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My week of recording a 'digital memory'

By John D. Sutter, CNN
  • CNN tests the idea that people can and should record every detail of their lives digitally
  • The weeklong test is inspired by a researcher who writes about "life recording"
  • The author (and his friends) find the process to be cumbersome
  • But it's likely that e-memories and digital records will become more pervasive

(CNN) -- I woke up unexpectedly on a recent morning at 3:13.

Normally if that happened I'd go right back to sleep.

But this morning was different. I was at the start of a weeklong, work-related challenge to tape, video, photograph and otherwise document every moment of my life.

Not feeling super excited about this experiment but trying to roll with it, I picked up the iPhone from my nightstand, punched "record," and spoke into the microphone.

"So, I woke up and had a dream about aliens attacking people -- and turning them into yellow goo.

"Also, my mouth tastes gross."

Priceless memory, huh? Not so much.

After a week of testing out Microsoft researcher Gordon Bell's theory of "Total Recall," I've decided it has potential -- but also serious limits. Bell argues in a recent book that people are developing "e-memories" to supplement the finite and fleeting info we store in our brains. For a decade, he recorded most of the details of his life in an effort to compile a searchable, digital memory.

A computerized memory of my life could be useful. Maybe I'd use it to settle he-said, she-said disputes. I'm definitely the forgetful type -- so maybe an e-memory would catch fun conversation details I can't always find a way to store in my brain. And that alien dream memory -- while it seems totally useless -- might be helpful in context. If I looked back at all of the dreams I remembered for a month I might learn something interesting about myself.

Maybe. But during this "life-recording" experiment I became frustrated with Bell's theories. My problem is not in taking notes and photos. I already do that -- on Twitter, on blogs, on my home computer. My issue is that when you set out intentionally to create an e-memory of everything, you end up with too much stuff -- and you miss out on living.

But I did find value in the idea that we can store and curate a digital memory of the highlights. So, after suffering through a week of making Big-Brother-ish records of my mundane existence, I've come up with a few useful tips for starting and curating your e-memory -- without turning your life into a sci-fi script:

Don't record everything

I used an iPhone to record most of the week's activities. The phone's built-in audio recorder proved particularly annoying to my friends. I put the recorder on the table at lunches, flipped it on during car rides and stuck it in friends' faces at bars.

In every instance, the recorder changed the dynamics of my conversations.

It made them weird.

One friend became so nervous about the fact that I had recorded him talking about relationships that he later texted me in a panic -- asking me to delete the file.

Read about how digital diaries may affect the brain

The audio recorder seemed to turn another friend into a tour guide. On a drive home from the office, he listed random historical facts about the neighborhoods we drove through -- as if all of the blank space on the recording had to be filled.

I ended up with so much digital audio from a week -- several hours' worth -- that I never bothered to listen to it all. There's a chance that, when I'm 80 or something, I may want to go back to some of these conversations. But, really, none of them were earth-shattering, and I could do without those files.

Video clips are best if short

One morning, I decide to walk to the subway while holding a video camera in front of my face. My walk lasts about 10 minutes, and this exercise quickly showed me the limits of taking extended videos in public for no apparent reason.

A jogger spotted me and shot me a look that seemed to say "Nice camera, perv. It's 7 a.m.!" I quickly shoved the camera back in my pocket.

Besides embarrassing moments like this, shooting a constant video stream of your life is impractical. Even if you can find the hard drive space to store it all, it's not always worth looking back on -- and it invades the privacy of solitary morning joggers, among others.

I decided that short clips are useful, though -- usually on the order of 10 to 20 seconds.

On a hike during my experiment, I shot 10-second clips of a waterfall near the top of a mountain. Geeky? Yes. But at least it didn't take long.

This may sound even weirder, but I also filmed an ice-cream cone toast that ended up being kind of funny.

Any longer than 20 seconds, though, and your videos take too long to edit. A short clip jogs my memory just as well. I don't need the full video log.

Track one thing at a time

Going into this experiment, I was interested in the idea that, in aggregate, some details of my life might tell me something about my heath, my reading patterns, my sleep cycles or my work efficiency.

I downloaded a few mobile phone and computer apps to help me monitor these aspects of my life, but I found keeping track of all of this stuff at once was too much.

I entered the food I ate and my exercise into an app called Lose It. I struggled to remember to track my sleep cycle and mood on another app, Sleep Tracker. And I downloaded a program called RescueTime onto my work computer that spies on you while you work, spitting out reports about how much time you spend on social networks, reading news, e-mailing and actually getting something accomplished.

In combination, these apps made me self-conscious and scatter-brained. I couldn't focus on improving any of these aspects of my life because everything I did was being watched.

This data helped me realize I don't exercise as much as I'd like, and I spend way too much time on Google Reader on days when I have a story due.

But if I had focused my efforts on one trait per week -- exercise, for example -- this aspect of my e-memory development would have been more useful.

Record what you can store

If you're going to record terabytes of life-logging information, you've got to have a good system to file and store all of your data.

The first step, Bell says, is to scan all of your paper documents. Scanning is a huge pain, so I recommend only tackling stuff you really care about -- postcards, important letters, birth certificates etc. Some docs Bell scans (receipts, for instance), I tend to shove in my pockets and forget about until I find them in the laundry.

Bell suggests converting all of your files to current format, to keep them from becoming obsolete. That's quite a bit of labor, too.

I've made PDF files out of some Web pages I'd rather not lose. But, in reality, there's no way to be 100 percent sure your digital life will never be outdated or lost. And maybe that's the real lesson here. Nothing lasts forever.

Don't forget your cat

I did realize that more memories are worth preserving than I'd thought.

I tend to take photos and videos at important events -- vacations, weekend outings, weddings. But some things that seem banal turn out more interesting: What your apartment looks like, the streets you drive on, your cat pushing his water dish into the wall like a hockey puck. Those boring-sounding things -- which you really shouldn't post online and bore other people with -- can be important components of an e-memory.

So appreciate what you've got, celebrate the details and record your life if you want to.

But, my humble advice after a week of awkwardness and embarassment, is to do it for the sake of getting more out of living -- not just because you're afraid you'll lose something.