Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything - C. Gordon Bell, Jim Gemmell (2009)

Part III


A revolution is coming, sure enough, and all over the world people are gradually drifting toward it, recording and storing more and more of their lives. But what if you want to push ahead and experience more of the revolution sooner? You won’t have a research team to take you as far as I have gone, but you can still do quite a lot. You can begin your own Total Recall revolution right now. What follows in this chapter is a plan of action for getting the revolution started in your life, and maybe beyond.

This chapter is about getting started with what we have, even if we have to employ the occasional “hack.” I’ll mention a few products, but the technology is moving so quickly that I suggest paying attention to what these devices fundamentally accomplish, not their bells and whistles or brand names. And of course, check in on for the latest updates on services and products that we think mark progress in the march to Total Recall.


Approach your e-memory with a plan and you will get better results. Decide which aspects of your life you want to be able to recall, from physical objects like bowling balls to born-digital items like e-mails and GPS locations.

As I described in Part One, when I started my own Total Recall project back in 1998, I had boxes of papers in storage, foldersful of paper in file drawers, and piles of papers all over my home and office. My shelves overflowed with books, LPs, CDs, VHS videotapes, and DVDs. My photographs were archived in shoe boxes alongside slides in projector carousels. Memorabilia was displayed in curio cabinets and my refrigerator displayed my grandchildren’s latest masterpieces. Just looking at all my stuff was a bit overwhelming, but I decided to go at everything.

You may wish to embark on your e-memory project in a more focused way. But the overall system of recording, storing, and using will remain essentially the same. You may consider, as a friend of mine did, putting together a multigenerational list of all the recipes your family made and/or recorded. My friend found some as far back as five generations. She scanned and/or retyped the recipes—if you go back five generations you can expect a thousand or more—and she included any comments from the recipe’s creator. So there you have a specific set of data recorded and digitally stored. Now. How do you access it? How do you use it? How about a cookbook of recipes with eggs? Or given my health concerns, one without eggs? In fact, that friend made a cookbook that was such a success with her family members that she has begun a second Total Recall project to create a family Web site that will contain the cookbook, all family photos, handwritten letters, blogs, full ge nealogies, birth and death records, health problems, and so forth. No doubt for many people, family is a forum in which Total Recall technologies meet their warmest welcome.

When my son-in-law, Bob, embarked on his Total Recall project, he decided to focus only on photographs. After his old pictures are all scanned, he will be tackling his music. His approach is to break down the entire project into manageable sections by data type: first photos, then music, then videos, then paper, and so forth.

Maybe you want to limit your e-memory at first only to family, or food, or music. Maybe you want to limit it to your health, or your work, or your romantic life.


If you don’t already have the tools of this sort of digital enterprise, you will need to buy them. Most are now fairly familiar in American households. If you think this is just buying more clutter, keep in mind that these tools will easily fit in the space you make in your life by reducing the paper and memorabilia that surrounds you. Moreover, the Total Recall revolution is being built on the strength of a few key fundamental devices and they are all fairly small.

A smartphone

Your cell phone should be a smart one, that is, one that also performs the functions of a personal digital assistant or PDA. At a minimum, it should support: phone, text messaging, instant messaging, camera, Web browsing, e-mail, reminders, and synchronization of your contacts and calendar from wherever in the cloud you keep them. If you can, get one that supports GPS. Music playback is nice too.

Many will let you connect to local Wi-Fi network hotspots when you are in range, giving you a faster connection (and sometimes avoiding airtime fees). The major platforms (Symbian, iPhone, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, and so on) have all kinds of applications that you can install to help you with things like: diaries, health records, lists, time cards, financial records, customer relationship management, expense tracking, and banking.

The smartphone is an absolutely critical tool for lifelogging because you tend to carry it everywhere all the time. It takes pictures, records audio comments, and allows you to type notes and to-do items. It tracks time and place.

A GPS unit

A GPS built into your smartphone might be all you need—as long as you have the software to retrieve the GPS data out of your phone. Many phones ship without such software and it can sometimes be hard to find, even if it exists for your phone. If you can’t get GPS data from your phone, then buy a GPS unit even if you have it built into your camera. After all, you want to know where you have been even when you weren’t taking pictures. If your camera does not have GPS built in, then a separate GPS unit is essential for supplementing your pictures with location information.

I’ve used some Garmin GPS units, and also tried out the Trackstick. Personally, I hate changing batteries, so the rechargeable i Blue 747 is my current favorite. Whatever GPS you get, make sure you can save files in a standard format like GPX. Check that you can actually read the text in your file using a Web browser or a text editor like Notepad or Word. That way you will always have latitude/longitude coordinates in a format you can access.

A digital camera

Pictures taken by smartphones are better than no pictures, but at present only dedicated cameras provide really acceptable quality. The good news is that virtually any digital camera these days takes decent pictures and—very important—stamps the date and time on each photo. At the time of writing, only a few cameras support built-in GPS, but if you can afford one with GPS, get it—because where something happened is just as important to your memory as when it happened. I hope by the time you read this that GPS in cameras is mainstream, and I am willing to bet that by 2013, nearly all cameras will have GPS. If you don’t get a camera with GPS, then make sure not to skip the purchase of a separate GPS unit.

A personal computer

Laptop or desktop, your personal computer will be essential. If your computer is more than a couple of years old, consider buying a new one. Not surprisingly, for Total Recall, memory is a critical component. Buy a computer with as much disk memory as you can afford; at least a hundred gigabytes for a laptop or three hundred gigabytes for a desktop computer. Purchase an external disk of five hundred gigabytes or more for backup. Get the latest-generation operating system so you will have integrated features like desktop search and photo-tagging. Apple’s Leopard and Microsoft’s Vista can do this for you.

