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

Part I

Chapter 1. THE VISION

I’m losing my mind.

Not the Gordon-needs-a-high-priced-psychiatrist kind of losing one’s mind, although my teenage granddaughter may disagree. Instead, each day that passes I forget more and remember less. I don’t have Alzheimer’s or even brain damage. I’m just aging.

Yes, each day I’m losing a little bit more of my mind. By the way, so are you.

What if you could overcome this fate? What if you never had to forget anything, but had complete control over what you remembered—and when?

Soon, you will be able to. You will have the capacity for Total Recall. You will be able to summon up everything you have ever seen, heard, or done. And you will be in total control, able to retrieve as much or as little as you want at any given time.

Right now, if someone had even a single photo from each day of her life, we would be amazed. But soon you will be able to record your entire life digitally. It’s possible, affordable, and beneficial.

If you choose, you’ll be able to create this digital diary or e-memory continuously as you go about your life. This will be nearly effortless, because you’ll have access to an assortment of tiny, unobtrusive cameras, microphones, location trackers, and other sensing devices that can be worn in shirt buttons, pendants, tie clips, lapel pins, brooches, watchbands, bracelet beads, hat brims, eyeglass frames, and earrings. Even more radical sensors will be available to implant inside your body, quantifying your health. Together with various other sensors embedded in the gadgets and tools you use and peppered throughout your environment, your personal sensor network will allow you to record as much or as little as you want of what happens to you and around you.

If you choose, everything you see can be automatically photographed and spirited away into your personal image library within your e-memory. Everything you hear can be saved as digital audio files. Software can allow you to scan your pictures for writing and your audio files for words to come up with searchable text transcripts of your life. If you choose, you can save every e-mail you send and receive and archive every Web page you visit. You can record your location and path through the world. You can record every rise and dip in your heart rate, body temperature, blood sugar, anxiety, arousal, and alertness, and log them into your personal health file.

The coming world of Total Recall will be as dramatic a change in the coming generation as the digital age has been for the present generation. It will change the way we work and learn. It will unleash our creativity and improve our health. It will change our intimate relationships with loved ones both living and dead. It will, I believe, change what it means to be human.

Three streams of technology are coming together to make the world of Total Recall a reality. First, and perhaps most important, we are recording more and more of our lives digitally without even trying. Digital cameras, e-mail, cell phones, and personal digital assistants (PDAs) are the vanguard of technology that is generating an explosion of digital records of our daily lives. Digital sensing and recording will become ubiquitous. Second, this mountain of new personal digital records can now be stored more cheaply than can easily be imagined—for about two hundred dollars you can own enough memory to store everything you read, everything you hear, and ten pictures a day for your whole life. Third, technologies enabling you to search, analyze, and present all kinds of reports from such large mountains of data are being developed, with astonishing results. Google will by no means be the last extraordinarily successful company to be built on new search technologies. So, we live in a world with more digital memories, more space to store them, and better and better technology to recollect them. The world of Total Recall is inevitable for these three reasons.

With the same ease with which you can now search for just about any subject on the Web, you will be able to search your own electronic memory for any arbitrary item of knowledge you have ever encountered, any snippet of conversation to which you have ever been party, any document that has ever passed before your eyes, any place you have ever visited, any person you have ever met. You become the librarian, archivist, cartographer, and curator of your life.

The ability to recover particular events, names, faces, and words is just the most obvious benefit of the Total Recall revolution. Software will allow you to sort and sift through your digital memories to uncover patterns in your life you could never have gleaned with your unaided brain. Your work habits, your leisure habits, and your spending habits; your emotional response patterns in various situations and around certain people; the numerous subtle factors that affect your mental well-being and your physical health; and just about anything else you care to know about yourself can be chronicled, condensed, cross-correlated, and plotted out for you in useful and illuminating ways. Your goals and achievements for time management, budgeting, and balancing all aspects of your life, work, and health can be tracked through progress charts you set up for yourself. Having access to such detailed and personally relevant feedback is one of the most potent spurs to motivation and productivity to be had.

