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

Part III


New technologies have always forced mankind to adapt to new realities, from iron tools to mobile phones. The changes worked on our societies by powered machinery were so radical that we refer to the industrial “revolution.” We are now beginning the Total Recall revolution.

I’m a technologist, not a Luddite, so I’ll leave abstract discussions about whether we should turn back the clock to others. Total Recall is inevitable regardless of such discussions. However, as a realist I also know that we must come to grips with the implications of our technology. Some implications I see as “bugs” to be fixed. For example, an unresolved bug of the industrial revolution is pollution. Other implications are simply changes that we must adapt to, such as modern transportation implying that one can commute to work and get fresh fruit from another continent.

This chapter is about the changes generated by Total Recall, both the bugs to be fixed, and the adaptations that will be required. These changes are mostly about what happens to our e-memories once we have them. Could we lose them? Could they fall into the wrong hands? What is their proper use? Different cultures may come up with different answers. Technology will yield unintended negative consequences and pleasant surprises too. If the answers aren’t all clear, most of the questions are.


Right now we face data decay and loss. Data often only exists in one place, so a crash of the host device means permanent loss of the data. Files formats may become unreadable over time. We need improved data longevity.

One morning in the fall of 2008 my notebook computer wouldn’t start up. I was in Australia and it was all I had. I broke out in a sweat. Questions fired off in my mind: Is the hard drive shot? How much isn’t backed up? How will I get my e-memory back in action? I decided the biggest problems would be a presentation and some articles if the disk was bad, because they had no backup. I also faced the hassle of paying bills without Microsoft Money, which I’ve come to count on.

Fortunately I had backed everything up onto my assistant’s machine in San Francisco two weeks before getting on the plane. I could download my e-memory as of two weeks ago from her, or I could just use it straight off her machine when I was on the Internet. My most recent e-mail was intact because it was on our corporate e-mail server.

This episode reminded me that I need to be prepared to lose whatever is not backed up. I had just finished authoring a presentation and was crazy not to have copied it to a USB thumb drive.

I believe the chief obstacle to data longevity is low expectations. For too long, too many of us have been content to see the data in our PCs, PDAs, and cell phones as transient. We shrug at losing the phone numbers from our cell phones, or not being able to do anything with files on an old floppy disk. This tolerance for data decay was natural when personal computers were new and few people had any experience with electronic storage. Fortunately, a couple of decades into widespread computer usage, we are learning better. I’m encouraged by signs of this trend, for example, seeing that Dell notebooks ship with Dell DataSafe Online software installed to perform backups to their site.

Protecting against outright data loss involves two techniques: replication and backup. Replication means that a copy is made of every bit of data you own. The more copies, the better. It is best to make copies that are located far away from each other, so that a hurricane, earthquake, or fire doesn’t destroy all of the copies at once. Such geographic replication has been commonly employed by Fortune 500 companies for many years; a bank cannot tolerate even the thought of losing all its account balances.

Backup is a little different than replication. A replica is important, but what if you accidentally change an important file? The next day you look at the file and realize you’ve wiped out some valuable information. You can’t turn to a replica, because it has faithfully copied your destructive changes. A backup is a snapshot of your data at a given moment, to cover you in the event that you need to get back to an older version.

Consumer software to perform replication and backup is readily available and even free in some cases. Pretty good solutions are already in place. Higher demand will give us all the solutions we could want at an affordable price. The bug of outright data loss has already been fixed with replication and backup, so we just need to ask for it—and the more of us who ask for it the better and cheaper it will get.

However, outright loss is not the only threat to our data’s longevity. We may also experience data decay. Suppose you are user of SuperPhotoEdit version 3.0 and you create a collage of family vacation pictures. Ten years later, you launch version 8.3, and try to load the old collage, only to see “File format not supported.” Or, even worse, you have a new computer, and have no desire to buy SuperPhotoEdit. All you want is to see your collage, but you are two hundred dollars and a half hour of installing away from that.