An Internet connection

An Internet connection is essential so that you can take advantage of online billing and other items that are born digitally—each one represents paper that you won’t have to scan. Paying for a faster link in the upstream direction (from your home to the Internet) may be helpful for backing up to a cloud service, or making your files accessible from a home server. But high bandwidth isn’t essential if you won’t be moving a lot of data from your home to the cloud.

A scanner

You need a scanner that can digitize anything you have on paper: memos, letters, health records, pictures, slides, business cards, and so forth. Scanners that handle multiple sizes and types of paper are worth the extra expense. Scanners should allow you to digitize one piece of paper or a stack of papers, simultaneously scanning both sides.

I use the Fujitsu ScanSnap desktop scanner. It’s nice and small, and I find it so handy that I have one at work and another at home. It lets me stack in pages and scans both sides at once directly into Adobe’s PDF format. The current generation of desktop scanners comes close to meeting my ideal that scanning a document be as easy as discarding it. Ultimately scanners will be so reliable that we can confidently shred the document the moment the scan is complete. But we aren’t there yet.

A flatbed scanner is great for mementos, like medals, plaques, and so on. Unlike a digital camera, it always gets the lighting right. Some stuff just won’t fit in any scanner, though, so sometimes you will have to use a camera; if you can get it outdoors on a cloudy day, you can often get it nicely lit without reflections.

Finally, make sure your scanner software is performing optical character recognition (OCR) on the scanned pages so that later the computer will be able to search for the text inside them.


Properly equipped, you are now ready to convert your old analog life’s worth of papers and memorabilia to digital form.

Set a goal of being paperless within a year. Besides scanning the paper you already have, you should also arrange to receive more born-digital communications in the future, to reduce the flow of paper that you need to scan. Request that all statements, invoices, and other communications be delivered online. Your phone company, utility company, cable provider, and other services you do business with should be happy to stop sending you paper (and paying for postage), and if they aren’t they’ll probably be out of business before long. Many of the communications you receive online will be in PDF format, so just click the save button. Some, however, will come up inside your browser as a regular Web page—I’ll explain more about saving Web pages below.

If you have many years’ worth of paper accumulated in file drawers, cabinets, and boxes, consider sending it all out to a service for scanning. It will likely cost between four hundred and a thousand dollars for ten thousand pages. The price increases for mixed sizes and artifacts such as scrapbooks. If you have a lot, and you value your time, I’d call it money well spent.

Even if you use a scanning service now, you will still need a scanner for future incoming paper. Some organizations aren’t prepared to go paperless, so you will keep getting items to scan from them. Set up a dedicated scanning in-box, and don’t let it get more than an inch deep.

Today’s scanners and software do not automatically add tags or keywords to your documents, and are not likely to for quite a few years. Make sure that OCR is being performed on every scan. And follow my tips below for file naming and tagging.

Occasionally, I find it handy to use my camera instead of a scanner. For instance, while I’m traveling, I might snap a quick picture of a receipt and tear it up rather than take it home to scan. I also hate keeping around the big cases holding my software CDs—but I can never peel off the label containing the product key without destroying it. My solution is to snap a picture of the label (the lighting only has to be good enough to let me read the product key). This way, I was able to recycle a bunch of cases and cut back to one compact little holder of CDs for all my software.


For your books that are out of copyright, the chances get better every day that you will be able to download a copy from the Web for free. Project Gutenberg has more than twenty-five thousand free books available in their catalog and more than a hundred thousand available through their partners and affiliates. Google is scanning millions of titles; keep an eye on them to make more books available. Several formats may be available; pick either PDF or some other text-friendly format so you can search the entire book with your e-memory.

Online libraries are available for a fee. Questia, the largest online library as of 2008, has books, journals, magazines, and newspapers all available and searchable via keywords. They even provide a personal library shelf, where you can store books that you’ve viewed. The workspace allows you to create and manage projects, track your research by viewing highlighted passages, notes, and citations you’ve made, and even make instant bibliographies or source notes. LexisNexis is another online service that provides business, legal, and news services, all searchable easily though keywords. Whenever possible, save copies of what you read, or at least a note of what you read. For example, if you copy and paste a passage into OneNote, it will also save a link to the Web page.

Invest in Amazon’s Kindle, Sony’s eBook, or another similar electronic reading device. That way, your new books can be born digital. You also will be able to mark passages and load them into your computer. Wizcon makes a pen scanner that permits you to make highlights in any of your reading materials and automatically transfer those highlights to your computer for future reference.

When you buy a new appliance, go online, download the electronic version of the manual, and throw the paper one away. You may end up having to scan a few manuals, but this happens less and less as every year goes by. Manufacturers, after all, are happy to have you download a file rather than phone them and take time from their staff.

For e-books, e-articles, and e-manuals, the issue is search-ability. You want to be able to recall passages that you have read before. With downloaded manuals, you can search on your PC. LexisNexis would require you to return to their site to search if you haven’t saved a copy of the article you want. Refinding a passage from a Kindle book could mean going to the Amazon Web site if the book is no longer on your Kindle. Still, with a little effort you can achieve nearly Total Recall with your reading material.

Address books, calendars, and reminders

If your address book has cross-outs five layers deep, or you have a calendar hanging in your kitchen with birthdays, anniversaries, other important dates, and appointments, or your to-do list consists of sticky labels papering your office walls, you need to go digital and it’s not as hard as you think.

Start with your address book. You can choose from a host of already available applications. Eudora, Outlook, Outlook Express, and various freeware programs have contact, calendaring, and time management systems that connect to corporate mail servers or public mail services like AOL, Google, or Hotmail. Apple’s OS X has integrated calendar and address book applications. Many of these applications can synchronize with the information in your cell phone or PDA, so that device can remain updated too.

If you are using a cloud-based system for your contacts, calendar, or reminders, I strongly recommend using a client such as Outlook so that your e-memory has a copy of everything that’s in the cloud. This will protect you from a service that may lose your stuff (perhaps by going out of business). It also gives you a copy when your Internet connection goes down.