Now imagine a complete digital record of your life, a complete e-memory of your time on earth. Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Shakespeare, Mozart, Edison, and Einstein are dead but their ideas, their deeds, and their personalities have achieved a sort of immortality. Few aspire to be remembered along with history’s great characters, but by recording your life digitally you have the opportunity to bequeath your own ideas, deeds, and personality to posterity in a way never before possible. With such a body of information it will be possible to generate a virtual you even after you are dead. Your digital memories, along with the patterns of fossilized personality they contain, may be invested into an avatar (a synthesized persona) that future generations can speak with and get to know. Imagine asking your great-grandfather about what he really loved about your great-grandmother. Your digital self will reach out to touch lives in the future, allowing you to make an impact for generations to come.

The era of Total Recall is dawning, whatever you personally choose to do with the technology. You may embrace full-scale “life logging,” and devote much effort to maximizing your e-memories, or you may prefer to record your activities only modestly and selectively, or even reject the whole idea and strive to leave as small a digital life-footprint as possible. People felt and continue to feel disdain for the Internet and even personal computers. Some of us don’t want a cell phone. No matter. Whether you are an early adopter, a late adopter, or a never-in-a-million-years nonadopter, society at large is on an inexorable path toward Total Recall technology and it is going to transform the world around you. The power of this transformation will be awesome.


Total Recall is arriving in a blaze of innovation. There are ever more ways being developed and packaged for gathering information from the world and from our lives and putting it to myriad uses. People the world over are gabbing, texting, picture-taking, video-capturing, and Web-surfing on their cell phones. Phones and cameras can now send pictures automatically to a Web site where they can be grouped, culled, and annotated later. Parents take zillions of hours of video footage of their children with pocket-size cameras that dump directly into their home computers. Casual joggers can now analyze their performance at levels once reserved for world-class runners, tracking their metabolic burn rates and the lengths, times, and elevation profiles of their runs using small, affordable devices worn on their bodies. You can buy a bathroom scale that automatically sends your weight to an encrypted Web site where you can examine your progress (or lack thereof) in cold, hard, objective numbers. College students can time-sync their typed notes to their audio recording of a lecture, allowing them to relisten to part of the lecture later by clicking on one of their notes.

This cornucopia of information-gathering devices continues to grow in size and diversity while the devices themselves continue to grow smaller, cheaper, and more multifunctional. Meanwhile the cost of digital memory continues its exponential descent. When it comes to recording information, the technology stream is gushing toward ubiquity and saturation, toward a world in which price and convenience will no longer be factors when deciding what or whether to record. Indeed, we are headed toward a world where it will require a conscious decision (or a legal requirement) not to record a certain kind of information in a certain time or place—the exact reverse of how things are now. The technological and economic forces driving this trend are strong. Arguably, only a vast legal or political effort of social engineering can prevent it from effecting far-reaching changes in the way modern life is lived. That sort of catastrophic counterrevolution sounds far-fetched, but there are more realistic scenarios that I will discuss in Chapter 8.

E-memories will provide every person who embraces them with a different sense of their whole lives. It won’t erase human nature’s capacity for self-deception, but it will surely make the truth of what we did and what happened around us more available, clearer, and less obscured by nostalgic make-believe. The benefits will also be distinctly practical. In the chapters ahead I will describe these benefits in the workplace, to our health, and in our capacity for learning. Higher productivity, more vitality and longer life spans, deeper and wider knowledge of our world and ways to accomplish things in it—these are all wonderful practical consequences of this coming technological revolution. But there will also be psychological implications. Enhanced self-insight, the ability to relive one’s own life story in Proustian detail, the freedom to memorize less and think creatively more, and even a measure of earthly immortality by being cyberized—these are all potentially transformational psychological phenomena.

But is it really feasible to record everything that happens in a person’s life? Shockingly perhaps, the memory needed to store a person’s lifetime of recorded experience is already here and affordable and is always growing cheaper. The rate of price decrease is given by Moore’s Law, which states that the transistor density that can be etched onto the silicon wafer of a microchip doubles every two years. This means that every two years, the cost of computer memory is cut in half—so you can afford to buy twice as much as last year. Moore’s Law was first published in 1965 and has held up with remarkable consistency ever since.

The growth of digital storage capacity has been staggering. In 1970, a disk that could store twenty megabytes (twenty million bytes) was the size of a washing machine and cost twenty thousand dollars. Today a terabyte (one trillion bytes) costs a hundred dollars and is the size of a paperback book. By 2020 a terabyte will cost the same as a good cup of coffee and will probably be in your cell phone. One hundred dollars will then buy you around 250 terabytes of storage, enough to hold tens of thousands of hours of video and tens of millions of photographs. This should satisfy most lifeloggers’ recording needs for an entire life.

