Man Achieves True Clarity of Hindsight

Engadet reports that Wafaa Bilal is having trouble with the camera anchored to the back of his head. The post is a little vague, but to Laura June, it is “not really a surprise” that he should be removing the camera from the back of his head, and that the experience has been pretty painful. Still and all, she thinks the project can be judged a success if he just wanted to be known as “the guy who had a camera implanted in the back of his head.”

When Engadget contributor Sean Hollister covered the same story back in December, he was considerably more upbeat. While the version now posted is headlined “NYU prof sticks camera on the back of his head, just as promised,” the version I have archived in my Google Reader says, “Man sticks camera in the back of his head, fulfills our childhood fantasies.” The tone of the post that follows is anything but skeptical, even if there was a tongue-in-cheek aspect of the original headline. (Although if there was, why change it?)
Everything is so much clearer, after the fact!

In texted time

Three items today relevant to recent posts. First, following up on our series of posts on lifelogging, CNN has a very cursory but still-worth-excerpting article called “Do digital diaries mess up your brain?“:

But recording everything you do takes people out of the “here and now,” psychologists say. Constant documenting may make people less thoughtful about and engaged in what they’re doing because they are focused on the recording process, Schwartz said.
Moreover, if these documented memories are available to others, people may actually do things differently.
“If we have experiences with an eye toward the expectation that in the next five minutes, we’re going to tweet them, we may choose difference experiences to have, ones that we can talk about rather than ones we have an interest in,” he said.
Similarly, a 1993 study led by researchers at the University of Virginia found that undergraduate students who were asked to think about their reasons for choosing posters chose differently and reported less satisfaction than those who did not have to justify their choices.
The opportunity to contact many people at once seems to encourage compartmentalization, as people try to establish different kinds of romantic attachments with different people at the same time.
It seems to encourage an attitude of contingency. If you have several options perpetually before you, and if technology makes it easier to jump from one option to another, you will naturally adopt the mentality of a comparison shopper.
It also seems to encourage an atmosphere of general disenchantment. Across the centuries the moral systems from medieval chivalry to Bruce Springsteen love anthems have worked the same basic way. They take immediate selfish interests and enmesh them within transcendent, spiritual meanings. Love becomes a holy cause, an act of self-sacrifice and selfless commitment.
But texting and the utilitarian mind-set are naturally corrosive toward poetry and imagination. A coat of ironic detachment is required for anyone who hopes to withstand the brutal feedback of the marketplace. In today’s world, the choice of a Prius can be a more sanctified act that the choice of an erotic partner.
Finally, Mariah Carey aside, can you believe this is intended as an advertisement for Blackberrys?:

On being in the world

Apropos the recent pair of posts here on lifelogging, I might recommend for further reading Christine Rosen’s essay on multitasking from The New Atlantis last year, and Walter Kirn’s 2007 essay on that subject in The Atlantic. From Kirn’s piece:

Productive? Efficient? More like running up and down a beach repairing a row of sand castles as the tide comes rolling in and the rain comes pouring down. Multitasking, a definition: “The attempt by human beings to operate like computers, often done with the assistance of computers.” It begins by giving us more tasks to do, making each task harder to do, and dimming the mental powers required to do them.

Kirn’s essay contains so many asides and parentheticals but builds in such a crescendo that I think he must have intentionally crafted the form of the essay to itself be a sort of meditation on focus. He directs his ire not so much at the technologies of multitasking as at the ways they are used, and at the unquestioned premises behind the tools’ design and promotion — premises that can produce effects quite the opposite of what is promised and intended.
Take e-readers, for example. Let’s put aside the claims that reading is coming to an end and the counter-claims that reading is undergoing a renaissance; instead, let’s focus on the e-reader technology itself. The difference between, say, the Kindle and printed books (playfully explored here by Alan Jacobs on one of our sister blogs) is of course partly a matter of comfort for the eye and the hand. But more importantly, screens are generally part of a series of technologies that immerse us in a vast web of constant connection to other things, people, and ideas — rather than just the things, people, and ideas right in front of us. In another New Atlantis article last year, Christine Rosen described her experience attempting to read Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby on a Kindle:

… I quickly adjusted to the Kindle’s screen and mastered the scroll and page-turn buttons. Nevertheless, my eyes were restless and jumped around as they do when I try to read for a sustained time on the computer. Distractions abounded. I looked up Dickens on Wikipedia, then jumped straight down the Internet rabbit hole following a link about a Dickens short story, “Mugby Junction.” Twenty minutes later I still hadn’t returned to my reading of Nickleby on the Kindle.

Maryanne Wolf wonders about the implications of that kind of distraction for children on the New York Times website:
The child’s imagination and children’s nascent sense of probity and introspection are no match for a medium that creates a sense of urgency to get to the next piece of stimulating information. The attention span of children may be one of the main reasons why an immersion in on-screen reading is so engaging, and it may also be why digital reading may ultimately prove antithetical to the long-in-development, reflective nature of the expert reading brain as we know it….
The habitual reader Aristotle worried about the three lives of the “good society”: the first life is the life of productivity and knowledge gathering; the second, the life of entertainment; and the third, the life of reflection and contemplation….
I have no doubt that the digital immersion of our children will provide a rich life of entertainment and information and knowledge. My concern is that they will not learn, with their passive immersion, the joy and the effort of the third life, of thinking one’s own thoughts and going beyond what is given.
E-readers wouldn’t be nearly as problematic if they didn’t — both explicitly by being Internet-enabled and implicitly through their digital and screeny natures — draw us into the mode of interaction that is characteristic of the digital world. Reading itself may not be going anywhere, but sustained and focused reading might become increasingly difficult.
And of course these concerns about screens and reading apply more broadly to our interactions with people, places, and the world around us in general. Just take a look at the pilots who recently not only overflew their airport by 150 miles but didn’t even respond to frantic hails from airports and other nearby pilots, all because they were distracted by their laptops. Maybe the pilots are lying — maybe they were really asleep — but even then, the fact that they would use laptops as an excuse and that so many of us would find that excuse plausible suggests that we understand the great power that the screen can have over us. One shudders to imagine how our interaction with the world will shift if the medium of information immersion is slapped right onto our eyeballs.
(Hat tip: Justin Henderson)
[Photo credits: Parviz Research Group, University of Washington; Ryon Day via The Austin Map Project]

Life blahg

CNN recently ran an article about Microsoft researcher Gordon Bell’s efforts to record every aspect of his life (which they credulously dub “converting his brain into ‘e-memory'”). And over at the Singularity Hub, Keith Kleiner notes an advance in the technology:

Lifelogging – recording every single minute of your life (or as much of it as possible) – continues its unstoppable march towards the mainstream with the announcement that Vicon will soon release a life recording device called the Revue. The device is worn around your neck and automatically takes photos up to every 30 seconds.

Despite Kleiner’s use of the rhetoric of inevitability — a standard device among transhumanists — lifelogging is a complicated subject, with a lot of ins, outs, and what-have-yous; it’s a subject we’ll return to on this blog. But in the meantime, XKCD concisely and beautifully gets at one of the core problems:
Of course, the sort of issues raised by the comic have been with us as long as we have had both the technologies to record — photography, video, journal-writing, portraiture, and other media — and the impulse to create narratives of one’s life for oneself and for others. But just because that impulse is venerable doesn’t mean that it has not changed over time; today, as we are able to indulge that impulse ever more easily, there is a growing sense that our technologies and habits can impede the very experiences they are meant to safely seal away for later remembrance.