New Yorker on Gordon Bell and MyLifeBits

May 25th, 2007

This week’s New Yorker has a story about Gordon Bell and his MyLifeBits project.

Remember This? A project to record everything we do in life. by Alec Wilkinson

It’s partly a story about Gordon Bell, partly about the concept of capturing one’s life in electronic snippets and partly about the MyLifeBits project, which is Microsoft describes as

“MyLifeBits is a lifetime store of everything. It is the fulfillment of Vannevar Bush’s 1945 Memex vision including full-text search, text & audio annotations, and hyperlinks. There are two parts to MyLifeBits: an experiment in lifetime storage, and a software research effort. .. Gordon Bell has captured a lifetime’s worth of articles, books, cards, CDs, letters, memos, papers, photos, pictures, presentations, home movies, videotaped lectures, and voice recordings and stored them digitally. He is now paperless, and is beginning to capture phone calls, IM transcripts, television, and radio.”

The New Yorker article elaborates on Bells lifebits:

Bell’s archive now also contains 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).

One new thing I learned about the project was the use of the SenseCam:

Since late 2004, however, he regularly wears around his neck a Microsoft device-in-development called a SenseCam. A SenseCam is a black box about the size of a cigarette pack which contains an infrared system—“same as in a burglar alarm,” Bell says. “It senses heat—it takes a body a certain size to throw off enough heat to be recognized—and when it finds a person it takes a picture.” It also takes a photograph when the light changes or at intervals up to a minute, depending on how it is set. To turn off the SenseCam, Bell puts it in his pocket—the darkness makes it stop working.

As I read the article and some if its descriptions of Bell shifting through the electronic fragments of his life, I was reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim character (Slaughterhouse-Five) who kept traveling back and forth through time to (re) experience different part of his life.