Many of your contacts are born digital. For example, you receive a call on your cell phone with a number you and your cell phone don’t recognize. Once you take the call, your cell phone asks if you want to store the number as a new contact. This is easily done and when you sync your phone to your computer, your computer now has the new number in your address book.

IBM has a program called Pensieve (named after a stone receptacle for storing memories, à la Harry Potter) to manage business contacts. After you use your cell phone to snap the photo of a person you meet along with his or her business card, you enter the information into your computer. The program syncs that data with the date, time, and information in your calendar for when you met that person. When you search for someone, you enter one bit of data and up comes photo, name, phone number, fax, company info, and so on.

Nokia is taking this idea one step further, allowing their cell phones that have GPS and a compass to become full memory aids by using images taken from the cell phone. Anything you see, a person, place, or thing, is snapped as a picture and tagged with location. This new phone will be preloaded with tags for places and things in a set of cities, allowing travelers to easily become accustomed to their new environments.

I can’t say enough about the importance of the calendar to mark life’s minor and major time-posts that are likely to be useful for recall. Use your calendar not just to schedule upcoming events, but also as a diary, putting entries in even after the event so that your calendar is a complete record. Every birthday, celebration, dinner, and meeting should be noted.


If you have lots of pictures, slides, or negatives, send them to a service. The drugstore Walgreens scanned over two thousand negatives for a friend in less than twenty-four hours. In 2008, Scan-MyPhotos. com would scan a thousand photos for fifty dollars. The more you have, the steeper the discount.

Unless you are a serious photographer, beware the “photo scanner.” I’ve checked out “high-end” photo scanners, hoping they would help me scan faster, only to learn that “high-end” in a photo scanner often means doing fancy smudge and scratch removal and actually requires more of my time to manage the process. The lower-end scanners I’ve tried have been better at feeding through batches of photos, but unfortunately, they have also been cheap enough to break down.

I’ve found the best scanners are the ones that are multipurpose and handle paper, photographs, and business cards. If you have a lot of slides, you can find a special slide scanner, or possibly an attachment for your paper scanner to help handle slides.

Sometimes you will want to scan a photo album without taking the photos out. There is no choice but to use a flatbed scanner for that. Don’t try using a digital camera unless you have extraordinary skill in photography and lighting.


Music CDs, of course, can be easily converted (“ripped”) into your computer. For old formats like LPs and tapes, you can do it yourself to convert to digital format. It’s not really that hard, but it can be finicky. You’ll have to get the right cables to connect, say, your turntable to your computer’s sound card, and you’ll have to set the levels carefully to get a good digital recording. There’s software out there that that will spot the gaps in the music and break the whole down into individual songs, and will even help with hiss reduction and make labeling easy (I have used the Windows Plus package for this in the past). If that sounds beyond your technical ability or patience, chances are the shop in your neighborhood that digitizes old videos can also digitize your music for you.

Use a music database such as iTunes, Windows Media, Winamp, or Zune to organize your music. The database is part of the player. As you rip new music, these databases will automatically catalog it and create the file-and-folder system for you. It’s powerful and allows you to control how you want your music inputted, sorted, and displayed. It will also go out on the Web to find the CD artwork, if available.

Movies and Film

For old films and home movies, I once again recommend using a service, such as does home movies as well as slides. If you are a techie, there are solutions out there and you can mess around with and make them work—the guys on my team have. But for most folks it’s just not worth the hassle. Send them to a shop and get back the DVDs.

The real trouble with movies is that we are still a few years out from having enough storage space to rip your whole collection into your computer, as you do with your CDs. For the time being, you are going to be stuck with some DVDs and tapes disturbing the feng shui of your otherwise decluttered life. It is well worth ripping a few of your favorite moments, though.

Virtually all items can be destroyed after digitizing (archivists hate it when I say things like that—but they will have to give up a few papers to get thousands more scanned pages). Of course, some things will be kept even by the most energetic lifeloggers. You may have to keep papers that have intrinsic value, like stock certificates or autographs or, say, original sheet music by a famous composer. You may plan to keep a photo album and enjoy it until it falls apart and fades—in any case, you should rest assured that you have the digital version forever. I recommend that you develop a way of marking digitized items so that you don’t mess up and do the work of digitizing them over again. For instance, I mark the pictures that I keep with an S on the back, indicating that they have been scanned. You may want to put a small Post-It note on the underside of a trophy that you have a good picture of. But if you ask me, nothing beats the feeling of feeding your paper to the shredder and seeing your clutter evaporate.


Now that you’ve focused on the potential for Total Recall to improve your life, have the tools of the trade, and have begun getting rid of all that paper and other junk, it’s time to start recording more of your life digitally. Time to get lifelogging.

I own several digital cameras because of trade-offs in features and size. If I could only have one, I’d pick a pocket-sized camera so that I would be more likely to carry it around with me. If not for my pocket camera, I’d have no shots of my ride in the cab of San Francisco Fire Department Aerial Truck T-13 (what a thrill!). If you don’t have your pocket camera with you, take a snapshot using your smartphone. The quality may be lower, but at least you’ll have some visual e-memory. The bottom line: Carry a camera and snap away.

I believe in taking video “cliplets”—little clips of five seconds or less. Five seconds is often all it takes to capture the ambience of a moment. No photo, no matter how good, can convey the movement like the five seconds of hula dancers I shot in Hawaii. A quick shot of my grandson saying hello is priceless. And sometimes I like to swing the camera around in a panorama in an attempt to capture the feel of a place I’m in. My camera and cell phone are fine for video cliplets, so I don’t bother with a video camera much. With longer videos, I have to be concerned about space on my PC. So most long videos remain in DVD form, but all my video cliplets get added to my e-memory.

Remember when people put pins in a map to show where they had traveled? You can do it digitally by collecting global positioning system (GPS) tracks. I’ve made trip records of walks, car rides, train rides, and airplane rides. The GPS comes with me into the wilderness and into the skies thirty thousand feet above the Pacific Ocean. You either need a cell phone with GPS records that you can export from it, or a stand-alone GPS unit that you can carry in your pocket.