Will your data be readable fifty years from now? Jim Gemmell and I posted some audio files on the Web in 1997 and about five years later they couldn’t be played. The team at Microsoft in charge of such things explained that their license for the format had expired and the company that had the rights to the format had gone bankrupt. It was illegal to make the clips playable, with no real likelihood that the company would ever be resurrected to make it legal again. It was a dead format.

I call this the “Dear Appy” problem, after a flight of fancy in which I imagined poor forlorn data, utterly abandoned, writing a letter to the application that created it:

Dear Appy,

I thought we had a commitment. You were going to understand and support me forever. What happened? Where are you?

Lost and Forgotten Data

A really complete solution to Dear Appy would be able to emulate any hardware, operating system, and application for all time. Then you could run the old program and open your file. That isn’t going to happen, but most of what we want and need is not rocket science; it is possible with a little care and, again, by our demanding new software and services rather than being content with the status quo. I’ll cover some practical steps for today in Chapter 9, and look into the future for Dear Appy in Chapter 10.


No one can take away your bio-memories, but some of your e-memories might not even belong to you. Were I to resign from Microsoft right now, they would immediately demand that I perform a partial e-lobotomy, removing all work-related e-memories.

When Jim Gray went missing, there was a fair bit of consternation about what to do with his notebook computer. It was loaded with all kinds of Microsoft information, some being proprietary to the company. It also contained quite a few photos and a fair bit of correspondence that was quite personal. Microsoft wasn’t so sure it would be a good idea to give Jim’s wife, Donna, access to the information. What if she saw something confidential? Donna felt uncomfortable having Microsoft employees looking at it before she did. What if they saw something very private? Microsoft, having possession of the machine, had the advantage. It took nearly a year for Donna to be given the data that Microsoft had deemed as being fit for her eyes. Donna naturally wonders if some things were deleted (perhaps by mistake) that need not have been, and if some things were seen that she wished to remain unseen. If Jim had left it at home, the situation would have played out in the same way but with the roles reversed.

It will be interesting to see how society adapts to e-memories in the workplace. Surely there will be an evolution of law and employment contracts—which, in day-to-day practice, people may pay as little attention to as they do to posted speed limits. How many of the millions who will legally commit to delete e-memories will actually do so, given no possible way for anyone to ever verify if they really did it? Contracts may stipulate nonretention of e-memories, but any teeth in such agreements will be regarding disclosure, not retention.

I can’t imagine maintaining separate computers for work and personal memories. Even having separate e-mail accounts for all the different organizations that might want me to purge certain memories would be ridiculous. I have a separate personal e-mail account, but I receive personal e-mails on my work account and work-related e-mails on my personal account. My calendar is an intermixing of work and personal life.

My data is entangled.

I try to organize everything I have to separate work memories from personal ones, but it’s tough. I know I will end up with information on the work side that really is part of my personal story—for example, hotel and airline arrangements for my business travel. Likewise, I no doubt have recorded chat sessions with Jim Gemmell that include a few lines about, say, company reorganization in the middle of stories of our daily lives.

If I care most about leaving my story to posterity, I’ll err on the side of marking things personal. If I care most about not ending up in a lawsuit, I’ll err on the side of calling items work-related. I can’t think of how to make things better, apart from improved tools for marking items as work or personal. Maybe that’s a bug we can fix. Maybe that’s just reality we must adapt to.


One change we will have to adapt to is having vastly more knowledge about ourselves. I’ve already covered how this self-knowledge will improve such things as health. But some people have shared with me a worry that they may learn things about themselves that they don’t really want to know—the depressing truth may get out. They go further than the Soviets, who erased what they didn’t like from their history; these folk would erase everything just in case there might be something they don’t like.

They ask: Do we really want to know all this stuff? Liam Bannon, writing in favor of forgetting, offers up the inarguable: “More data do not imply better-quality decisions.” Of course that’s true—but flawed human memories do not imply quality decisions either.

