours of blackness when I accidentally leave a camera filming in my pocket.
Not that lack of footage is much of a problem. By two months in, I've become an amateur paparazzo. I've captured a red carpet full of midlist celebrities on my camera. If I sold it to TMZ, I could make at least twelve bucks. Among my trophies: Art Garfunkel at the NPR studios. Kevin Bacon on his cell phone. Kirsten Dunst (or actually the scaffolding near where Kirsten Dunst was walking. I was looking in the wrong direction when my wife and I passed her). Michael Ian Black and Cindy McCain in Bryant Park. Lady Gaga's mother. (She owns a restaurant on the Upper West Side.) Pathetically enough, I find trapping these mildly famous people to be thrilling.
At a book reading the other night, I met 30 Rock's Judah Friedlander, who was in full costume: beard, trucker hat, yellow WORLD CHAMPION T-shirt. He peered at the thing in my ear. I told him it was a camera. "I know I look like a douchebag," I said.
"You look like a dated douchebag," he replied. "Because they don't make Bluetooths that big anymore."
At that same reading, incidentally, I had another small victory. I was talking to three other people, and the conversation somehow migrated to a debate about how to pronounce the Arabian Peninsula country Qatar. (Apparently, it's "Cut-ter.") Afterward, the blond woman confessed to me that she was worried she'd been overly rude to the tall guy when he'd tried to correct her.
"I have the conversation on video," I told her. "I'll e-mail it to you."
And I did. Turned out she wasn't rude to him — her friend was. She'd misremembered.
"Thanks for making my day!" she wrote back.
I felt like a superhero. Providing relief for the angsty!
In fact, marital setbacks aside, this project has given me a handful of minor triumphs. There was the Advil incident. I had a crushing headache and couldn't remember if I'd already taken anything for it, so I checked the video. I hadn't. I popped two.
When my son Lucas was upset that he'd forgotten the lyrics to his nonsense song, he brightened: "You have it on tape!"
Recently, I caught one of my sons playing with his food — putting chess pieces on a plate of watermelon slices. I asked him to stop.
"I never put it on that plate!"
I said, Let's check the tape. He fessed up. Just the threat of video proof was enough.
This is not a foolproof parenting technique, mind you. Recently, my third son, Zane, threw a fit because I wouldn't let him eat a fructose-packed yogurt right before bed. The day after, I told him I wanted him to watch something that might make him think. I pressed play and the Yogurt Drama came to life.
After five seconds, he turned away from the screen and put his fingers in his ears.
The cameras, by the way, are only part of my arsenal.
My Looxcies have taken a combined three hundred hours of video, which eats up 186 gigabytes on my external hard drive — and takes forty-five minutes a day to download. But I've also bought a seventy-dollar app for my laptop called Refog. It's an amazing and terrifying program. It records everything you do on your computer, snapping near-constant screenshots and logging every keystroke, to be saved for eternity.
Refog is marketed to paranoid parents and suspicious husbands who want to see if their wives are sending topless shots to their college boyfriends (or biography subjects). But my goal is self-spying.
It's come in handy exactly twice. First, when I accidentally erased a half-filled crossword puzzle and was able to retrieve my answers. And second, when I couldn't remember where I'd posted a question online about recording inbound phone calls (another part of the arsenal). At the end of every day, I spend a few moments on Refog flipping through the day's screenshots. Which is disconcerting. For someone who calls himself a writer, I spend alarmingly little time writing. E-mail, calendar, news sites, TMZ, yes. But prose? Not much. I have to fix that.
My desk is becoming cluttered with other gadgets, too. Bell had suggested I research the Quantified Self, which is lifelogging's geekier cousin, if such a thing is possible. The idea of the QS movement is that you should track everything about yourself. Not just weight — though certainly that — but also blood pressure, steps, sleep, location, calories, moods, sex. Anything that can be measured. There are dozens of QS meet-up groups across America where people exchange strategies and compare zinc levels. The theory — and there's some science to back this up — is the more you keep track, the healthier you act. If you get a pedometer, you'll walk more; weigh yourself every day, you'll eat less.
I already own an overpriced pedometer called a Fitbit, which links to my laptop and provides me with pie charts and graphs of just how lazy I am. But thanks to QS, I've ordered a Zeo, which is a headband that tracks how deeply you sleep. I've also downloaded a mood-tracking app called Mood Panda. Yes, emotions can be quantified, too. Several times a day, I go on my iPhone and rate my mood on a scale of 1 to 10, and provide a one-sentence summary of why.
One entry was a sullen 3: "Worried about kids." Another was an elated 9: "Listening to Bob Dylan." After about a week, I realized that I had mistakenly allowed the entire Mood Panda community to see my updates. Which explained the notes I kept getting, like "Hugs" and "So sorry to hear that."
This pissed me off.
I set my mood to a grumpy 4, explaining that I "found out my Mood Panda updates are public. Can't figure out how to turn them off." To which someone named Linda replied, "AJ... If you're not gonna make your moods public anymore, I want to give you a couple of hugs to take with you. Hugs. Hugs. Hugs."
