Total Recall for Public Servants

MyLifeBits is a Microsoft Research project led by the legendary Gordon Bell, designed to put “all of his atom- and electron-based bits in his local Cyberspace….MyLifeBits includes everything he has accumulated, written, photographed, presented, and owns (e.g. CDs).” 

SenseCam - Click to enlarge

Among other technical means, Bell uses the SenseCam, a remarkable prototype from Microsoft Research.  It’s a nifty little wearable device that combines high-capacity memory, a fisheye lens passively capturing 3,000 images a day, along with an infrared sensor, temperature sensor, light sensor, accelerometer, and USB interface. My group has played with SenseCam a bit, and shared it with quite a few interested government parties and partners. More info on SenseCam here, and more on its parent Sensors and Devices Group in MSR.  

The MyLifeBits project has enormous potential, I think, befitting something which aims to incorporate and outstrip Vannevar Bush’s extraordinary original vision of Memex.  The project has now been captured in a great new book I’ve been reading: Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything, written by Bell and colleague Jim Gemmell. Their Total Recall motto is, “The e-memory revolution is changing everything.” 

In the FAQ section of their website, Bell and Gemmell write: 

“Total Recall works best when capture is completely automatic. For example, we automatically make a copy of every web page we visit, with a note of the URL and the time visited. If this was manual, very few web pages would be saved. Similarly, we get pictures from wearing the SenseCam without having to stop enjoying the moment to become the photographer. Today, at the start of the Total Recall revolution, too much is manual. Part of what will change in the next ten years as Total Recall comes to full fruition will be more and more automatic capture.” 


Here’s a quick video look at it: 

The companion Total Recall project blog also catalogs other interesting projects in the same spirit, for example The Quantified Self (about which Bell writes, “The QS implies capturing and recording everything, but it goes beyond what Gemmell and I describe, by using the data for conducting experiments and for control.”

I find that notion in synch with several thoughts around the idea of “Government as a Platform” and, so let’s explore the government potential a bit.


No Leader’s Life Unexamined

Lately it seems that the world – or at least the digerati’s virtual continent –  is divided into two groups of people: those who knew Dr. Mark Drapeau by that name, first and in real life … and those who got to know “@cheeky_geeky,” his ubiquitous online persona, from his widely read Twitter feed, his Posterous blogs, or his prolific online writing at Huffington Post, Washington Life, and so on. Drapeau lives up to the line from Socrates, that the unexamined life is not worth living. His fully examined life quite evidently is. 

I barely fall into the first group, as I met Mark at a National Defense University conference before the Twitter phenomenon really got rocking, but I’ve watched as this talented writer opened up more and more of his private and professional life to the universe of digital eyeballs. The conferences, the dinners, the speeches, the parties – we’re all watching a life examined, reflected through his eyes and refracted through thousands of others. Mark Drapeau’s life is as transparent as they come. To illustrate, he’s even had to introduce a new acronym to his torrential stream; “TPTT” for too private to tweet

In the last year, Mark has become an acknowledged thought-leader in the Government 2.0 space as well; he co-chaired 2009’s inaugural Gov 2.0 Expo Showcase in Washington DC (disclosure: I chaired a panel there), and is co-chairing the full 2010 Gov 2.0 Expo (disclosure: I’m on the Senior Advisory Committee for that as well). 

Now Mark is bringing those two parts of his life together, in a musing of the future of government transparency taken to its extreme. Yesterday he posted a provocative piece on Posterous, “What Would an Always-On-the-Record Government Look Like?” in which he proposes something like a Gawker site for government: 

Imagine if someone … wanted to document a day in the life of Senator Ben Nelson. It’s not hard. You check the general schedules of his committees and such beforehand, go through security at the Capitol, find his office, camp out, maybe ask the person at the front desk some questions, find some press in the hallways and ask some questions, stalk the cafeteria and listen for people saying “Nelson,” go back to his office and see him leaving to walk down the hall to a committee hearing, go to the committee hearing and tape it from a Flip in your coat pocket, upload it to YouTube while you follow him to his next meeting, and so forth. 

I’ve a mixed mind on whether this is progress in the life of the public square (I posted some thoughts in a comment there), but I’m a realist. The technology is definitely already here to enable the type of “amateur journalism” Mark writes about, and this past decade has seen an explosion in what is more typically called “Citizen Journalism.” 

There’s a high-minded aspect to this, beyond the Gawker mentality. As early as 2005 Steve Outing at Poynter Online wrote that Citizen Journalism was “one of the hottest buzzwords in the news business these days,” and proceeded to offer a thoughtful compendium of examples.   The next year, PBS put online “Your Guide to Citizen Journalism,” saying that “The idea behind citizen journalism is that people without professional journalism training can use the tools of modern technology and the global distribution of the Internet to create, augment or fact-check media on their own or in collaboration with others.”  Wikipedia has a good background entry on citizen journalism; and the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism among others now has a program in the subject

That’s all outside-in, the citizenry watching their public servants. There’s also another, less explored aspect: the inside aiming out, or having public servants open up the fullness of their lives, transparently for all to see – and judge. 

I’m not certain how quickly we will advance along that front. So far, Twitter adoption and blogging among elected officials in the U.S. and Europe (primarily) have been somewhat faddish, used mostly as another channel for self-promotion. That’s not always a bad thing, as many elected officials self-promote the actual good things they do. Most simply self-promote.  Mark Drapeau is after something more fundamental. 

Perhaps we will indeed find public servants willing to use new social-media technologies to live up to that old saw, “My life is an open book.” In doing so, we would undoubtedly uncover a few Gary Harts along the way – he famously told journalist E.J. Dionne, “Follow me around. I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’ll be very bored.” They did, they caught him with Donna Rice, and his electoral career was finished. 

The consequences might in fact be negative. We’ve been suffering for the past twenty years since celebrity journalism included politics in its swath. Jack Kennedy would never run for office today; he enjoyed his girlfriends too much to give that up, and he’d never get away with them in a MyLifeBits scenario. Abe Lincoln would surely think twice about running, as he was already highly protective of his wife’s reputation and mental well-being… if there’d been some 24×7 spotlight on her and her Confederate relatives, as there is on Michelle Obama, Abe would’ve been toast. 

No Hollywood face looks great in HD television close-up …. and there’s a chance leadership in public service will never look the same under this glare. 

But science demands experimentation… so in the interests of science we must persuade some politician to step up to the challenge and do some real life-casting. Let’s strap a SenseCam around Sen. Ben Nelson’s neck – or better yet, fit it to a string of pearls for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi!

Talk about open government 🙂

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6 Responses

  1. Great post, Lewis – thanks for tying my proto-ideas together with both historical anecdotes and future technology!


    • You are the examined life! and we thank you for it.


      • Would an upstanding citizen with a slight blemish in his past have more to gain or more to lose with exhaustive exposure in a prospective public life? More to lose. We feel our losses much more than our gains.

        A mediocre citizen with a “checkered” past would have less to lose by exhaustive exposure. In politics especially.

        So how does the average citizen gain unless ALL public servants are expected to publish exposure?

        Finally, none of this applies to workers at ANY agency and makes it even more onerous for strong operational folks to be persuaded to political appointee positions.


  2. I feel that a person would have more to gain if they were inclined to be less than circumspect in their daily life. Knowing that they were in the constant public eye would impel them to be more watchful of their conduct.


  3. And why should a public servant, paid less than someone in the private sector, be held to a higher standard of accountability than someone working at a “regular” job? Why would anyone want a job on the public sector under these conditions? How will you get anyone to work for the government? Hello?


  4. […] Total Recall for Public Servants […]


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