"The Pentagon," writes Noah Shachtman in Wired, "is about to embark on a stunningly ambitious research project designed to gather every conceivable bit of information about a person's life, index all the information and make it searchable."
"Stunningly ambitious" seems an understatement. The proposed program is another total-data brainchild of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and is called LifeLog. DARPA is soliciting proposals "to develop an ontology-based (sub)system that captures, stores, and makes accessible the flow of one person's experience in and interactions with the world in order to support a broad spectrum of associates/assistants and other system capabilities. The objective of this 'LifeLog' concept is to be able to trace the 'threads' of an individual's life in terms of events, states, and relationships."
I like that: The Pentagon, in a fit of ontological yearning, wants to be able to capture a given person's "experience in and interactions with the world," actually "to trace the 'threads' of an individual's life," to access his or her "states." Wired's Shachtman brings it down to earth: LifeLog "would dump everything an individual does into a giant database: every e-mail sent or received, every picture taken, every Web page surfed, every phone call made, every TV show watched, every magazine read." Further data—you can never have enough data—would come from global positioning gear, biomed monitors, audio-visual sensors, etc.
The feds seem to be in another of their omniscient moods. The current military fascination with cognitive systems—"systems that know what they're doing," as the Information Processing Technology Office helpfully puts it—is reminiscent, if only in an ontological sort of way, of the CIA's Cold War fascination with the chimera of mind control. Of course, in those heady days of Manchurian candidacy, all the CIA accomplished was to damn its informational soul by hitching it to such mad-scientist types as Donald Ewen Cameron. LifeLog may be just as hopeless a project as were the variations on so-called brainwashing, but it does seems a good deal more literary. Among other problems, it will necessitate the development not only of new research tools, but of new kinds of researchers, too. What this project needs is not mad scientists, but mad biographers.
The notion that peoples' lives actually have had the narrative shape that is reflected in their biographies is one of our more pleasant cultural delusions. Don't get me wrong: the biographical impulse has been a praiseworthy one since Plutarch; there are no doubt many benefits to be gained from the careful study of other's lives. But a comprehensive understanding of those lives, gleaned from whatever documentary detritus happens to be available, is probably not one of them. Biographers may be able to tell you what their subjects did and when, and what some of the consequences turned out to be. But they can rarely if ever tell you why their subjects did anything. (People themselves frequently have no idea why they made any given choice.) Yet LifeLog, with its desire to identify a life's threads and access its states, seems to be premised on just these points of mystery.
Lifelog's answer to the problem of biographical mystery seems to be to have lots and lots more documentary detritus. In fact, virtually unlimited detritus. But if you bury a life's salient facts, threads, and states (I'm assuming with the Pentagon that there are some) in an infinite pile of life's garbage, have you solved the problem or compounded it? I'll confess to this much: If the Pentagon succeeds in extracting meaning from infinite biographical junk, I might actually consider hooking myself up to LifeLog's spygear (or, once it's nanoteched, letting them implant it).
But I suspect a different outcome is at least as likely. LifeLog's solicitation proposal probably should have made me think of some cautionary tale from a genius of paranoia like, say, Philip K. Dick. In fact, it put me in mind of that genius of misanthropy, Nathanael West, especially his famous 1933 novel, Miss Lonelyhearts. In that work, a newspaperman is assigned to write the advice-to-the-lovelorn column. What happens is that the daily avalanche of misery and unhappiness he encounters eventually unhinges him.
Now, reader, if LifeLog's researchers examine the threads and states of your life and mine, they will find nothing but purposefulness, singularity of mind, unending achievement, growth, progress, and triumph over every challenge. But not everyone is like us. I suspect that the Pentagon's project, if successful, will create a lot of Miss LifeLogs who will spend their days examining threads and states of disappointment, deceit, self-delusion, compromise, frustration, guilt, regret, and other such research subjects. That may or may not unhinge any of them, but perhaps the real findings of the military's cognitive specialists will be that the world is filled with data that they'd just as soon not collect at all.