If batteries are a hassle, and you use your car a lot, it may suffice to have a car charger and just leave the GPS in your car. This at least gives an approximation of where you are, based on where you drove to.

In addition to creating a record of your travels, a GPS is used to add location information to photos. As I’ll discuss later, manual labeling of photos can be a lot of work, so having time and location correct on every photo is critical. If you don’t have a GPS camera, then you need to ensure that the date and time on your camera are set correctly (actually, you should be sure of that anyhow—you will be really glad to have the right time on all your photos). Now, if you know from the GPS where you were at a certain time, and you know when a picture was taken, you can infer where the picture was taken. The location information can then be inserted into the picture file alongside the date and time. This is called geotagging or geolocating your photos. You can do this with Microsoft Pro Photo Tools, HoudahGeo, or many other programs available on the Web (your GPS device may come with such software).

An alternative to GPS is a memory card with built-in Wi-Fi networking for your camera. This allows you to wirelessly transmit your photos back to your computer or an online photo-sharing site. More important, the card can geolocate every photo—so long as there are Wi-Fi signals at your location.

For audio recording, I carry an Olympus WS-320 audio recorder (though changing batteries is a pain). In a pinch, I also record using the audio recording function in my cell phone. For recording meetings, I like to use OneNote and record directly into my PC. To save telephone conversations, Skype calls can be saved automatically. Recording from a cell phone or home phone is presently more complicated, and there are legal issues; I’d wait for that space to evolve a little more before you jump in.


Health logging is going to rapidly improve in quality convenience in the next few years. Do everything you can to get involved in this potentially life-changing and life-saving trend. You are the only one with access to all of your health data, so take ownership of it and collect all that you can. Take advantage of new technology that helps you achieve quantitative health.

Start out by creating a simple document for medical information about you and any family members you want to keep track of. List all the immunizations, allergies, medications, and any important events, for example, when a surgery was performed. Whenever you get a simple test result—say, a blood pressure value—add it to the document. Aim to have all the key statistics about your health in one quick reference document.

A couple of years ago, I visited the Canyon Ranch wellness center in Lenox, Massachusetts. After a host of blood tests, body scans, cardio stress tests, exercise evaluations, and even gene reports, I finished my stay with more medical and fitness information about myself than I could ever have imagined. The information that was most interesting was the fitness information. I’ve used this as a foundation to compare with fitness facts I record today.

I wear a Polar heart monitor strap whenever I work out. This allows me to capture heart information and compare it to what I’ve received at Canyon Ranch and subsequent tests with my cardiologists. My trainer has created a program tailored to help with my heart and with my core. (Supposedly we have balance issues as we age that I clearly observe.) After scanning this into my e-memory, I can now track my progress and it is easy for her to make changes to the training program electronically.

Dr. Christiane Northrup’s research has found that walking ten thousand steps a day helps your heart stay healthy. I now wear a pedometer, which downloads what I walk each day into my e-memory. Some days are better than others, but over the last year or so, I have actually averaged about ten thousand steps a day. Dr. Northrup would be as happy as my heart is.

You should determine the area of your health that is most important to you, and get a device that helps you quantify your status. For example, to track your fitness, you might get the BodyBugg arm strap that I mentioned in the health chapter. If you are concerned about your blood pressure, you should buy something like the Omron HEM-790IT blood pressure monitor, which will enable you to upload data to the Microsoft HealthVault.

I’ve already advised you to get rid of all your paper, so don’t get too upset when I tell you to acquire even more paper that you will need to scan. If you really want total control of your health information, first you need to obtain it, which, sadly, nearly always means paper. You will need to contact every doctor, specialist, dentist, hospital, or health facility that has a record of you. You will need to write or fax them to obtain a copy of these records; a phone call won’t suffice. Keep a list of all of them and check it off as you receive each record. Also, you will need to do the same to obtain your medical insurance “explanation of benefits” forms, if you don’t have them already. Although this aspect of Total Recall took the most time for me to accomplish, having these records and measurements at my fingertips has saved my life after my double bypass redux.

Quicken Health is a database on your own computer that keeps track of the paper blizzard that is typical of a chronic condition or a major procedure. It holds all the letters, bills, and insurance documents—it tracks the money flow and who paid what, when. While such systems are substantially more detailed than financial transactions, they are more than a decade behind the financial industries in terms of their ability to handle health transactions in a humane way. This program was created by a frustrated Quicken employee who saw it as the only way to follow the paper.

With paper under control, you can move on to electronic information. Some physicians communicate via a proprietary e-mail system. You should keep copies of these conversations for your life bits. As more providers in your health-care network go digital, be sure to ask if you can download copies of reports, prescriptions, X-rays, or whatever they will let you have.


Lifelogging will be increasingly automatic. However, right now there is no replacement for just recording a few phrases or sentences. Doing this is more comfortable in a work or educational setting, but whether it is a “note to self,” notes about a meeting, or an epigram you want to remember, make a note and give it a date and a place.

In meetings, I like to use OneNote. I can type, or I can use handwriting and draw things using my tablet computer. OneNote can record audio and will sync the audio to the notes I am taking. So, I can later click on a note and have the audio play from the point in time when I made the note. OneNote is also really great for copying passages out of Web pages and keeping a link back to the page you got it from.

For a quick typed note, there are several options. Sending yourself an e-mail works well. You can leave the e-mail in your in-box as a reminder, or put it in a folder of notes on different topics if that was your intent. I use Outlook, which has both notes and tasks; other productivity tools should have similar features. Tasks differ from notes by have properties such as due dates.