In fact, digital storage capacity is increasing faster than our ability to pull information back out. Once upon a time, you had to be extremely judicious and stingy about which pieces of data you hung on to. You had to be thrifty with your electronic pieces of information, or bits, as we call them. But starting around 2000 it became trivial and cheap to sock away tremendous piles of data. The hard part is no longer deciding what to hold on to, but how to efficiently organize it, sort it, access it, and find patterns and meaning in it. This is a primary challenge for the engineers developing the software that will fully unleash the power of Total Recall.

Where is the desktop PC in this Total Recall revolution? Its impending downfall has been predicted by Silicon Valley denizens for years. I believe the PC is destined for a demotion but is unlikely to vanish. The P in PC will still stand for “personal”—in fact, it will be more personal than ever before, involved in every aspect of your life. But the C will change from computer to computer ecosystem . Your desktop computer will be just one of many tools at your disposal for e-memory management. You will own an assortment of small, fungible, more modest computers—in fact, you probably already do. They are in your cell phone, in your appliances, and in your car. Increasingly, they will be in your clothes and on your body. They will be virtually everywhere.

C will also stand for cloud. This refers to a new way of using the Internet in which data gets stored and software is run “out there” in the abstract ether of cyberspace—in the cloud—rather than locally on your own PC. Ultimately, the cloud turns information processing and storage into a metered utility just like electricity and water (with the difference that there will be many free offerings). It’s like having the power of computers “on tap.”

With cloud computing, your data becomes untethered from particular devices. Your e-memory follows you wherever you go, accessible from any device you happen to be using. You, not your desktop’s hard drive, are the hub of your digital belongings. Many of us experience this now with our e-mail, which we access from our desktop PC, our notebook PC, our smartphones, or any device we might borrow with a Web browser. Increasingly, everything in your e-memory will be accessible anywhere, anytime, from any device at hand.

Of course, many of your devices will have vast storage; your cell phone will hold more than a terabyte, and your notebook computer will carry more than two hundred terabytes. So think of every device you own as part of the cloud too. You can tap into a service provider, but you can also tap your home servers, your portable devices, and possibly those of your friends (they may keep a backup copy for you). And chances are that a copy of most things you will want will already be there in your notebook or cell phone.

Just as the cloud will offer digital storage, it will also offer incredible processing power. This will range from your cell phone asking for extra help from a couple of machines in your home, to paying a fee to rent a few thousand computers from some service provider for a couple of minutes. Your health information might be mined for patterns by a couple of servers in your home. A service provider might keep the index of all your information up to date so that your cell phone isn’t slowed down by index “crawling.”

Of course, even today’s smartphones already boast impressive processing power, doing things like voice recognition, movie playback, and running full-blown databases. For most tasks you will already have enough computing at hand. However, cloud processing isn’t always just about computational muscle. Cloud processing can also provide simplicity. Instead of installing and maintaining software in all of the computing devices in your home, it can be much simpler to install to just one home server, and have the other devices just act as terminals to the server. Then you only have one computer that requires upgrades, license verification, and other management drudgery. The same can happen across the Internet, and we already see Internet-based alternatives to traditional desktop software, including e-mail, instant messaging, word processing, spreadsheets, and backups.

In the future, you probably won’t know or care whether an application is running on your device, or whether it is running in a cloud server and your device is just a terminal. Ray Ozzie, Microsoft’s chief software architect, describes it this way:

All your devices will be appliance-like. You’ll buy them to suit your need or tastes. Phones, PCs, Xboxes, whatever. You’ll go to the Web and license software that is intended to be used on these various appliance-like devices. When you turn it on and log-in for the first time and “claim” the device as yours, the things that should be on it (the right data, the appropriate version of a given app for that kind of device) simply appear. When you run the app and use the data, it is automatically sync’ed so that there’s only ever temporarily a “dirty” copy of data or settings on the device that isn’t also present in the cloud. When you recycle a device and “unclaim” or “disown” it, your stuff vanishes.

Many Web service providers are in the same boat with you. They often don’t care where your data or where their own data actually resides, because they, too, may outsource their storage and processing needs, paying for whatever capacity they use when and as they use it. Many companies run their entire businesses using remote servers, without having to invest in computers, storage, or associated software. To serve this need, Amazon, which has vast amounts of excess storage, has a service called EC2, for Elastic Compute Cloud. Likewise, Microsoft has Azure, a cloud-based operating system that will let companies develop and run Web applications without setting up their own data center. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has predicted that nearly all Internet data centers will be outsourced in this way by 2020.

