Tuesday, February 6, 2007

The Most Well-Documented Lives in History

Today we have two men that are either geniuses or completely crazy. While that fine line is usually difficult to discern in any worthwhile endeavor it is especially difficult in the context of futurism.

We begin with Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), perhaps most famous for inventing the geodesic dome. What may be most compelling about the man was his fascination with documenting his own life. Stanford University Libraries acquired Fuller's archives in 1999. In what is called the Dymaxion Chronofile, Fuller was obsessive about documenting everything that happened to him.

Started in 1917, the Chronofile was "a massive scrapbook that included copies of all his incoming and outgoing correspondence, newspaper clippings, notes and sketches and even dry cleaning bills." Fuller continued the Chronofile until his death in 1983 at which time he had created/accumulated 270 linear feet of documentation.

Our next madman/genius does not measure his life in linear feet, but rather gigabytes. 72-year old Microsoft researcher Gordon Bell uses the custom-designed software MyLifeBits to document every piece of his life. He has a camera that hangs from his neck which takes a picture every 60 seconds, a scanner which digitizes all his paper documents, a modified phone tap for phone calls, and a digital audio recorder for constant everyday conversational recording.

The November, 2006 issue of Fast Company even had him on the cover and did a pretty incredible piece on his crazy endeavor. At the end of the day I tend to side with skeptics in the article that argue, "forgetting is how we make sense of life."

There needs to be some kind of balance. I value my photographs above all my other possessions on earth. It scares me that a single fire could wipe out all of my negatives from 1998-2002 and a couple hard drive malfunctions could erase all of my digital photos I haven't stored on Flickr. The fragility of memory makes these things valuable to me. If I had a massive database that cataloged every image I saw in 60 second intervals I would probably lose attatchment to the images that document my life on a far less frequent basis.

Where does that leave the lives of others and the documents we cherish? I value the single photograph I have of my great-great grandparents from Slovenia but I would love to see what their day-to-day lives were like. Again, I truly believe balance is the key. Balanced or not, Fuller and Bell may give us a sneak peek into the future of memory.


If you're looking for more information on Buckminster Fuller:
To my amazement, Stanford University has an audio-visual collection online about Fuller as well. You will have to register (for free) but I would suggest checking it out if you get a chance.


Nick Teeple said...

Buckminster was a truly amazing human. He also took advantage of our bodies ability to adapt to a new sleep cycle which has gained much more popularity after Steve Pavlina wrote about his switch over.

I remember reading about this guy and his neck camera recording everything quite a few years ago in popular science. A very far-out experiment that I would love to have the resources to try out.

AVP said...

My friends tell me that my camera should just be attached to my hand. Or as my hand (like my real one got eaten by a shark or something). But this guy is just frightening.

It's pretty cool. I can't imagine that someone would be so interested in revisiting their day to day life, unless they were, like, really interesting. Hopefully he isn't doing this cuz he's caught up in... whatever emotion would prompt someone to do such a thing.

What this would be useful for though is an art project, or documentation for future people to look at and see what life was like "back then." Assuming they still use the same file types. Or they can be converted. And we're still here.

Rollin said...

When you say that this might give us some insight to the future of memory, are you envisioning a future where each of our memories are computer-enhanced and infallible?

I'm not certain I could handle that, myself. I already recall so many shameful and terrible experiences that I fear I'd be overwhelmed with them, should I somehow attain a perfectly archival memory.

Besides- whenever something is recorded, it is changed in the recording, either through the act of mediation (transferring images into photos into digital data, for example) or the influence that the recorder has upon whatever's being recorded (the way that anyone who knows what a camera is acts around one is ample evidence of this).

That's got to play havoc with the expectations of anyone looking to record fully a human life.

Matt said...

I saw Bell speak at a symposium. He doesn't actually wear that device all the time, or close to it. Rather, it seems to be dragged out for demos and publicity.

Matt Novak said...

That's disappointing.

A.R.Yngve said...

Maybe Bell is (or was) hoping that storing all that data about his life might make it possible to "reconstruct" him in the distant future??

annum natalem said...

It will be interesting to see what it does to us psychologically to have every single moment of one's own existence recorded and easily accessible. Speaking as a fiction writer, to even have a quarter of my day readily available in playback would save me vast amounts of time.

Brandy said...

Bell's experiment is rather externalized. He takes pictures of his surroundings, his compatriots, everything outside himself.

To truly be a capsule of himself, he needs a photo taken of his face, his immediate reaction to whatever the camera sees at that moment. That will truly be preserving his life. Because what else is our life except our reactions to things that happen? That is certainly why blogs have a comment section!