Long before Google Glass, Instagram videos or even YouTube, there was the SenseCam. It’s a camera, invented a decade ago, that hangs around your neck and takes pictures at regular intervals, creating a lo-fi visual record of everything you see. It was only one of many tools in the arsenal of Microsoft researcher Gordon Bell nearly a decade ago, as he embarked on what was then a radical attempt to record every aspect of his existence.
"[Bell]’s role was to be a guinea pig," says former Microsoft researcher Jim Gemmell. "And my goal was to make the software."
The software and hardware to record and store websites, photos, thoughts and movements have advanced faster than could ever have been predicted, giving the original project an almost-quaint sensibility.
"What if you kept every webpage you ever saw, every photo?" Gemmell recalls asking. "Let’s say you took a dozen photos a day—that sounded outlandish at the time." Today, a dozen photos could be a single selfie session, and a searchable record of every webpage (of a sort) comes standard on every browser. As smartphones and—soon enough— smartwatches or Google Glass become normal, objects like the SenseCam, wholly dedicated to documentation, may become even less necessary: The hardware to record your life is already built-in.
This process has already brought "lifelogging" from the Microsoft research lab to a niche existence in the mainstream, but it has also brought the enabling technology to a society with very different aims.
"The first use was really along the lines of memory," says Gemmell. The idea wasn’t to document your life for the world to see, but for your own private records.
"We’re quite horrified actually by the trends in social interaction," says Gemmell. "Not that some amount of it isn’t natural and fine. But we saw this incredibly promiscuous sharing, and thought: ‘This is crazy.’"
Photos every thirty seconds: yes. Uploading them to Instagram? Yikes. So what happens when the technology they predicted collides with the society they didn’t?
"There’s going to be some really nasty things happen that people won’t like very much," says Gemmell. "That’s partly why I predict the backlash."
That backlash is where Gemmell places much of his excitement: On the possibility for new companies to take all our data—our calendars, photos, Facebook and Twitter shares—and put them in a single, self-organizing library that we control.
Of course, pulling all this data together would seem to be a massive reversal from today’s world, where most of our data lives on the servers of private companies like Google and Facebook. "There’s no doubt you’re going to see each of the big companies trying to keep you inside an ecosystem," says Gemmell.
But as unlikely as this may seem, he sees signs of a shift.
"It’s a watershed moment when I start hearing backup ads on radio and TV," says Gemmell. "The reason it’s happening is personal photos."
As someone who has lost entire albums when online providers (damn you, Snapfish!) changed their business model, I can see the appeal. But my solution has been to keep my own, unmanageable image back-up—while continuing to post away on Instagram.