Cloud computing will lead to a single, integrated e-memory experience. Every device will act as an access point to recall from your e-memory. And every device will also become a source of information feeding into your e-memory, helping to record your experience.

Most people’s cloud-interface device of choice is going to be a small, lightweight device that combines the functions of a cell phone, a camera, a personal digital assistant, a Web browser, an MP3 player, a GPS locator, and any other sensors and functions that can be crammed into it. Early versions of these devices are already abundant. They’re called smartphones (e.g., iPhone, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Symbian, Palm, and Android). As smartphones become better at many traditionally PC-based functions, trusty but less agile laptops are being left at home. Sales representatives tap into customer databases five minutes before meeting with clients. Managers track inventories in real time. Physicians call up medical records and lab reports while standing at a patient’s bedside.

Your smartphone plus whatever sensors and miscellaneous devices you wear and carry will all be linked together to form a personal digital memory collection-and-management system that will (if you choose) be able to record just about everything you see, hear, and do and keep it all in one big virtual collection in the cloud. The uses of such an archive are limitless.

Consider the fact that currently, nearly every financial transaction you make—making a deposit, withdrawing cash, paying with a credit or debit card—is registered electronically as a unique event. Every month when you open your statements you can see the trail you have left, which is geographical as well as financial, with entries like “01/07/08 32.60 **Australian Dollars 29.10 MOS CAFE SYDNEY NSW; 01/08/08 VIZZVOX INC WY 99.00; 01/12/08 MICROSOFT *ZUNE OFFICE SUPPLY STORE 00877-438-9863 WA 15.00” ; and so on.

Imagine extending this trend to all the recordable events in your life that you can imagine ever wanting to be able to recall or examine or contextualize at a later date: where you went, how you got there, who you met, what you did, what was said, how your vital signs varied, who you called, what you read, what you wrote, what you looked at, what pictures you took . . . all these things and more can be automatically recorded and saved, indexed, filed, and cross-referenced by time, location, and other natural linkages to make them easy to refind later and to sift through for patterns and trends.

While much of the technology for Total Recall is already available—e-mail, cell phone, camera, home videos, social-networking sites, photo- and video-management sites, and so on—these many pieces remain isolated and fragmented. They are not yet integrated by a single set of tools or unified under a common interface. The current e-memory ecosystem is relatively fraught with inconveniences: nonportable data formats, the need to keep on top of dozens of passwords and personal profiles, short battery life, and data fragmented across devices and applications. As these impediments disappear, led by the shift to cloud computing and the evolution of hardware, the e-memory experience will be transformed, and the technology of Total Recall will become a reality in most people’s lives.


Such a massive change can be frightening. Won’t the government access all our e-memories and spy on us? Since George Orwell published his masterpiece novel 1984, the idea of government as Big Brother has loomed large in rational critiques of real government policies as well as in conspiracy theorist outcry. We like to use the term Little Brother. If Big Brother rules the authoritarian vision of a surveillance society, Little Brother rules the “democratized” vision. It is a society of omnipresent surveillance in which the recording equipment is not controlled by a single central authority, but by millions of individuals and private entities. Total Recall is perfectly consistent with social values behind the inspiration of the Internet, in which I’m proud to say I also played an early role.

Our culture will need to develop a whole new body of etiquette about who may record whom when and where. Our sense of privacy will continue to evolve, as it has since everyone knew everyone else’s business in the village life of agricultural economies. There is more to say on this subject and potential unintended consequences in the coming age of Total Recall. I’ll get to those issues in the third part of this book, after we look at the big impacts it will have on these key areas of life: the workplace, our health, our capacity for learning, and our most personal intimate relationships. In the remainder of this first part of the book we’ll look at a bit of the history that got us here, my part in the revolution so far, and what the proliferation of e-memories and their use is going to do to the memories in our heads.


The arc of human development from the Stone Age through the present can be seen as an ongoing quest for Total Recall. One thing that has defined our progress as the preeminent species on the planet has been our ability to develop better and better systems of memory.

Our greatest innovation was language, a unique system for representing, storing, and sharing knowledge. Language made us into the first and only truly cultural animal, able to share both highly specific and powerfully abstract bits of knowledge across societies and down through generations.