There are many instances where you need more data to get a better picture of things. One example would be tracking your heartbeat for an entire month so as to not miss a few key events. For people reviewing performance or progress, an accurate record can make all the difference over a fuzzy and rationalized memory.

In the world of business, we do not hear arguments against record keeping or concerns that facing the truth is inferior to a comfortably dimmed memory. Accountants do not spend their lunch breaks debating the need to forget or whether storing every single transaction might clutter the record too much. To the contrary, it has become established business practice to write down clear and measurable goals, to measure your performance, and then to look back at your performance compared to your predictions to see how you did.

In sports, athletes carefully record their batting average, save percentage, race time, or whatever measure applies to them. They don’t rely on their memory of how they tend to play toward the end of games; their fourth-quarter statistics are compared to other quarters. Even in youth sports, elaborate statistics are kept and young players desiring to improve their game watch videos of themselves with commentary from a coach or trainer.

The question may well be: How much truth can you take? An athlete may feel uncomfortable watching a video of herself using incorrect technique, and the salesman may squirm to look back on his projections, but such is the price of self-improvement. Successful people don’t shy away from the honest record. Management guru Peter Drucker relates this to a person’s career, saying:

The only way to discover your strengths is through feedback analysis. Whenever you make a key decision or take a key action, write down what you expect will happen. Nine or twelve months later, compare the actual results with your expectations. I have been practicing this method for fifteen to twenty years now, and every time I do it, I am surprised. The feedback analysis showed me, for instance—and to my great surprise—that I have an intuitive understanding of technical people, whether they are engineers or accountants or market researchers. It also showed me that I don’t really resonate with generalists.

Feedback analysis is by no means new. It was invented sometime in the fourteenth century by an otherwise totally obscure German theologian and picked up quite independently, some 150 years later, by John Calvin and Ignatius Loyola, each of whom incorporated it into the practice of his followers. In fact, the steadfast focus on performance and results that this habit produces explains why the institutions these two men founded, the Calvinist church and the Jesuit order, came to dominate Europe within thirty years.

Imagine being confronted with the actual amount of time you spend with your daughter rather than your rosy accounting of it. Or having your eyes opened to how truly abrasive you were in a conversation. Right now, only very special friends could confront me with such facts in a way I would accept. And they receive my thanks for helping me grow as a person. In fact, for such a mirror of ourselves, we sometimes pay such special friends and call them therapists or counselors.

It’s up to you: You can tackle as much or as little truth about yourself as you have the stomach for. In court, we ask for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It might be painful, but I believe better memory really is better.


Of course, having Total Recall to help with your self-awareness is one thing; having a spouse drag up e-memories to berate you is another. Even worse, imagine a moment of weakness being posted to YouTube by a bitter former friend. The Total Recall revolution implies that others are recording just as much as you are. That’s a big change to adapt to.

The world is already adapting to being recorded. Google has cars drive down streets with a 360-degree camera on the roof of a car to create their street views for their maps. As soon as they were launched, street views prompted an outcry by people concerned that they would be shown in places or situations that were embarrassing to them. Sure enough, street views have included such things as men entering strip clubs, the view up a girl’s skirt, a man relieving himself against a bus, and a police bust. Canada’s privacy minister warned Google that street views may be illegal there, and many other countries have raised legal questions. The U.S. military prohibited pictures of military bases. In response to these reactions, Google began blurring faces and license plates in the pictures, and also has taken down many of the embarrassing ones (however, copies live on elsewhere in the Internet). The world is still adapting to street views.

Wearable computing pioneer Steve Mann has a unique response to being recorded: He “shoots back.” Ever since he was an MIT graduate student in the 1980s, Steve has been wearing a computer-and-eyewear combination that captures the light that would have gone to his eye, sends the signal to a computer, and then presents a computer-processed image for him to actually see. His view can thus be altered or replaced entirely.

