This Microsoft legend has a mind-blowing theory for how tech is changing our memories
From 1960 to 1983, Bell led research and development for the Digital Equipment Corporation, one of the first and most important computer companies.
From 1991 through 2012, he was with Microsoft Research, where he's currently a Researcher Emiritus. All the while, he's been a sought-after startup coach.There's even a law of computing named after him: "Bell's Law," which predicts a new class of computer every ten years or so and a new industry to go with it. So far, he's right.
All of that said, Bell is probably best known for promoting the practice of "lifelogging," or literally wearing a computer around your neck that keeps track of everything you do, hear, and say for later retrieval. He literally wrote the book on the subject, titled "Total Recall."
"What's on your computer, the lifelog, is really your personal memory," says Bell.
From 1998 through 2007, Bell was the leader and prime subject of a Microsoft Research experiment called "MyLifeBits," lifelogging every aspect of his life, including stuff like heart rate and temperature. It was an important forerunner to the more modern notions of the "quantified self" and fitness trackers like Fitbit.
In 2007, right at the tail end of the experiment, the introduction of the iPhone upended the whole lifelogging craze. People no longer needed to record everything about their lives; now we capture the highlights on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook as they happen.
More importantly, the smartphone era has led to an explosive need for storage that the MyLifeBits project simply couldn't navigate. In 2007 or so, at the conclusion of the project they were working on the assumption that 1 terabyte, or a thousand gigabytes of data, was enough for a human lifetime.
"We guessed that this would be enough to store everything you've ever seen or heard," Bell says. "Geeze, our model of what the world would be really had changed."
Bell himself quit actively lifelogging, and a few hardcore adherents still do it these days.
Still, though, Bell says that all of this ubiquitous technology is making it more important, not less, to keep better track of our data. After all, if our devices are storing our life's highlights, then it's an important augment to what he calls "biomemory," whether we like it or not.
"Biomemory is really a URL or keywords or metadata to whatever's in your computer," Bell says.
It's an approach that's helped in his everyday life: By dutifully maintaining and indexing all of his e-mails, ever, he can go back and relive conversations he had with colleagues, dating back to the 1980s. It's a kind of recall he welcomes.
"I'm able to go back and recall all the things that I'd never be able to recall," Bell says.
Bell says that we need better and more ubiqitous logging practices going forward, and that the tech won't have fully arrived until you can pull up a face-to-face interaction and relive it. But he sees that as a matter of "technology and cost," and advises startups like Digi.me to make personal search engines.
More worryingly for Bell is the fact that companies are getting less open, not more, about the data they gather and the way they gather it. It diminishes user trust in devices, and reduces the ability for developers to advance the philosophy of lifelogging by keeping data under lock and key.
Now 81 years old, Bell wears three fitness watches to get a normalized view of his heart rate, to make sure his pacemaker is functioning the way it should. He tracks that data, including how stuff like a second glasses of wine affect his heart rate - in part because his newest pacemaker doesn't let him take diagnostic data himself like the old one did.
"I'm doing it in respect to calibrating my heart," Bell says. "I've moved the lifelogging into a practical area."