The next great turning point in human development was the invention of writing, which it became necessary to invent as the needs of record keeping in agrarian city-states outstripped the limits of naked memory. Thanks to writing, human knowledge snow-balled over just a few thousand years and brought us most recently into the Information Age. Around the middle of the last century the digital computer joined our mnemonic arsenal and rapidly precipitated another epochal change in how we manage our knowledge. A mere generation ago, the amassing of information was so expensive that a world of Total Recall could be no more than a wild science-fiction dream.

But themes of Total Recall have been explored in science fiction for decades.

In Hominids, Robert J. Sawyer imagines the citizen of the future sporting a body-implanted “companion” computer that transmits information about his or her location, as well as three-dimensional images of exactly what he or she is doing, to an “alibi archive.” The archive protects against false accusations.

In The Truth Machine, James Halperin describes a world where not only is recording common, but everyone testifies using a perfect lie detector. Crime is drastically reduced. But when people want to talk candidly in a free and open discussion, they must turn off their recording equipment.

The 2004 movie The Final Cut depicts a world where people pay to have their babies’ brains implanted with memory chips, called Zoes, that record everything those children see and hear throughout their lives. When the person dies, the chip is removed and a professional “cutter”—in this case a somber Robin Williams—goes through the chip’s footage to edit his or her life down to a (flattering) feature-length movie called a Rememory, which is played for friends and family at the memorial. Cutters can make “saints out of criminals,” as Williams’s character does with the life of a child abuser. The movie also shows protesters with placards demanding “the right to forget” and darkly depicts the lengths to which some people might be willing to go to get their hands on the private life recordings of a political enemy.

Another common theme of sci fi is digital immortality, whereby a person’s lifetime of experience, knowledge, and personality are simulated by a computer. In the Superman movies, the Fortress of Solitude can create an on-screen likeness of Superman’s wise and stately father, Jor-El, which is able to answer questions about Kryp tonian history, technology, and culture. In the British TV sitcom Red Dwarf the last human in the universe, David Lister, is forced to endure the company of a hologramatic simulation of his insufferable prat of an ex-crewmate, Arnold Rimmer. And in the American TV espionage series La Femme Nikita, the character Madeline is virtually resurrected in a similar fashion. As the character Quinn explains: “Madeline’s psychological and analytical profiles were extensively documented. It was a question of merging them with [an] artificial intelligence program.” Thus the steely intelligence director—or at least, the benefit of her lifetime of experience—continues to aid the living after her death.

Science fiction can be fun and stimulating, but one of the best recent sketches of what Total Recall might actually look like comes from Donald Norman’s 1992 nonfiction book, Turn Signals Are the Facial Expression of Automobiles. Norman, an expert on human-machine interface and design, proposes that in the future everyone will have a lifelong companion he called the Teddy—a “personal life recorder.”

In Norman’s vision, this device would be issued very early in life, perhaps at age two or three, and dressed up in the guise of a toddler-friendly toy. Because the devices would be in the hands of young children, the first life recorder would be soft and cuddly, like a plush bear—hence the name Teddy. The Teddy needn’t be limited to just the passive recording of a child’s actions and words. It could be designed to be interactive, and help him or her learn to read, write, draw, and sing.

By starting so young, the Teddy would end up storing a great deal of your life experience. You would become quite intimate with your Teddy. It would “know” all about you and could answer questions about your past. At the same time, it could give you access to knowledge and information from the Internet and other sources. When you outgrew your stuffed-animal phase, your Teddy would change form to match your growing sophistication and interests. Its guise would change, but its complete record of your personal experiences and knowledge would always follow you.


The Teddy is science fiction, but just barely. Total Recall is coming, and young children might be one of the first segments of society to have it applied to them. Many parents won’t be able to resist. Today’s children are already extensively surveilled. They are monitored by microphone while they sleep. They are relentlessly photographed and videoed by camera-happy grown-ups. Some are even fitted with directional radio or GPS tracking devices while out and about. Some preschools provide live Web cameras so parents can look in on the kids’ activities from work. Some parents buy “nanny cams,” which allow them to spy on their children’s caretakers and other domestic help. (Superficially echoing Norman, nanny cams can be bought in the guise of teddy bears.) Older kids are given cell phones so that they, unlike every previous generation, never have any excuse for being unreachable or untraceable for longer than the time it takes to drive through a tunnel.