While Steve’s apparatus is much more than just a recording device, it can record, and this has gotten him into trouble. Once he was forcibly ejected by security guards from the Art Gallery of Ontario, under the rationale that he might infringe the copyright of the artwork in the museum. This and similar incidents have, ironically, increased the amount of recording Steve has done. Now, in order to capture any incidents of violence, he always records in such situations.

Steve takes particular exception to being told not to record in places that have surveillance cameras placed on him. “It seemed that the very people who pointed cameras at citizens were the ones who were most afraid of new inventions and technologies of citizen cameras.” Fair is fair—can’t he shoot back? He even coined the termed sousveillance, from the French to “watch from below,” in contrast with surveillance,French for “to watch from above.”

Steve turns the tables on the surveillance folks in many ways. If they are concerned about him violating copyright of their art, he wears a T-shirt with artwork on the front and requests they turn off their cameras to avoid infringing his copyright. He is often told surveillance is for his own safety, and replies that he is recording for safety too—would they be willing to sign a form taking responsibility for the consequences of removing his “safety device”?

These days, no one can tell if Steve is wearing a camera, anyhow; he appears to be wearing ordinary glasses and his computing equipment is of the pocket-PC variety. Without any suspicions raised, he is free to shoot back to his heart’s content. Big Brother, meet Little Brother.

Soon, of course, will come the multiplication of Little Brothers, recording all over the place. And where there are e-memories, e-gossip can’t be far behind. E-gossip is progressing from text like “I saw Gordon do X” to the actual e-memories in pictures, audio, and video. For all the talk of Big Brother, Little Brother is more likely to impact you.

There are many implications to believing what you do may be recorded—and replayed. It could put you on your best behavior. Antisocial behavior could be exposed and condemned. You couldn’t expect to get away with many lies. There is even some cold comfort in knowing that if I use my e-memories to harangue you over something you’ve done, you will have a copy of my harassment to use against me. Crimes could be caught on tape—while I was writing this book, patrons of Oakland’s subway used their cell phones to record video of a man being shot by a police officer.

On the other hand, not all secrets are nefarious; I may be sneaking out to buy you a gift. People may be inhibited from going for needed treatment if they think it may lead to exposure of their problems. And relationships could become stilted, with candid conversations being replaced by the excruciatingly careful speech we are used to hearing from politicians, who are the first wave of society to have their words regularly recorded and played back to them.

So how will we adapt to being recorded? Will it be a free-for-all ? Will we pass more restrictive laws? Recording someone talking without their permission is already illegal in many places. Customs will no doubt evolve regarding when it is socially acceptable to record. In one culture, it may be good manners just to let people know you are recording. Another culture may deem lifelogging in the company of others an absolute taboo. Birthday parties might be fair game, while first dates are not.

I think requiring consent to record will be the likely direction of custom and law, and technology will be developed to this end. When several of us gather, our devices will communicate information about who is allowed to record whom. If I chat with Ted and Mary, Ted may consent to my recording while Mary does not. My log of the conversation would then have all images of Mary blurred and all of her speech erased. At the same time, she might have allowed Ted to record her.

New sorts of relationships will arise from the adoption of life logging. There will be those you trust to record and not divulge. There will be those you trust to not record. Perhaps making promises on the record will become a milestone in relationships.

I am not dogmatic about absolutely continuous recording. I think we will sometimes shut off the recording and say things off the record. We may even occasionally stop recording just to have the “novelty” of memories that exist only in our heads. Even so, if people only logged a tenth of their lives, the changes in society would still be dramatic. And even a tenth of a life logged would be enormous and significant—how I wish I had a tenth of my grandfather’s life. Once we get a taste of a tenth we will want much more.


Could your e-memories be forced to testify against you? Richard Nixon tried the route of plausible deniability, saying, “You can say ‘I can’t recall … ,’ ” but tape recordings of his conversations demolished his denials.