Insane rage (no number).
Which passes. As absurd as it may sound, I've grown fond of Mood Panda. It clues you in to how often your emotions fluctuate. It reminds you that your morning funk is temporary. As dark as the world seems at the moment, you will climb back to level 9.
Or, God willing, maybe just to your normal 5. (Hugs.)
So far, I've knowingly violated dozens of copyright laws. I've worn my camera into five movies (The Dictator, Magic Mike, Argo, etc.) and one Broadway show (The Best Man). The key is to walk past the ticket takers with confidence. Oh, this hardware on my head? Don't pay it any mind. It's perfectly normal. I later tell the Looxcie spokesman, who says that he "can't condone" such behavior but reveals that some people stick black tape over the red recording light. It helps if you're going in cognito. I make a note.
I don't plan to upload the movies to YouTube. But I did show my sixteen-year-old nephew the scene in The Dictator in which Sacha Baron Cohen misplaces his cell phone in a woman's uterus. To assuage my guilt, I make him promise to pay and see the whole movie.
If lifelogging catches on, copyrights will be even more endangered than they are now. And tech companies know this. In August, Apple patented a device that can disable smartphones based on location.
Some of the more radical lifeloggers see the pesky copyright laws as antiquated. Steve Mann — who has been called the "father of wearable computing" and the "first cyborg" — has a photo and video system attached to his skull, sort of like a primitive Terminator. A few years back, museums kept telling him to stop recording images. In response, he wore a T-shirt with art on it and demanded the museums' surveillance cameras be turned off, otherwise they'd be violating copyrights, too. (I tried to contact Mann to swap stories, but he didn't return e-mails. Possibly because he was allegedly assaulted at a French McDonald's recently for wearing his headgear.)
I'm up to five hundred hours of footage and am running out of room on the hard drive. This is made worse because I've gotten another camera to take even more footage: a $199 camera called GoPro, which you can strap to your chest. It's sturdy and has a fish-eye lens, making it the preferred camera of kite surfers and BMX racers who want to record their quasi-suicidal adventures. (Felix Baumgartner used one when he parachuted from space in October.)
Inspired by some Quantified Self message boards, I've also started to snap a photo of everything I eat. It's a remarkable tactic. Until you see it onscreen, it's hard to fathom how much crap you eat. Where'd that muffin come from? And that PowerBar? I don't remember eating that. Now I think twice about that second snickerdoodle of the day.
At the end of nine weeks, I'm exhausted. At times, lifelogging makes me giddy, like an 8 or 9 on the happiness scale. I'm capturing everything. All those moments with my kids — the first time they saw turtles humping at the zoo! — will be forever stored in my hard drive. My children will actually know whether they went to Epcot Center. It gives me a (delusional) sense of control, like I've figured out a way to trap time itself and mount it on the wall.
It makes me feel safer as well. I haven't been threatened or trapped in a crime scene. (The closest I came was when I recorded a guy in Coney Island talking on his cell phone about $200 worth of cocaine.) But if I were, I'd have evidence to show the cops. We may soon live in a world with fewer crimes. If everyone is sporting a pair of Google glasses, it'll be harder to get away with mugging on the street.
And I'm acting healthier. I walk my ten thousand steps, I pass up my son's offer of pink ice-cream-filled Oreos.
And yet, sometimes my Mood Panda drops to 3. I feel like I'm getting a preview of a dystopia worthy of a young-adult novel. When we all start extreme recording, we'll all have to censor ourselves. We'll all be as careful as politicians, knowing that we risk making our own version of Romney's 47 percent remark. We'll all have to worry more about hackers and Big Brother poaching our data. It will be a world with a lot less mystery, which might mean a lot less fun. How do you plan a surprise party when all your friends know exactly where you are at all times?
And yes, you'll have a full record of life — but will it be the record of a lesser life? Because that's the problem with reality — it's not really life. Reality is messy, nuanced, repetitive, and dull. (In this article, I've tried to be completely real, but even here, I've reordered some of the events and trimmed others for space.)
I know that 90 percent of my cocktail-party anecdotes — which I believe at some level are accurate — are half true, at best. We all are aware that we mythologize our own lives. But I can prove it.
Like one weekend late last summer. We were at a Brooklyn playground, and I said, "I feel like I'm on the verge of heatstroke, so I'd like to get to an air-conditioned subway car."
Those were my words. But in retelling the story later, my wife had me saying, in a tremulous Blanche DuBois voice, "Ohhh, I'm passing out!"
I checked the transcript and told Julie the truth.
"Oh, c'mon," she said. "Let me have some poetic license."
So I did. In fact, I've cut way back on my lifelogging, at least for now. I still check my Fitbit and my apps, but I don't try to capture every toothbrushing and laundry load on tape.
Sometimes I don't have a choice. Recently, I had my first taste of official censorship: The one place where a security guard told me to turn my camera off? The lobby of Esquire magazine. I presssed the stop button.
I have no idea what happened next.
I am a camera: the author, attached to his Looxcie video camera. A little black tape over the red light works wonders.