For spoken notes, I used to use the record audio note feature on my smartphone. These days, I prefer using reQall. With reQall, I dial a certain phone number, and am prompted, “What would you like to do?” I say, “Add,” and then, after a beep, say my note. That audio recording gets delivered to my e-mail as an audio attachment, and a transcription is made of what I said in the text of the e-mail. I find this especially handy when I’m driving: I just hit a speed dial button, talk to reQall, and then I know I will have the note in my in-box to deal with later. I used to forget more ideas than I remembered, but now it’s easy to save them. There’s more to reQall than I have space to cover here. It understands reminders and shopping lists. You can send it messages from instant messenger, and it can send you reminders in SMS text messages. It really is a fantastic tool for e-memory.

Evernote is another powerful e-memory tool. It covers a lot of ground, from clipping Web pages on the PC to audio recordings on its cell phone software. What I think is particularly interesting about it is how it does OCR when you take snapshots. It does a great job of detecting text in a picture, allowing you to take pictures of stuff from wine labels to whiteboards, and then searching for the text in them.

At a dinner party recently, a guest demonstrated his latest find: a digital pen called a Pulse Pen from Livescribe that both records the lecture and allows you to take notes that can be uploaded to your PC. I know when I sit through lectures, many times the speaker is faster than my pen. The Pulse pen solves this problem because if you miss a word, the pen captures it. The only negative is that it requires special paper.

Other electronic pens are made by IOgear, whose Mobile Digital Scribe pen doesn’t require special paper, but also doesn’t record the audio. It also requires an extra pager-size device to upload the information to your PC. The ZPen from Dane-Elec is like IOgear’s device and doubles as a one-gigabyte flash drive.


Advancing from raw media to stories doesn’t have to be as time consuming as it is for novelists and filmmakers. We are all storytellers, it is just that we can’t all be Shakespeare, or Toni Morrison, or Steven Spielberg.

Begin making dear-diary e-memories, just like you take notes. Send yourself an e-mail recounting the humorous quip your nephew just made. On your way home from the ball game, call reQall and talk about what happened. Point your camera at yourself and record a short video clip telling about someone you just met. Knowing that you keep an e-copy of everything also means that any stories you send to others become part of your story. So send more e-mails to family and friends telling stories.

Some cameras let you add audio comments to the pictures you take. Take advantage of the feature so that the picture comes with you telling the story behind it. Even if you don’t have such a camera, you can always add your voice later. Photo Story is a nice application that lets you create a voice-over story with pictures that zoom and pan, giving you that “history channel” feel. VizzVox is a Web-based application that lets you upload photos and talk about them. You can continue annotating each time you watch, adding more information, improving the voice record incrementally as you think of new things to say. Others can chime in if the event involves several people or family. In the end, VizzVox lets you save the story to your e-memory as a video.

Video is fantastic, but shooting it can take you out of an event, and it can be very time-consuming to edit. The good news is that editing has gotten much easier, thanks to programs like Microsoft’s Movie Maker and Apple’s iMovie. Both are free applications that allow you to create very professional looking movies by just dragging and dropping photographs, video, music, and voice-overs.

Whenever you can afford the time to do a really complete video shoot and production, go for it. For the rest of the time, develop the discipline of shooting video cliplets of about ten seconds each. Then create stories of no more than ten minutes. These boundaries will not only keep the story more interesting for viewers, but will provide realistic targets so that you will actually create more video stories.

Another great way to tell a story is in a scrapbook. Gather photos along with images of stuff you have digitized (tickets, dried flowers, recipes, and so on) and add captions to tell your story. There are a host of Web sites that provide electronic layouts, instructions, and even classes on how to create your e-memory in the form of a scrapbook.

Time lines are wonderful for visualizing a series of events. I can see from research projects, including MyLifeBits, that some incredibly compelling time line software will be coming to market in the coming years. The present offerings aren’t too bad either. Try out,, and other time line applications on the Web.

As you think about leaving your stories to future generations, don’t forget the digital equivalent of cemeteries and libraries. For a fee, Web sites like and www.forevernetwork. com offer to store letters, essays, photos, videos, and stories to pass on to future generations. I like the way hosts a person or family’s content, because the format is a compelling timeline of photos and videos.

Everyone has an urge to tell his stories. Go ahead and tell yours; it isn’t about being perfect.


You will need to organize your e-memories to get the most out of them. It turns out that the bigger the collection, the more care you need to take in how it is organized. People have learned that the way you organized a single bookshelf wasn’t adequate for organizing a whole roomful of bookshelves. And the approach to a roomful of books was not enough to manage the Library of Congress. Amazing as it sounds, your e-memory will be more akin to the Library of Congress than anyone’s personal library. You will be dealing with vast quantities of information.

Of course, you won’t have a paid staff to take care of your e-memories like the Library of Congress does, so something has to be done to reduce the workload. Thankfully, computers are our servants. If you make sure they have good data to start with, then they can do all kinds of automatic classification and lookup. This is why I stressed having the time set correctly for your photos and adding geolocation. With those values set, the computer can sort all your photos by time and space, letting you query by place names, or loading all photos taken during a certain event. Likewise, if you perform character recognition on your scanned paper, then you can search for text in the paper.

Born-digital items tend to have information like this that is useful for organizing your collection. For instance, Web pages have the URL they came from and the date you visited them. E-mails have the address of the sender, the subject, and the date. Digital music has the name of the song, the artist, the album, and more.

Unfortunately, there is still some work for you to do organizing your e-memories. For example, if you simply scan a picture and say nothing about it, all the machine knows is that it has an image scanned on a certain date. It is up to you to add the information to make that picture useful. Also, it can be very worthwhile for you to label bills that you download from the Web. Sure, you can always search for “AT&T” and find all the documents that contain that text, but after years of receiving phone bills you will just get a big pile of them. You might then sift through them by the creation date of the file, but file creation date is notoriously unreliable (sometimes moving a file changes it). You could add the year to your search, say “AT&T 2006,” to narrow it down, but you are still going to have to look in a number of files—possibly some notices from AT&T in addition to bills from that year—to find the one you want.

