Dear Mr. Safire,
I read your June 5th, 2003 NY Times Op-Ed piece with great interest. I'm a professor of Electrial and Computer Engineering with a specialty in communications, and I've mulled the ideas over for quite a while. I even submitted a (failed, alas) white paper to the National Science Foundation on aspects of the topic a few years ago. Not surprisingly, one of the reviewers had many of the same Orwellian feelings that this issue seems to evoke almost universally. However, many vocal proponents AND opponents of things like LifeLog are perhaps missing the point.
Our social structures are very much based on records of events both written and otherwise. Just think of the legal system. So, recording one's environment, as an intellectual abstraction, is simply not the issue -- any place you are (assuming you're awake :) ) is subject to your "recording" in some fashion for later "playback."
So the issue is not one of "volks spying" or "volks intelligence" but the assumptions that it's not symmetric, and that information is not controllable by the owner. That is, most everyone has eyes and ears, so it's acceptable for a bystander to look/listen in a public space. Everyone's "playback" is subject to similar fuzziness and (un)believability problems, and at least at present, it is difficult to extract reliable memories through force or subterfuge.
However, a fundamental assumption by both sides of the issue (intelligence community and civil liberties activists) is that there's an asymmetry in how information is collected and used, usually in favor of "the government." Well, starting with civil liberties fears, what if accurate and verifiable recordings could be made by everyone about anything, and rapidly shared if desired, but kept private if not? My guess is the result would be much more like Rodney King than Big Brother, so long as you could always watch the watcher watching -- perhaps down to having many of the same personal details about a watcher as the watcher has about you.
As for the intelligence community, the basic issue which seems to be missed is that in some respects people have a greater desire and capacity to collectively protect themselves than a police force or government agency. That does not mean (necessarily) reporting on the late night activities of Mr. Jones, but rather simply tapping the joy of sharing (factual) information -- ostensibly the hallmark of good journalism. So, what if everyone could be a source of news based on their reporting history with the explicit assumption that erroneous reports could be quickly weeded out because they'd not be verifiable? Harnessing such self-interest (along with certain human information processing capabilities far greater than any modern computer) could be a societal godsend.
So all told, perhaps both public fears based on (a healthy) distrust of government and a natural governmental inclination towards strictly vertical and secret intelligence hierarchies are both misguided when it comes to LifeLog. Certainly there are deep legal and social issues that must be addressed. For instance, can you be legally prohibited from recording your surroundings if I've invited you into my home? -- and if so, could I also force you to shut your eyes and stopper your ears? However, the real societal benefits something like a LifeLog could produce might far outweigh liabilities, all of which can probably be made manageable through a combination of existing or easily invented technical and social means.
Or perhaps we should simply be practical. No matter what we might think, the Internet, cell phones which do everything including take pictures, the portable massive personal storage and processing capabilities we now take for granted coupled to the natural human tendency to share information will produce some version of LifeLog whether we like it or not. So, maybe we better quickly figure out how to sculpt LifeLog for the societal good.
PS: Sorry this turned into an op-ed piece/tirade. You can visit the web page in the banner below to establish than I'm not (or am :) ) a crank.
Prof. Christopher Rose
Associate Director, Rutgers WINLAB
73 Brett Road
Piscataway, NJ 08854
(732) 445-5250 (fax: 3693)