Everyone was stunned by the scale of the NSA's data capture in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations. Wait, you mean they're planning to keep a copy of all communication?
In truth, the NSA is just ahead of the curve. Pretty soon, anyone who wants to will be able to cheaply and easily record audio, video and other things -- everything. All the time.
I’ll tell you why I think such technologies might do more good than harm at the end of this column. But first, let’s look at the shiny new gadgets.
Dashcams, which are cameras designed to record from a car dashboard and which are most heavily used in Russia, have long used a record-and-purge function. They record constantly while in the car and capture clips only when a button is pressed or, in the case of the better products, when the car gets into an accident.
Wearable Computing Gadgets
A $99 wristwatch gadget called Kapture records audio all the time. But it also constantly deletes what it has recorded; after one minute, it deletes what it recorded.
But if you press the button on the watch, it retains the previous 60 seconds. So if you press the button 10 times during the day, you'll end up with that 10 minutes of sound -- a greatest hits, if you will. Kapture has already raised $300,000, and will launch a new Kickstarter campaign Sept. 3 to raise an additional $150,000.
A free iPhone app called Heard does what the Kapture watch does. It records everything and constantly for as long as the app is running. After five minutes, it dumps what it recorded -- unless you press the button to save it. (A $1.99 version lets you capture longer recording times.)
One obvious way to use Heard would be to take an old iPhone you don't use any more, plug it in, turn the Auto-Lock setting to "Never," and leave Heard running on your desk. When a conversation happens you want to keep, reach over a press the Heard button.
When I started writing about lifelogging photography a few years ago, it was theoretical category. Since then, actual consumer-market cameras designed to constantly take pictures all day, every day have come on the market.
A new $49 camera called MeCam pins to your shirt. It will shoot video constantly for 80 minutes or so when the battery runs out. During this time, you can press a button to capture a 5 megapixel still photo. It even shoots in the dark using LED infrared lights and also captures audio.
Another wearable camera called Memoto has better features for lifelogging. It has no buttons. It starts taking one 5-megapixel picture every 30 seconds when you clip it on, and stops when you set it down. Pictures are uploaded to Memoto's cloud service. Photos are geo-tagged and time-tagged, and Memoto's apps organize pictures into discreet events, so you can browse through pictures with a little guidance.
The Memoto costs $279 and comes with a free year of cloud service. After that, the cloud service costs $9 per month. The Memoto should ship soon.
The Autographerf from OMG Life is a higher-end lifelogging camera available now, but only in Europe. The $615 gadget hangs around your neck or clips to a belt or other article of clothing, and it will take constant pictures at a user-selectable rate.
The pictures are 5 megapixels and fish-eye looking -- the camera has a 136-degree field of view. Included software can place your pictures on a map, so you can leave behind a trail of pictures. You can view and share photos on the company's smartphone app, to which the device connects via Bluetooth. The Autographer does not record sound.
Cameras designed for extreme sports are getting into the act of recording everything, too.
The Looxie camera (which is designed to attach to sunglasses, baseball caps, a shoulder-mount or helmet) has a mode called LooxieMoments, which continuously records. By pressing a button, the previous 30 seconds is captured and added to a half-hour MP4 clip of all your 30-second clips spliced together.
The category leader, called the GoPro Hero3, offers a new "Looping Video." You can set the feature to record at various settings between 5 minutes and 2 hours, and it will continuously record and delete until you press the button, at which time it will capture the most recent footage.
A company called Livescribe sells a $150 product called the Sky WiFi Smartpen. You use it like an ordinary ballpoint pen. However, it uses sensors to capture the movement of the pen, and uploads your notes and drawings to Evernote. It also records sound constantly while it's in use. The software lets you play back your notes in real time, so you can see your notes being written as you hear the recording.
Why Recording Everything Is (Mostly) Good
These products are all new or currently on the fringe of consumer electronics. But as sensors, cameras, microphones and other elements get smaller and cheaper, and as batteries get better, we're going to see the ability to record everything, all the time, built into an increasing number of mainstream consumer electronics products.
Imagine, for example, this feature built into some future version of Google Glass. Instead of having to decide to record pictures, sound and video and then pressing the button, you could press the button afterwards to capture what just happened.
And even more future version might capture everything and upload it into the cloud in real time, with an interface to quickly fast-forward through everything you see and hear.
Is this good or bad? There are two basic arguments.
The most intuitive and popular argument is that ubiquitous recording is bad because it invades everybody's privacy.
But there's also an argument on the other side. And that is: These are my experiences. Why can’t I remember them in my own way?
For example, I think most might forgive someone with an impaired memory if they used lifelogging to record what they see and hear so they could have some help remembering -- essentially outsourcing their own human memory to a gadget.
But you know what? We all have flawed memories. The ability to recall things exists on a broad scale, with the photographic memory people on one end of the spectrum, and amnesia suffers on the other. The rest of us fall somewhere in between, and it gets worse with age.
Why can't we all use digital technology to be like people with great memories? Why can't old people enjoy the ability to remember things like young people can?
My children are grown. And I have noticed that the best memories we all have of my kids' childhoods are the ones we happened to photograph or video. The rest are mostly lost. The reason is that media reinforces our real-life memories and keeps them strong.
Aren't lost memories unnecessary now that we have the technology to keep them?
There's an important distinction to be made between a creepy weirdo who places a hidden camera in the bathroom in order to see what he shouldn't see on the one hand (or a federal government that listens to conversations it shouldn't listen to, for that matter), and someone who augments memory of their own experiences on the other.
People shouldn’t be able to record things they’re not supposed to experience in the first place. But what’s wrong with using technology to remember the events of our own lives?
After all, aren't your experiences yours to remember?
What's the difference between your memories being enhanced by, say, eyeglasses, note-taking or hearing aids -- which are socially acceptable memory augmenting technologies -- and a lifelogging cam?
This is no longer a theoretical question, but the question that will soon confront all of us as these record-everything-all-the-time technologies go mainstream.