Suppose, instead, that your files have names like “AT&T bill 2006-08-12.pdf.” Now a glance at the file name will tell you the right one. When you are downloading your bill once a month, it only takes a couple of seconds to give the file name. Or, if you are unwilling even to type a name once a month, suppose you created a folder each year like so: “2008/bills/phone/AT&T”—and then just selected that folder to save your bill in each month. Then, at least, you would know you are only looking at actual bills from AT&T of that year.

You have three ways to add information to help organize your e-memory: putting your files in a good folder structure, creating a useful file name, and adding attributes to the file. All this takes work, and there will be a bigger payoff for some items than others—so you might as well be selective about what you organize. Still, for many items you will be very glad you did a little work to keep things organized so that you can find them again. Our friend Professor William Jones, of the University of Washington, calls this activity “keeping found things found.”

Your computer file-and-folder system is a sort of electronic file cabinet. Using it is no harder than figuring out what hanging folders go in your steel file cabinet and what manila files go in each hanging folder.

You may want to organize folders the way Apple or Windows suggests, which is by the type of information. They create folders like My Books, My Music, My Notes, My Pictures, My Videos, and so on. Or, you may want to create a hierarchy organized around aspects of your life, with folders like My Health, My School, My Work, and My Children. Either will serve; it’s up to you. I like to organize first by the type of information, and then use an aspect of my life as a subcategory. So, I end up with the folder “My Pictures/ My Children/Brigham” for pictures of my son and his family.

Having as much information as I do stored on my computer, combined with being in my seventies, affords me with a new view, what I call “life lines.” Looking back at my own life, I can see distinct chapters or well-defined segments of time: my childhood, the different schools I attended, organizations I worked for, activities, projects I carried out within each of the lives, vacations, my family, and so on. What’s nice about this is that I ended up with everything about a particular life line in one place—a folder with files of pictures, correspondence, notes, and anything else related to that period.

In the Annotated References and Resources, I’ve included my file-and-folder hierarchy as an example of a design of this size. It’s just an example, not a recommendation. Once you get your own collection going, different organizational ideas will emerge. There is no perfect structure! So, just get started and do your best.

For file names, I recommend cramming in as much information as you can. Files get moved around, so it is risky to rely on the name of the folder they are in. The more description, the better. I name my photos with the following information: What/Who; Event; Location; Date—in essence who, what, where, when. Say I’m looking at a photograph of myself and my granddaughter, Kolbe, at her eighth-grade prom. The photo would have the following name:

Bell, Gordon, and Schultz, Kolbe; Eighth-Grade Prom; Hillsborough, New Jersey; 2008-11-15

The last number is the date, November 15, 2008. I used the format year-month-day, e.g., 2008-11-15, because that makes an alphabetic sort the same as a chronological one (and when it comes to file names, alphabetic sort is all you get).

In addition to file name and folder, with some files you can add extra attributes. For example, in Microsoft Office documents, you can set the author and title of the document. For music, you can add your own rating of each song. Photos, of course, have date and location, and this is true for your scanned photos as well as your born-digital ones. The more dates and locations you set in your scanned photos, the better off you will be.

For photos, and some other file types, you can add “tags.” A tag is just a word or phrase that is attached to the file. You can then search and sort by tags. Note that tags, unlike folders, are actually part of the file, so you keep them when the file is moved. Furthermore, with tags you have more freedom than with folders. A file can only be in one folder, but you can apply many tags. So, while a folder system makes you choose whether to file a photo under “My Photos/My Children” or “My Photos/Birthday parties,” there is no problem adding both tags “My Children” and “Birthday parties” to a photo.


Learn to be aware of where your data is actually stored. Is your e-mail archive on your hard drive or on the Google e-mail server or somewhere else in the Internet? Make sure you use an e-mail client and save copies of all e-mails in your PC. You never know when that provider many decide the business is not profitable enough and close their digital doors, leaving you cut off from your e-mail. Even if you don’t like using a client for your day-to-day use, use it to make backups of your e-mail. I think you will come to appreciate a client, because having the message at your fingertips without waiting for a download saves time and cloud storage space, especially when the message contains large attachments. My own mail archive is approaching ten gigabytes.

I have more than a hundred thousand Web pages saved in my e-memory by MyLifeBits. MyLifeBits Web page capture is completely automatic, and makes a copy of the actual page in addition to recording the page’s address (URL). Unfortunately, at the time of writing, software to make a copy of each Web page is not commercially available. Google’s toolbar has a Web history feature that records URLs and lets you search for text on pages in your history, but they won’t let you download the data, so you are at their mercy to retain your e-memory. Most browsers also have a history of URLs you have visited, but what you can do with them is pretty limited. I’m amazed that there isn’t something better on the market for this now and would be surprised if there isn’t a good product out by the time you read this.

Without automatic recording, it is just not realistic to save every Web page you visit as I do. But there is no doubt you will save some; in particular, your bills and statements that come in HTML format. You can select “Save As” and make a copy of the page, either as a collection of files—the HTML of the page itself plus all the images and other files needed to fully display the page—or as an MHT file that wraps up all these files with the HTML file into a single file. Given the choice of these two, I’d recommend the latter as more manageable.

However, quite a few Web pages actually involve a lot of fancy programming that allows you to see what you see. When you open a saved version of some of these pages, you might find that parts of it are broken, as the browser is expecting you to be logged in using some specific Web service. To make sure that I capture what I see in the browser, I save a print version of the page. The idea is to tell the browser that you are printing out the page, but actually save the print version to your e-memory. If you have OneNote, you will see a “printer” that actually delivers the printed page into a OneNote page. Another way to do this is to install the CutePDF “printer,” a free plug-in program. When you select this “printer” it lets you save what would have been printed as a PDF file. I’d recommend using a print copy of your Web pages rather than HTML, especially for your bills and statements.

