BEE-LINE TO THE FUTURE: Art and Minutiae

Robert Bee
Robert Bee's picture

I wrote recently about biohacking here on Republibot. I wanted to follow up with an article about biohacks that record everyday existence.
Wafaa Bilal is a college photography professor who had a camera installed in the back of his head (http://www.3rdi.me/). Bilal’s camera automatically takes a constant stream of photos and uploads them to the Internet. You can see his current location on a handy Google map on his website.
Doctors refused to implant the camera into his head, so he went to a tattoo and body-piercing studio (yikes!) where they implanted a titanium base between his skin and his skull after injecting him with local anesthesia. His body rejected one of the titanium posts holding the camera, so he strapped the camera to the back of his head. Hey, you gotta suffer for art!
I visited Bilal’s website to discover that he is apparently an acclaimed Iraqi artist fascinated with body modification and art. I went through many of the photos in the archive and, well, they seem like the sort of photos you would get if you randomly took pictures from a camera attached to the back of your head. Some are of the couch, the floor, the wall, etc. Some are black from when he was asleep or had the camera covered. The pictures are generally poorly focused and fuzzy. I’m sure that if I had the patience to go through all the pictures, which I don’t, there would be a few interesting pictures here and there, but that’s not the point of the project. I’m actually not sure what the point of the project is. To get attention? To demonstrate the intersection of normal life and art?
So is recording the minutiae of your life art? I would tend to say no. Art is created when someone has the skill to create something noble, important, or meaningful out of his/her life and interests, which is certainly not what’s going on in these photos. I’m mentioning this project because it’s gotten lot of attention on the Internet and connects with posthumanism and the use of technology for self-modification. I’m just not impressed with the results in this case.
I suppose Bilal’s project could be seen as similar to reality TV. Sadly, reality TV is moronic, so that doesn’t raise the project in my esteem. I would not be surprised if producers drilled a hole in Snooki’s head and inserted a camera, while millions watched and Snooki suffered no further loss of cognitive function. But by all means, readers, please check out Bilal’s website; after all, he gets curated shows at art galleries and museums – something more ostensibly talented artists would kill for -- so maybe I’m missing something.
D.G. Compton, a sadly neglected and forgotten writer, wrote a superb near future SF novel The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe about a reporter with eyes replaced by TV cameras who has the job of filming a woman in her 40s with 4 weeks to live. She watches the woman’s deterioration and death to discover that the film she makes is devoid of thought and compassion and thus cannot encompass the reality of the woman’s life or the tragedy of her death. It takes art to demonstrate that our lives, at their best, have far more significance and meaning than random information.
Bilal’s experiment with generating art out of randomness does have its precursors. Surrealists practiced automatic writing, or jotting down the first thoughts that came to mind, with the idea that they would access the unconscious (similar to a psychoanalysis telling a patient to talk about whatever comes to mind, because free association can bring up repressed memories from the unconscious). William Burroughs cut up newspaper or magazine article, and recombined the parts to create new ideas and stories. Both these techniques produced interesting work, although probably no masterpieces.
In recent years, there’s been interest in lifeblogging or lifelogging, which involves archiving photos and other information about your daily life and then digitizing it. I would imagine a lot of people will eventually find a digital database an important way to chronicle their life, but I still doubt the value. Recording a mass of information and then indexing it will probably not help you understand your life. If you keep a journal, for instance, you don’t write down everything that happens, you pick and choose important events and write about the significance. Even reality TV doesn’t record everything that happens to its protagonists. The episodes are heavily edited and organized (perhaps even scripted) to create a narrative that an audience will find interesting. Psychotherapy has proven useful for many people because it crafts meaning, order, and narrative out of life’s chaos.
Gordon Bell, a prominent Microsoft executive and engineer, has digitized 50, 000 family photos, saved over 100,000 emails, and records his days with a camera strapped around his neck that takes a picture every 30 seconds or whenever a person approaches (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/05/28/070528fa_fact_wilkinson). He also has a continuously running recorder. He wants to digitize a record of his life not so he can put it on Facebook, but for strictly personal reasons, to remember and understand his legacy. The difference between lifelogging and lifeblogging is that logging is for personal use whereas blogging is publishing information about your life on the web.
An obsessive digital pack rack, Bell has collected images of every Web page he’s visited and every TV show he’s watched. He records phone conversations, images and audio from conferences, and all his instant messages. He scans in the labels from wine he enjoys.
Bell saves about a gigabyte of information every month. Two Microsoft programmers, Jim Gemmell and Roger Lueder, developed MyLifeBits software, which automatically saves every keystroke on Bell’s computer, makes it easy for him to create hyperlinks and annotations, and facilitates fast search into his database.
Bell believes that in 20 years what he’s doing will be standard; people will digitize all their memoires and keep a supplemental brain in their computer.
Is Bell egocentric or self-absorbed? It seems so to me, although I would not be surprised if in the near future people did not have the option of attaching a hard drive to their brain giving them access to all their experiences.