Parents do all this for two reasons: for their children’s safety (or perceived safety), and to create a trove of memories of what they were like at each fleeting stage of development. The new wave of cheap and unobtrusive recording devices extends parents’ already widely exercised ability to monitor and record their precious charges. Given today’s ethos of “hyperparenting,” it’s hard to imagine the trend stalling or reversing anytime soon. For all these reasons, we can expect one of the vanguards of lifelogging to be children. These are the same future citizens who will be the most enthusiastic and least conflicted about embracing the technology of Total Recall.

But we don’t have to wait for the current crop of toddlers to grow up to see if this prediction will come true. The current crop of young adults is itself a convincing case for the inevitability of Total Recall as common practice.

The Millennials, also known as Generation Y, are the cohort of Americans born approximately between 1982 and 2001. They came of age with Google, cell-phone cameras, file sharing, text messaging, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Second Life, and Twitter (the online-community service where friends and families post frequent, 140-words-or-less “microblog” entries about whatever they happen to be doing or thinking at that moment). A few formed software companies and became millionaires in their twenties.

The seventy-million-plus Millennials are adept at multitasking. They listen to music, do homework, watch TV, and send instant messages—simultaneously. Nearly all own cell phones and computers. They snap pictures wherever they go. They socialize quite a lot online, chatting, trading music, and playing video games. Many stay in touch with their cliques so obsessively, they can’t bear to turn off their cell phones for a fifty-minute classroom session. If they misplace their smartphone, they feel as if they’ve lost their minds.

Of course, no group of millions of people is going to be monolithic. Studies show that not all Millennials are as tech-savvy as legend would have it, but even the unsavvy ones tend to be much less intimidated by technology they don’t understand than their parents would be. This generation makes far less distinction between their private and public lives than even slightly older generations. The Internet is littered with millions upon millions of their blog entries, their photo streams, their fan fiction, their chat-forum entries, their comments on all of these things, and of course their comments on comments. Scads of them post everything from their youthful hijinks to their intimate confessions on YouTube. Posted videos often elicit avalanches of video responses, many of them raw and unrehearsed, showing the responders’ unfiltered, unedited reactions—on a site that literally billions of people can view.

Those who put their lives up on the Web for others to view are called life bloggers (blog being short for “Web log”). I am a lifelog ger, not a life blogger. That is, I log my life into my e-memory. I may be old-fashioned, but it strikes me as foolish to publish too much, especially to an unrestricted audience. There’s too much risk and too little benefit. My lifelogging is personal and private. I do it for the very pragmatic value that it gives back to me. Unlike those making the effort to create blog entries and YouTube clips, most of my lifelogging is automatic. When I share, I do it cautiously, considering the trustworthiness of the individual recipients. Public publishing is only for what I am glad to have the world associate with me—forever. Once out on the Web it is easily copied, so you cannot “take it back ”—it has become part of the permanent cyber landscape (or landfill) forever. If you are one of those who really want to share everything with the world, go ahead, it is your right. But I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

While the first decade of the twenty-first century has seen a proliferation of digital life-chronicling, much of it is still ephemera, tossed-off throwaway documents like nineteenth-century theater billings and political pamphlets (which historians now drool over, by the way). Most of this chronicling is still haphazard: Parties, outings, and weekends are extensively digitally commemorated, but drives to school, study sessions, and dinner at the grandparents’ are not. I’ve observed people who are happy to record minutely from their lives, but they aren’t systematic about it. They record the things they think are important or cool or memorable at the time, but they don’t yet record everything they see, hear, do, send, receive, read, and compose.

This isn’t necessarily reticence on their part, because the software tools and hardware accompaniments for easy lifelogging aren’t readily available yet—not quite yet. Through the decade of the 2010s, user-friendly lifelogging applications will proliferate just like any other software niche, and a plethora of cheap devices for sensing, tracking, and compiling all kinds of information from all corners of life will pour steadily into the consumer-electronics market. As this happens, we will see lifelogging start to catch on with the Millennial generation, and older generations too.


It’s impossible to know exactly how long it will take for lifelogging to become common practice, but it’s almost a sure bet that it will do so within a decade. Abstaining from lifelogging will begin to seem more like avoiding the use of e-mail or cell phones, because so many advantages and conveniences will be foregone. Those who shun recording will be less empowered than those who embrace it.

