Limits on Recording Everything: Is the Genie Already Out of the Bottle?

Ted Nelson, the inventor of hypertext, famously recorded numerous moments of his life on tape recordings, video, notepads, and the like.  Nelson, whose work in hypertext dates back to the early 1960s and coined the term, was not only ahead of his time in this respect but also in terms of documenting his own life (he claimed that his reason for doing so was his poor memory).

An article in the New York Times this past week called my attention to a white paper by John Villasenor, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and electrical engineer by trade, entitled Recording Everything: Digital Storage as an Enabler of Authoritarian Governments.

While Mr. Villasenor’s point-of-departure relates to the potential for governmental abuse, I was far more interested in the fact that he quantified what I had long suspected, namely that the cost of storage has dropped to the point where anything and everything can be recorded.

The fact that we can is interesting.  But this begs the question, should we?

Today, most individuals generate a vast amount of information each day.  Starting with our conversations and meetings, we move onto e-mail, text messages, social networks, website visits, and cameras.  Our activities, using a credit card, placing a phone call, or sending a text, create additional information (and record our location) on an ongoing basis.

Imagine if all of this were recorded centrally.

Mr. Villasenor estimates that merely storing the audio from a typical knowledge worker’s phone calls throughout a year would require 3.3 gigabytes and cost a mere 17 cents.  That figure, he points out, will drop to two cents by 2015.

Given his focus on authoritarian regimes, he points out that it would cost just $2.5 million to store one year’s worth of phone calls from every person above the age of 14 in Syria (which has a population of 15 million people over the age of 14).  While most of our readers are not planning to record the conversations of their fellow citizens, the $2.5 million figure is mind-numbingly low.

Clearly, things will not end with simply storing the data.  The question is what happens to the data afterwards.  We need to think of all the ramifications that will be the outcome of gathering it, including security and privacy.  Despite their limitations, today’s search tools are more than capable of finding multiple needles in haystacks of recordings.  The question that intrigues me, however, is, what will the impact on an already overloaded society be if and when we start to record our every movement.

Right now, doing so is a curiosity, something an eccentric such as Ted Nelson or a researcher at MIT can do but most mainstream knowledge workers couldn’t and wouldn’t.

There are numerous other issues here besides Information Overload, most prominent among them privacy and government overreach.  At the moment, since we’re at the very beginnings of gathering information on such a massive scale, society does not yet perceive this as a problem.  However, once we really start the ball rolling, we’ll most likely find that it’s impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

(Photo: Hannes Grobe)

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