Thursday, February 15, 2007

Scott Carlson, "On The Record, All the Time," The Chronicle of Higher Education 02/09/07

How is a magazine article like a message in a bottle? In that it's read differently by people you know, and particularly people with whom you've lost touch. Most of my magazine stories take me months to report and write, which means I publish infrequently enough that my name is hardly a ubiquitous presence within mainstream media. One of the upsides of that is that people I haven't heard from stumble across an article and read it in part as a letter -- a resumption of some conversation we had in the past. And then they write a letter back.

Such is the case with an old friend and colleague of mine at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Scott Carlson, who ran across some story and wrote me about a project he's contemplating. About memory, and, appropriately enough, "lifelogging," the practice of recording one's entire life. Some futurists see it coming sooner rather than later, and for a variety of reasons other than narcissism. Scott decided to get a head start. He bought a digital recorder and hung a sign around his neck that said "Warning: This conversation may be recorded."

The results -- along with a survey of the state of lifelogging -- are recorded, as it were, in Scott's latest article for The Chronicle, "On The Record, All The Time." It's fascinating stuff. As it happens, I've been thinking about some related subjects lately for a possible Rolling Stone piece on futurists and "The Singularity," a tech idea that finds its most sci-fi fulfillment in the prediction that we are rapidly approaching a point at which we'll be able to "upload" our brains -- our "selves" -- into computers. "Total Recall," the name of a Schwarzenegger sci-fi flick based on a Philip K. Dick story, won't be just an option; it'll be plain reality.

Well, maybe. Despite the predictions of some heavyweight scientists, I wasn't able to find much evidence that we're really close to this happening. The tech just isn't there, at least, not yet. But maybe I was thinking too sci-fi, after all -- maybe the tech is there, and Scott bought it for a hundred bucks at Radio Shack. The people around Scott seemed to think so:
I was a freak. At the farmers' market, the man who sells Communist Party newspapers picked me out right away. "So if I told you my name" — and he told me his name and some information about himself — "you would record all of that?"

"I just did," I said.

Out in public, no one asked me to turn off my recorder, but few people went out of their way to talk to me. In the office, colleagues asked me to turn off the recorder every other day, usually to relate a juicy bit of gossip or gripe about some office drama. Journalists are accustomed to the conventions of going off the record, even in private life.

My wife, who is also a journalist, banned recording at home for the first week because she said I acted like I was "on stage." I had noticed that, too. I never really forgot that the recorder was on, and now and then I sensed I was talking differently, as if to a crowd. I consciously avoided saying things that might be deemed politically incorrect or downright gross, although some of that slipped out and into my memex.

One weekend I got tired of wearing the recorder and put it in a drawer. I felt liberated in a way that is hard to describe. That Sunday I found myself pacing the house and whispering to no one — something I often do when I'm alone and trying to work out ideas for stories I'm writing. I realized I rarely did this when I had the recorder on. It was like I was afraid someone would catch me acting schizophrenic.

But I'm probably the only person who will ever listen to the recordings, so what was I worried about?

Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University and an expert on privacy, explains my anxiety through a concept from Jewish law called hezzek re'iyyah, or "the injury caused by being seen." Jewish law says that the mere possibility of unwanted observation, even if no one is really watching, injures a person's sense of privacy.

Those are ethical and emotional issues. But as nonfiction writer, you'd think people like Scott and me would be thrilled about the possibilities. Well, I'm not. Another one of Scott's talking heads explains why the prospect of total recall is deadening to pleasures of this business:
Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard University, says some of the appeal of her profession is the intrinsic mystery of people and the stories she can pull together from scant evidence.

"There is no part of the sensibility of total recall of the minutiae of my life that appeals to me, and encountering another human being through that medium as a researcher feels a little unsavory," she says.

"If I could know what George Washington was thinking when he wrote his will, emancipating his slaves — sure, I would like to know that," she says. "Would I want him exposed to me in a way where I couldn't even have the curiosity of that question? ... It seems horrible."


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