You also should be logging all your text messages. Your computer chat program ought to have this as a feature; for example, with Windows Live Messenger, I simply use the setting “Automatically keep a history of my conversations.” Getting SMS messages off your cell phone might require a little more effort. If you have a smartphone, you can get programs like SMS Exporter or SMS Cool!

It is really a shame that more and more communication is being buried inside social Web sites like Facebook. I don’t believe you will want to make the effort presently required to save every single communication in your social Web sites. However, you should be sure to save some favorites, and occasionally just grab the look of your home page for your e-memory. Hopefully these sites will wise up soon and release our data from captivity.

I spoke above about receiving all of your bills and statements electronically. With financial transactions, you should take this even further. Rather than just converting the paper statements to electronic documents, you should also capture the information on a transaction-by-transaction basis by using a program like Quicken or Microsoft Money. These programs will download transactions from your bank, and let you add your own notes to them. You can sort, report, and search through the transactions, which is a powerful form of Total Recall. Doing online banking coupled to Quicken or Money for all your financial transactions will pay in time for everything else.

Credit card transactions are especially revealing. They are a reflection of your life. They tell you how much you spend for essentials, education, dining, entertainment, travel, favorite foods, and so on. The transaction often indicates the location where it was made, too. I can recall who that plumber or electrician was, what restaurant we went to when we had that great cassoulet, and what I got Sheridan for her birthday last year.

Your bank probably avoids sending some messages via e-mail due to fraud concerns. Instead, they have their own proprietary e-mail system that you access through their Web site. If your bank communicates with you this way, make a copy of their messages to you. You may need to explicitly cut and paste the correspondence to a document that serves as a log of correspondence.


Many of us make regular backups to an external hard drive. That’s a good start, but if your house burns down you could lose your both PC and your backup drive. To be really safe, you want a backup that is geographically separated from your main machines so that a natural disaster like a flood or earthquake doesn’t take out everything at once.

One way to do this is to back up everything to DVDs or onto an external hard drive. Then mail the backup to a trusted friend or family member who lives far away. That forms your archive, and will be most of your e-memory, since it represents your life to date. Back up subsequent material via an Internet service such as,,,, or one of many other such sites.

Don’t think of any replica of your data as reliable. A cloud service could lose your data just as easily as your own hard drive could crash. So, before you decommission your PC, make another full backup, so that you always have at least two copies of your data.

Wells Fargo’s vSafe offers a personal online “safe” to protect copies of your family’s documents like birth certificates, immunization records, wills, tax documents, and more. The service can be looked at as the equivalent of a safe deposit box in a bank.

I mentioned doing quick backups to a USB drive. Another way I make sure I don’t lose my most current work is by using file synchronization. I use Windows Live Sync, but you could try a competing product. Whenever I am connected to the network, Live Sync is synchronizing files in certain folders with Vicki’s computer. As long as I use one of my Live Sync folders, then I am always replicated as recently as the last time I connected to the Internet. Jim Gemmell and I shared a Live Sync folder for this book, and also sent chapters in e-mails to preserve extra backup copies of them.

The real answer to what is the best backup is: have more than one.


Some care is needed for file formats to make sure you can still read all your files fifty years from now. In order to avoid the Dear Appy scenario, follow three guidelines.

First, regularly convert your files to the latest formats. For example, suppose a new standard for photos called JPEG2015 takes the world by storm. Convert all your all JPEG photos to this new standard.

Second, whenever possible use “golden” formats that you believe will be supported “nearly forever.” A good hint of such a format is that it is used by millions of people millions of times. Even if such a format ever became obsolete, the large market for them would guarantee that solutions would be provided to convert the old format to something new. Good examples of golden formats are JPEG, MPEG-2, HTML, and PDF.

Third, make a print version of your interactive data. For example, every year I print out an annual report from Microsoft Money to PDF. That way, no matter what happens with the Money format files in the future, I have a version that I can at least look at and search for text.


As discussed in Chapter 8, everyone needs to be concerned about the privacy and security of his or her e-memories. As we wrote this book, Jim Gemmell had someone use his credit card number for a Las Vegas spending spree. I have found some solutions that work very well.

As with backups, I believe in layers of security to protect my privacy. Invest in a firewall as a first line of defense. Nearly all the home routers have a built-in firewall.

As a second layer, make your computer secure. Make sure it has all the latest patches and is running good security software. Protect access to your computer by use of a strong password (do a search on the Web to learn what constitutes a strong password). Make your notebook require the password whenever it is started up, so that if you lose it someone can’t just flip it open and get your stuff. The same goes for your smartphone—always password-protect it. Get a smartphone that also lets you remotely wipe the data if someone steals it.

As a third layer of defense, encrypt the data on your hard drive. That way, if someone pulls out your drive and puts it in another computer, he will not be able to read the contents. If you are Windows user, get a version of Windows that supports BitLocker, which implements this kind of drive encryption. Use this encryption for your external backup drive too.


Once you are lifelogging, I suggest buying some extra equipment to get the fullest enjoyment. Displaying your photographs and video cliplets throughout your home can be immensely rewarding, as a growing number of people are finding. You see something wonderful every day instead of waiting months to get the inclination to dust off the old memories.

If you don’t have a large-screen high-definition TV, buy one, and connect it to a device that can display. If you have Windows Media Center for one of your PCs, you can display media on the TV from the PC using an “extender” such as the Linksys DMA2100, or an Xbox 360. You can also buy LCD screens from HP with built-in extenders. If you are an Apple user, get an Apple TV.

Also, add some small-screen versions of the same thing, such as Samsung’s Photo Frame series. These little picture frames wirelessly connect to your home network to spread your e-memories all over your home, from your end table and kitchen counter.

With these three steps, you are well on your way to living in the Total Recall world. But it is just the beginning. In the coming years Total Recall will get much better as increased storage, better software, and a proliferation of sensor hardware makes the picture complete. Which brings me to the final step… .


