Being a busy college student there are a lot of things I do every day, a lot of interesting conversations I have, a a lot of thoughts that I have and a lot of things I read or hear about. However most of what I experience every day gets stashed somewhere in the mess of grey cells that is my brain, never to be accessed again. Some of these thoughts I would like to keep to myself, but most of these are things I wouldn’t mind sharing with others (especially if they’re cool things that are already ‘out there’). Even if they’re not things that would necessarily interest other people, it would be nice to have a record of them for future reference. I’ve had the experience of vaguely reading or hearing about something a few months earlier and then trying really hard to remember what it was and where to get more information about. In some cases the search can be long and tedious and not always fruitful. What I’d really like is a continuous, indexed, easily searchable record of my whole life (along with useful links to the relevant Wikipedia articles). Too bad we can’t just download our memories wholesale onto some computer-accessible medium.
The Life Capture Experiment
Despite the limitations of today’s technologies, I would still like to record as much as possible even if it’s not as easy as a brain-download.There are two main barriers to recording everything that goes on in my life: time and intent. I simply don’t have the time to sit down, collect and then polish everything into a presentable format. If I tried to make a weblog post out of everything that happened to me, I wouldn’t be getting much sleep (and wouldn’t have many friends left). At the same time, I often don’t remember to record things. Either they’re followed very quickly by other things, or they’re not important enough for me to devote much thought and effort.
Part of the solution is simply habit. I can record a lot more if I simply just make it a habit to write more things down. I can also put up more blog posts if I form a strict schedule and a stronger habit. However, I think habit can always using a helping hand from technology. Before I start thinking about a technical solution, let me put the problem in slightly more technical terms:
The problem is that of capture: I need to be able to capture as much of my life as possible in a digital format. I should be able to easily navigate these captures of my life in the future and distribute them openly if I choose to do so. Capturing my life must not take up significant time or effort unless I choose to make something in particular more presentable.
Right. Now for the solution. Considering both the state of technology and the type of things I do everyday, it makes sense to divide the problem into 2: microcapture and macrocapture.
There are a lot of tiny things that happen everyday, things people say to me, things I overhear, things I see and the lots of tiny everyday tasks that I do. Now most of this isn’t important and I will probably never give it a second thought again, but every once in a while you wish you had put down that great idea your friend gave you. The best example of how this works is Twitter: you post very short updates on what you are doing at the moment. I started using Twitter a few months ago and though I can’t say that I’m an avid user (yet), but with my new interest in recording my life Twitter is a good tool. The 140 character limit helps make sure that I don’t spend any more time or effort on it than I absolutely need to.
Before I started using Twitter, the main outlet for what I was doing was the Facebook status notification. I’ve just started using Ping.fm to tie Twitter to my Facebook status as well as statuses for AIM and Gtalk. In the long run, I’d like to microcapture more than just small snippets of text. I read a lot online and I would like to have both a record of things that are interesting and things that I might find useful in the not too distant future. Luckily this problem has been largely solved. Social bookmarking sites (I use Delicious) allow just the sort of online microcapture that I’m looking for. And it helps that Ping.fm can be set up to add URLs in status updates to Delicious bookmarks.
In the future, I’m planning to explore image microcapture. Digital cameras are small enough to be carried around everywhere while providing acceptable resolution. Taking more pictures on a regular basis is definitely something I’d like to build a habit of. I probably won’t be placing these images directly online, at least not without looking at them once for anything I want to keep private. In fact, pictures probably stand on the border of micro and macrocapture, talking about which…
Recording 140 characters a dozen times a day might be an efficient way of recording my activities, but doesn’t really form a coherent picture of me as a person. A large part of what makes me a unique person is what I think (in addition to what I do) and it’s much harder for other people to see that side of me. I’ll define macrocapture is the recording of these thoughts and ideas (and tangible products thereof) with the goal of forming a coherent of me and my life.
The only form of macrocapture I currently practice is this weblog. The Bytebaker has been an effective outlet for my thoughts and interests and as a bonus it has also attracted a fair amount of interesting discussion (and I hope it continues to do so). As time goes on, the way I use The Bytebaker changes as well. It’s becoming less of a mind-dump and more of a professional outlet for my thoughts. When I started I could write something in half an hour and hit ‘publish’, but now I don’t like posting before I’ve had a chance to revise, refine and think about my material. I want each post to be a coherent, clear thought (or a collection of closely related thoughts). That doesn’t mean that I’ll chagne what I write about (or how), but I will try to make posts more polished and easier for readers to follow my train of thought.
While this weblog is a good way to macrocapture important ideas and thoughts, it doesn’t document the evolution and refinement of those ideas over time. Microcapture can help by saving independent single time-points (and the associated events) but I need some thing in between a Twitter feed and a professional weblog to capture the process of my thoughts.
Enter the wiki. I haven’t really used wikis much before this year (though I did keep a diary on and off at various times). But the experience of using a wiki for my software engineering group project has made me appreciate the helpfulness of recording the development of concepts and issues over time. A wiki can be a staging area for my macrocaptures. Any piece of text (or image) that needs to be bigger than a tweet, but isn’t ready for presentation will go into the wiki. Over time, those individual records can be polished into weblog posts, articles, college papers or anything else that needs to be presented or published. Even if they’re not used, the wiki will still hold them and keep track of them.
Now even though I use the term wiki, I haven’t actually decided on how to implement this. One way would certainly to be just keep them as files in my Git repository. But since I move about and use different computers a lot, a real online wiki might be a better solution. I’m investigating free wiki providers at the moment. One major criteria I have is that I need to be able to easily export snapshots so that I can keep a dump of it in my Git repository. I’m not sure if the wiki would be public or private. I suppose that in the end some parts of it will be public and others won’t. Once again, the wiki is meant to be a macro-level capture of my thought process and not a cleanly organized narrative.
Tools I’ll be using
Technology is going to be an important part of this experiment. There isn’t any one good tool to use for capturing my life, especially if I plan on sharing large segments of it. I also need to be able to automate most of it. Since I’m just starting, I’m sure there are a lot of changes that are going to be taking place, but here’s a list of things that I plan on using for the time being.
- Twitter and Ping.fm — For most microcapture.
- A photosharing web service — Most probably either Flickr or Picasa
- WordPress for The Bytebaker
- Some form of Wiki software for other macrocapture
- Git Version Control for all data that is not online
- A personal server running Mac OS X 10.5 (for now)