You probably already spend a good deal of time each year filing away receipts, checkbooks, financial statements, photos, article clippings, and sentimental or souvenir items such as birthday cards and ticket stubs. You probably also take some time to label and annotate certain items to make them easier to later refind them and figure out what you kept them for.

Total Recall just means storing and annotating things digitally instead of physically. It will not be any more time-intensive; in fact it will probably be less time-intensive, and the amount of information will be orders of magnitude larger. Digital records take less time to file, take up almost no space, and are easy to search. Pioneers like me might be manually filing records by scanning or snapping photos of them, typing or speaking quick notes about items that need explanation, even composing longer stories as I create the record. But soon so much of that will be as automated as your bank account statement.

You won’t have to worry about forgetting someone’s name, face, or details of the conversations you have throughout each day. When you want to recall what someone said, you’ll be able to search for phrases or keywords. If the search brings up too many results, you’ll be able to narrow it down by other criteria: I remember it was said while I was on a trip to Atlanta. The person who said it was a woman, and I think she wore glasses. I’m sure it happened before I took my current job. Given enough criteria, even vague ones, a good search program will usually be able to find exactly what you are looking for.

Imagine the ability to scan the past with the ease that would put Google to shame. Imagine how it could affect therapy sessions, friendly wagers, court testimony, lovers’ spats (of course, metajudgments like “It’s the way he said it” or “You didn’t really mean it” will never go away). Imagine how easy it will be to prove that repairs were done, that a salesman went back on his word, or that the dog really did eat your homework. Think of how nice it would be to have recordings of childhood conversations with your best friend, or a complete audio library of the millions of priceless things your kids said when they were toddlers. What were those first baby words, really?

Just as important as the ability to search will be the ability to data-mine your e-memory archive, to find correlations and multidimensional patterns in your life experience. Your e-memory archive could give you insight into how you spend your time. Click a button and see a chart of how much exercise you have been doing in the last month, or year. Compare it to what you did when you were sixteen, or in the summer versus the winter. Or check how often you smile. Compare that to before you were married—or divorced. Total Recall can be a time-management gold mine, allowing you to define your goals or set standards for yourself and then track how they compare with your actual behavior. Maybe you are spending too much time managing your e-memories. Check it.

With the right software you will be able to mine your digital memory archive for patterns and trends that you could never uncover on your own—graphing, charting, sorting, cross-sectioning, and testing for hidden correlations among all your bits. Imagine if you could bring into a single database all the pictures you take, all the places you visit, all the routes you take, all your notes and annotations, all your e-mails, along with room temperatures, weather conditions, diet, activity, whom you met with, your meeting cancellations, what you read, when you worked, what TV shows you watched, your mood swings, your flashes of inspiration. What would happen if you could take that whole slurry of life-history fragments and run it all through a powerful pattern-detection program? What kinds of patterns might you find?

Digital memories can improve your health and extend your life. Equipped with new generations of personal sensing devices, you’ll be able to collect torrents of physiological data from yourself—alpha waves, dips in cortisol, temperature, pulse, sweating, and scores of other measures—in real time.

And the health benefits of Total Recall aren’t limited to those with known health risks. Whether it’s sticking to your exercise plan, watching your weight, battling insomnia, managing allergies, tracking down the causes of a recurring rash, gaining control of your stress and anxiety responses, or training your mind to focus better, your best and most often used tool is going to be an easily and totally recallable continuous physiological e-memory.


I hate to lose my memories. I want Total Recall.

This isn’t a pipe dream. I know that three streams of technology advancement—recording, storage, and sophisticated recall—have already launched the beginning of the Total Recall era. It is absolutely clear that by 2020 these streams of technology will have matured to give the complete Total Recall experience.

I don’t work on anything unless I see a practical payoff. I got started in this by wanting to get rid of all the paper in my life. Then I wanted better recall; then a better story to leave to my grandchildren. Soon I became aware of potential benefits for my health, my studies, and even a sense of psychological well-being from decluttering both my physical space and my brain. As time passes, I become more and more excited about the benefits of Total Recall.

As you read on about Total Recall, I’ll tell you more about my own story, and I’ll elaborate on the incredible gains that Total Recall will supply across so many areas of life. In the last section of the book, I’ll discuss how to put these ideas into practice, and explain how you can stop losing your mind and get started creating your own e-memories.