The steps above will get you started with Total Recall today, but there is a lot that can be done to make it easier for people to participate in the Total Recall revolution. Total Recall holds great opportunities for entrepreneurs to serve the public—and make a lot of money.

Hardly a week goes by that I don’t hear a pitch from some start-up that wants me as an angel investor or as a board member. Very few win me over. Below is my top ten list of Total Recall ideas I’d like to hear someone pitch to me.


Have you ever seen one of those photo exhibits in which someone has taken a picture of his kids in a set pose over a sequence of years so that you can see them change over time? One fellow, Richard Hanson, has gone even further and taken a picture of his son every single day of his life. The result is utterly compelling, even for us strangers. Imagine if it were of yourself or a loved one. I wish I had a mirror in my hall with a camera behind it that would take my picture every day. Actually, I’d like to give one to each of my grandchildren. An alternative to the mirror would be to put the camera in one of those digital picture frames—then you’d also have a potential videophone.


I’ve already invested in, so you know I like this idea. The company’s chat bots are sitting in servers and providing help services to thousands of customers a day with questions about banking, tax forms, and other service requests. MyCyberTwin is great, but we are still waiting for the first company that can take a heap of someone’s correspondence (e-mail, chats, letters, et cetera) and produce a really convincing impersonation. Any team that can take my corpus and turn it into my digitally immortal chatting self will get my support. And that’s not just vanity—if you can imitate me, you can imitate help-desk personnel and make a ton of money.


It sounds great to declutter your life by scanning all your documents, but full-text search on a heap of files is not always the best way to retrieve information. This service (or program that you run) will automatically group similar items. It will build a knowledge base of every kind of document it can learn about, for example from all major utility and phone companies. It will be able to pull out the date, the total, and who the bill is from. It will create descriptive file names for all your documents and also create a human-readable XML file containing all the information it was able to extract. You can send in a box of documents and get back files with descriptive names in meaningful folders. For example, a file called “AT&T Bill 2008-09-17 total 87.23” in the “AT&T” folder, which is in the “Bills” folder. An accompanying file will include things like the address the bill was sent to and the breakdown of long-distance and local charges.


Microsoft took at stab at unifying all my storage with the WinFS project, but gave up. The idea is to end different data types living in different “silos,” like e-mail in my e-mail app, photos in my photo app, music in my music app, and so on. Instead, I can deal with them all at once and lump some e-mails together with some spreadsheets, or quickly jump from a photo to documents created on the same date. Also, I should be able to add comments and tags to everything, not just a few special types.

Short of a major operating system really solving this, there may be a place for some smaller start-up to hatch an idea for bringing together parts of my scattered data—say, grouping my e-mail with my files, or perhaps my Facebook entries with my chat logs. I’m not sure how such a smaller start-up can succeed in this space, but someone else might have a better imagination for it.


I want something like the SenseCam to take on vacation. It needs to be smaller and more attractive than the SenseCam prototypes I use now. In fact, it ought to become a desirable fashion accessory. It must include GPS and a microphone for voice annotation. It could be a device that talks to my cell phone and uses the cell phone’s storage. Just as important as the hardware is summarization software. I want to go camping with my son’s family for a week. He and I each wear one. At the end, our trip is automatically summarized and photo albums are made. We can view animated maps of our travels. Great photos taken by others of the same place that are publicly available (say, from Flickr) may be included. In short, wear one of these and get a sharp-looking travelogue with zero effort at the end of your trip.


This will actually be a whole class of start-ups. The typical pitch should go like this: We have device X. It is easy to wear, as either part of your clothing, or as a little wristband, or the like. It sends all its data to your cell phone, where an application stores the data and then forwards it either to your PC or to some service in the Internet that logs it forever. It must be easy to recharge. Wear it and forget about it. You’ll get notified when something of interest comes up. Important events might automatically be forwarded to your doctor. The BodyBugg is a forerunner in this area that will include fitness monitors, pacemakers, and hopefully new in-body devices.


As I’ve said, a smart cell phone is a killer device for Total Recall. My cell phone should record my GPS location and call log, record all text messages, support note taking and dear-diary entries—both text and audio, and even video—and store it in the cloud. I’m already invested in reQall, which is a great step in cell-phone-based memory creation. Evernote also looks hot. We created some prototype software in this space and it wasn’t too hard to get to a proof of concept. I expect to see some strong, more comprehensive efforts soon.


Perhaps it could be called Format Master or Yours Forever. The idea is to convert all your files that are in formats that are stale or are fringe formats in danger of becoming stale. Files would be converted to the latest format. In addition, some “ just-in-case versions” could be created, such as PDF print versions of spreadsheets and Web pages. This could be a service that you upload your data to, or you might run a program on your PC. The service should be provided to storage providers. That is, suppose stores files for you. They would contract Format Master to keep your files up to date if you pay them an extra three dollars a year.


What happens to my bits when I die? I need a contract to store my data for two hundred years (including the Format Master service). I should be able to put some information in a time capsule, for example, not releasing the material to my family for twenty years, and only releasing to the public after one hundred years. Furthermore, for those who haven’t been practicing Total Recall, we will want to send a box of their stuff (photos, documents, et cetera) to a service that will scan it all and put it in this digital cemetery. There are already some companies doing memorials and promising storage, but I still see room for a really innovative company to take this to new heights.


Storage must be safe from hackers, safely backed up, and plausibly deniable. It would be preferable if the data bank only ever saw my encrypted bits, so it couldn’t divulge what it has, even if it wanted to. There will be specialty Swiss data banks, such as a health data bank or financial records data bank (like HealthVault and Wells Fargo, respectively, but with deniability). Whoever can build the most trusted brand name will reap big rewards. Perception will be as important as the technology; the slightest doubts about your brand could kill the business. A variant on the concept would set up peer-to-peer encrypted storage to virtually eliminate storage costs for the provider, while adding another layer between governments and your data.