Think about it. What if you had a recording of conversations you had when you were 21, or could listen to your first job interview? Wouldn’t that be better than relying on partial memories of those events? What if you could search for photos of vacations and important events of your life? If you enter a keyword such as dog, MyLifeBits will find all documents and tagged photos relating to your canine companion.
The first part of Bell’s project involved scanning the boxes and boxes of paper, scrapbooks, and photographs he had accumulated over the years. Digitizing that information makes it much more useable because of search, keywords, and tagging functions. He hired a personal assistant to do the scanning.
If Bell reminisces about his hometown, he can bring up a picture of the town, his birth announcement, and the front page of the newspaper on the day he was born.
Bell has written a book Total Recall that details his efforts and why he thinks Lifelogging will be important in the future.
One issue that Bell’s project brings to mind is the value of forgetting. Bell believes that our lives will be easier when we remember everything. We don’t have to decide whether or not to save a web page to Delicious or to bookmark it. We don’t have to worry about keeping or not keeping a business card or our notes about a meeting. All that information is automatically maintained in our personal database. But is Bell correct? Maybe we need to forget. It’s possible our brain forgets in order to move on, or to avoid becoming bogged down. Forgetting is part of being human.
Imagine someone who has saved everything from his early 20s to his 70s, and who has terabytes filled with photos, webpages, recorded conversations, and every keystroke from every computer he’s ever used. What could he possibly do with that morass of information, much of it trivial? Do you need to remember the porn site you visited when you were 25? Or the dumb argument you had with your high school girlfriend? Even someone who’s had a significant life is going to have more trivia than anything else preserved on multiple hard drives. What do you do when you keyword search the name of a colleague, and get two million hits full of photos, documents, and recordings?
Privacy issues also arise. Would everyone you encounter want you to record the conversation and take photos? And would you have the right to do so without permission? Bell mentions in some of the articles I read that his significant other often tells him to turn off the recorder. He fears that when he retires from Microsoft the company may make him delete sensitive company memos he’s stored.
Bell struggles with information management; his database has grown so large it’s difficult to search. Microsoft has worked on innovative techniques for Bell to search his database beyond keywords. Microsoft engineers have constructed graphical interfaces in which Bell can zoom in on a particular day and see everything he did at that time. Or he can search for a particular phone call and find the web sites he searched while he was on that call.
Searching the photos is another problem. A search engine can search text for keywords but not pictures, unless Bell meticulously tags them. The best search available when it comes to the photos is by date or GPS coordinates.
Bell is biohacking so that he can recall the details of his life, a very different goal than Bilal’s, which is to create an art project. But is remembering and recording trivia and minutiae as important as these men believe? I think crafting meaning and order out of chaos is more significant than recording everything.
A more useful biohack would help us generate ideas and topics. DEVONthink is a program that allows a writer to put his or her research into a database and then search the information for keywords and semantic links.
In “Tool for Thought,” Steven Johnson points out that despite the great advances made by computers and the convenience of word processors, we don’t use computers for “inspiration” or “association,” just for easier typing and research (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/30/books/review/30JOHNSON.html?_r=1&oref=...). Yet changing the way we think was certainly the goal of early computer pioneers such as Vannevar Bush in his 1945 essay “As We May Think.”
Johnson has created an archive of his writing, notes, and research quotes on DEVONthink. If Johnson plugs in a quote, DEVONthink will search the archive for related quotes and writings. What makes this useful is that the program will find semantic connections, words that are commonly associated together. “Modern indexing software learns associations between individual words, by tracking the frequency with which words appear near each other.” This results in the software finding connections Johnson has forgotten about, or connections he might never have though of. When the software finds surprising connections, Johnson says it’s not clear if he or the software has come up with the idea, which makes his use of the software “a true collaboration, two very different kinds of intelligence playing off each other, one carbon-based, the other silicon” (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/30/books/review/30JOHNSON.html?_r=1&oref=...) I consider this a biohack because it’s a collaboration between the human mind, which creates the database of quotes and research, and the software, which organizes, indexes, and searches the quotes. Johnson points out that this system works because he types in quotes of 500 words or so. It would not be as useful if he were searching entire ebooks (http://www.stevenberlinjohnson.com/movabletype/archives/000230.html).
Notice that Johnson’ biohack involves making use of available tools in an intelligent way. He didn’t drill a hole in his head or make up a gimmick. Johnson is selecting quotes related to a research project rather than randomly accumulating information. I think this form of remembering and generating ideas is more significant than a desire to remember everything. Any attempt to record or remember large pieces of information will only be useful if it can be organized, indexed, and accessed. Even then a controlled selection of information (such as Johnson’s repository of quotes and writings) will result in much better results than trying to dump everything on a hard drive.

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Staffwriter Robert Bee is a professional librarian and a freelance writer living in New Jersey. He can be reached at rightrob@republibot.com

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