Lifelogging: where will it take us?

In  an earlier post (Travel photos, travel memories) I asked readers how many photos they take on a trip. I have not had any responses (so far!) but imagine that the answers will range from “none” to “many hundreds per day”.

I am convinced that taking photographs contributes to the richness – both present and future – of a trip. At the same time, I think there is a reasonable upper limit on how much time and energy one should devote to photographing a vacation. Too much of a good thing often deprives the “good thing” of value.

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Roman amphitheater, Tunisa

How much is too much? Here is an example.

My wife and I participated in an archaeological tour to northern Tunisia. We joined because we wanted to learn more about an important chapter in Roman history and see a part of the world that was new to us. The group, led by an accomplished Roman archaeologist, consisted of 23 individuals, most passionate and knowledgeable about history.

Two members of the group came armed to the teeth with cameras, accessory bags and tripods. They seemed far more interested in photography than history. When we arrived at sites along the way, these two jumped off the bus, running ahead of the rest of us to position themselves for the best shots.  As the group leader provided carefully prepared explanations of what we saw before us, the two “camera nuts” fiddled with their cameras and clicked, clicked, clicked. Never once did they participate in the ensuing discussions.

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Roman temple, Tunisia

The couple began over time to try the group’s patience. It wasn’t only their lack of sociability. It was also their rudeness. Often we found the camera nuts in our field of view when we wanted to take a photo of the archaeological site we had come so far to visit.

The two camera nuts were the only members of the groups I did not get to know (they sat by themselves in the evening), and so I did not learn what they intended to do with the thousands of pictures they were taking. Perhaps both of them spent the month following their return home winnowing down thousands of photos to a precious few hundred. Perhaps, for them, the real joy of the trip was not experiencing what they saw when they saw it but later rummaging through photos displayed on a computer screen. De gustibus not est disputadum.

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Roman amphitheater, Tunisia

The couple’s mania seems to be emblematic of a general trend to collect more and more information, to amass data in industrial quantities. It’s this widespread general predisposition, I think, that has led to the NSA surveillance tactics and their seeming acceptance by Congress.

Lifelogging refers to the use of wearable computers and other devices to capture data about an individual’s life experiences. The desire for more and richer data about the experiences of individuals and groups is spawning a new industry intent on harnessing the power of cloud computing and advanced data analytic techniques.

New wearable computers and sensing devices are being developed that can be used to track many different aspects of your life, from your location and amount of physical activity, a range of physiological functions including visual acuity, blood pressure, and heart rate, not to mention indicators of emotional state, eating habits, and length and quality of sleep.  The goal of the emerging industry is to store, sift, organize, and integrate the information “up there” in the cloud.

It appears that we are headed towards a tipping point as more and more technologically inclined individuals embrace lifelogging, and as companies seek better and more profitable ways to track parameters they can then later sell to individual consumers (or, more often, corporations) in a packaged form.  Useful medical applications for the new technology have already been identified, and there are surely more to come.

Google glass

Google Glass worn by Google CEO

I can understand the economic value to marketers of being able to know what consumers desire even before the consumers themselves know what they want at a conscious level. However, I am unsure what real benefits the new technology will bring to us as individuals. And my thoughts return to travel photography.

Some of you may be following the development of Google Glass, the wearable computer attached to a pair of eyeglasses. A prototype version of the device was provided to over 10,000 developers in 2013 at a cost of £1,500. (Eventual consumers will pay about half that.) The developers agreed that more work is needed before Glass is brought to market. But while the technology is being refined, and companies other than Google work to develop applications for Glass, Google hopes to discover just what their new gadget is really “good for”, that is, how people will want to use Glass.

Some applications for Glass have already been defined (inventory control, aids to the visually impaired), but others will surely follow. Among other things, I think that a consumer version of Glass may be of interest to travelers.

samual beckett

Samuel Beckett

Let’s fast forward to 2016. By then, Google will likely have made it possible to mount Glass to users’ own prescriptions. Travelers wearing Glass will be able to use vocally command Glass to take pictures of what they are looking at or record a high-definition video. Assuming that Glass has been tethered via Bluetooth to a smart phone for storage on the Cloud, a traveler will also be able to record location data and vocal notes.

Glass-for-travelers will appeal to people who thrill to new technology, as well as to people who believe that more is always better (like the “camera nuts” mentioned earlier). But I wonder if using such a device will increase travelers’ enjoyment of a trip. Having returned home, will travelers want to spend long hours re-seeing what they have previously witnessed first hand? If not, will the benefit of Glass be the reassurance that when the travelers’ memories began to fade in the future they will be able to review their trips?

Krapp's last tape

performance in Ireland of Krapp’s Last Tape

In a recently published newsletter, Harry Moody mentioned Samuel Beckett’s one-act play Krapp’s Last Tape (1959) in the context of memory. When the curtain rises in the play, the 69 year-old Krapp is reviewing recordings he has been making since he was 39. The voices of Krapp’s earlier selves on the tapes, strong and self-important, recount a litany of minor irritations and health problems.

We come to recognize that the only real constant in Krapp’s progression through life has been the disdain he feels for his younger selves when he reviews earlier tapes. All those earlier versions of Krapp were idiots, you see. The current Krapp has little patience with his earlier enthusiasms until he encounters, on one tape, a former self’s description of a sexual liaison with a woman on a skiff. Krapp listens to – and relives – this event several times.

As Krapp listens to tapes, he annotates their contents on the back of an envelope. There is little, however, that he wants to highlight. There is little about his life, it seems, that Krapp wants to record for posterity in a more permanent and condensed format (ink on paper).

Krapp retreats further into his memories, father from former selves and a past that remains dim and unsatisfying despite the tapes. Harry Moody notes that what Krapp has been unable to do, as he records his last tape, is to impose “order and meaning [from the] pile of tapes and memories he’d collected.” As Moody also observes, “no technology will give meaning to us, so the search for order-and-meaning becomes the ultimate do-it-yourself activity– otherwise known as life-review.”



About Jim Flege

Jim Flege carried out research on phonetic aspects of second-language acquisition and bilingualism at an American university. He moved to Italy after retiring and lives with his Italian wife and their Jack Russell terrier in a small town in central Italy. Jim currently serves as the European Director of the Travel Learning Network, an organization provides educational and cultural immersion programs in Europe. You can reach Jim directly by writing to: director (at) www.travlearning (dot) net
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