Today in the USA, you can be compelled to produce a diary as part of discovery in a court case. If e-memories are considered a digital diary, they would surely be treated the same way. However, a recent court case ruled against the state’s being able to compel a man to divulge an encryption key for his hard drive, explaining that it would violate his right against self-incrimination. As the case wound through the courts, one judge opined, “Electronic storage devices function as an extension of our own memory… . They are capable of storing our thoughts, ranging from the most whimsical to the most profound.” This case gives us a glimpse of hope that the law may eventually come to protect our digital memories. Falling a little short of this, some lawyers are arguing that searching one’s hard drive should be considered especially invasive, more akin to having your body searched than having your papers searched, and thus requiring a higher standard of justification.

I believe that some sensitive information will be stored in a “Swiss data bank,” an actual offshore, encrypted, secret account, which you can plausibly deny the existence of. It may take having several such accounts, so that if evidence was unearthed indicating that you had one, you could turn over the least sensitive. Furthermore, just as secret agents sometimes use a code phrase to indicate they have been compromised, there may be an optional password to the Swiss data bank—intended to be handed over to the authorities—that digitally shreds or somehow hides away some key pieces. It could also function to add all kinds of erroneous data throughout the store, putting the veracity of any of it in doubt.

My advice on hiding information is amoral; it can be used for both good and bad. I’m not aiming to help the next Nixon or pedophile (the court case regarding the encryption key involved a man who had child pornography on his hard drive). Those who commit illegal or immoral acts may be best served by actually deleting their records, but I really don’t care if they get good advice or not. I do know that protecting data can be essential to the man holding a Bible study in his house in China, or a homosexual in Iran, both of whom face government persecution. By helping protect such individuals from their tyrannical governments, we can also ensure that liberal governments don’t have the chance to become more tyrannical. That’s the spirit behind the United States Fifth Amendment, and I want to see the law, society, and technology move in keeping with that spirit.

After hearing one of our lectures on MyLifeBits, it is pretty common for people to express other concerns about having their e-memories used against them. What if the GPS record of my position over time is used to infer that I was speeding? Could I get a ticket? What if the health information I am tracking shows the likelihood of a medical condition—could my insurance company use that as grounds to cancel my coverage? The complete answer to these issues will take time to develop, and will span technology (like the Swiss data bank), law (such as a recognition of the right to not testify against oneself digitally), and business (such as a recognition by health insurance companies that they save money, due to improved overall health, by guaranteeing continued coverage to those who track more information). We will gradually adapt.


Many of the changes coming are not just Total Recall issues, and they’re not just out in the future. People often query me about the security of my e-memories, and wonder whether I’ve created a treasure trove for hackers and identity thieves. They don’t seem to realize that their present, tiny, e-memories already contain everything an identity thief needs—and their physical recycling bin is an even more attractive target.

Regardless of law and custom it will become harder and harder to know for sure if you are being recorded, due to continued miniaturization. You might be recording me; I can’t be sure. And I will act just the same thinking you might record me as I would knowing for sure you will record me. Steve Mann demonstrates this in an experiment called MaybeCam. Steve and friends go out in bulky shirts with a dark Plexiglas panel in the front—similar to the domes that hide surveillance cameras—and printed with:

For your protection, a video record of you and your establishment may be transmitted and recorded at remote locations.


Some of these MaybeCam shirts have cameras behind them, some do not. People react as if they are being recorded even if none of the shirts have cameras.

We will cross the threshold into living much of our lives with the possibility of being recorded long before lifelogging becomes mainstream. And there is already more than enough value in your present e-memory to warrant replication and backup. E-gossip is well under way; the Internet is already teeming with compromising home videos and photos. Were no further progress to take place toward Total Recall, the need to adapt in every area I’ve discussed is just as strong and urgent.

Life with Total Recall seems as alien to us now as the first automobiles must have felt to the horseback riders they roared past. But Total Recall, like the automobile, is rejected only at the price of giving up great advantages. The greatest failure of adaptation would be the failure to take advantage of the new technology. How sad it would be to lose memories or to fail to pass on a digital legacy. What a mistake to miss out on improved health, learning, productivity, or self-awareness. We need to adapt to reap the benefits.