We are a nation of watchers.
From television to Twitter, we can't get enough of our screens. And, increasingly, we are constantly watched, as well. Twitter and Facebook, after all, cut both ways. And then there's the NSA.
But when does seeing stop being believing and turn into something less certain? Is there such a thing as too much documentation?
Narrative Clip is a $279 wearable camera that automatically takes a photo every 30 seconds. You clip it to your shirt, or maybe hang it on a necklace, so that it can silently snapshot your life. "We all want to live in the present," one of its promotional video argues, "Every moment is worth keeping."
But when I slide the white plastic square over the zipper of my winter coat on a Tuesday morning, it’s the future that most interests me.
Regardless of whether Narrative Clip becomes a mainstream gadget, it fits neatly into the trend (perhaps at the more extreme end) of recording more and more data about our lives. We post photos and updates on social media. We wear fitness trackers on our wrists and video-capable Google Glass on our faces. Some of us even squeeze our babies into onesies that monitor their vitals.
As more of these services collect more information, they will inevitably change our conception of privacy and the way we experience our lives. With self-recording technology clipped to my chest—where I couldn’t easily ignore it—I wanted to see how those aspects played out over a typical day.
9 a.m. I pick my Narrative Clip up from the kitchen table, where it has been silently snapping photos of the ceiling. It’s about the size of a potato chip and weighs no more than a pencil—easy to wear, and to forget.
9:15 a.m. My subway spontaneously reroutes, and I end up in a station that I rarely frequent. Thanks to Narrative Clip, I will remember it forever.
10:30 a.m. I realize that I am wearing a camera as I enter the women’s bathroom. Thankfully there is nobody there to see it, but I wonder if there were, if they'd even notice.
11:45 a.m. "Isn’t that illegal?" A coworker jokes when I explain to him what I’m wearing. If the reaction to Google Glass is any indication, devices like Narrative Clip and a similar product called Autographer might one day be banned in places like movie theaters and casinos. But I don’t think my coworker has any reasonable expectations of privacy. This is an open office, for cripes’ sake.
1:30 p.m. I could have chosen a more photographic lunch. As is, I’m eating chili out of plastic Tupperware container at my desk. There’s not a hashtag on the Internet that could turn this into an Instagramable moment. Perhaps this is why Narrative Clip's reviewers guide came with the suggestion to "use it during a tradeshow, a family outing or in your travels to a new city." So... not during a sad lunch alone?
Narrative's founder, Oskar Kalmaru, responded to a skeptical review in the Financial Times by writing, "We don’t consider Narrative Clip a lifelogging camera as much as a companion for whatever events you want to capture in a more true way."
My lunch habits, it turns out, are truly boring.
3:45 p.m. The lights on my Narrative Clip suggest it’s running out of battery (it hasn’t been charged since yesterday, and expected battery life is about 30 hours). I plug it into my computer to charge. It uploads the photos I’ve taken so far.
3:55 p.m. My phone dings. The Narrative Clip’s companion app breaks down the photos it takes into a timeline of events that it calls "moments." This notification tells me I have new moments waiting for me. TWO MOMENTS. Most of a day lived, and only two moments created—one of which is just my hands at the keyboard.
4:30 p.m. On icy February evenings, I prefer to go home, plug in my heated blanket and curl up on the couch with a book and a bowl of Ramen noodles.
Today, Narrative changes my life, because I decide there is really not anything interesting about documenting my first-choice winter plans. Instead I decide to attend a yoga class and pester friends to meet me for dinner. We all recognize the tendency to turn living into a performance that reiterates how great we are when it's shared on social media, but the desire to do exciting things merely so I’ll look better to myself, within an app that only I have access to, is a new feeling. And not necessarily a good one.
6:15 p.m. In my yoga studio’s locker room, I once again find myself wearing my Narrative Clip in a place where some creepster might install a camera. I’m not a creepster (I swear!), I’ve just forgotten that I’m wearing it. Kalmaru has argued that the privacy issues inherent in a wearable automatic camera mean that "not all products are for everyone," which makes sense to me, because I’ve chosen to give Narrative Clip all of my geo-tagged photos in exchange for this experience. But I’m not sure the women with whom I’m sharing a changing room would agree—even if I did nonchalantly remove the camera before it photographed them.
6:30 p.m. Before class, I tell the yoga teacher that I have a question for her that she hasn’t heard before. She’s less freaked about me wearing Narrative Clip in her class than I expect her to be.
When you want to "be present," it turns out that capturing every moment is not very helpful. As we fold our hands in prayer to start, I’m hoping that the camera gets the shot. I continue to see myself through Narrative’s lens throughout the class. As I twist myself into different poses, I try to catch glimpses of the Clip and imagine what kinds of photos it’s taking. Is this just going to be a bunch of photos looking up my nose?
I'm not doing a very good job of following the gadget's instructions, which advise "let[ting] the Narrative Clip be with you naturally. It doesn't need constant attention." Perhaps this takes some practice (the review guide suggested I wear it for a week or two). When I manage to hover in a handstand for a few moments, I imagine a photo of my hands on the mat, with a few of my classmates balancing in the background. At least in my mind, it’s awesome.
8:30 p.m. An estimated 1 million drivers in Russia keep cameras rolling on their car dashboards at all times, just in case they get into a car crash and need to prove they’re not at fault. I read about it after dozens of people there turned up with footage of a meteor streaking over the Ural Mountains.
That’s how I feel with Narrative clipped to my coat on the subway. At any moment, something crazy might happen, and I am going to have that improbable photo.
8:45 p.m. I order a juicy cheeseburger and a glass of red wine for dinner. Though I ask for a side salad, the waiter brings me a heaping pile of fries and I eat every single one of them (an act that has now been documented despite the fact I have never even thought about keeping a food journal). At this point, the novelty of Narrative Clip has worn off on me, but I’m astounded that nobody in the crowded restaurant gives it a second look. I mean, I AM CONSTANTLY TAKING PHOTOS OF ALL OF YOU.
My husband is not as surprised as I am. "I would never ask about it. It looks like a Fit Bit, or an iPod Shuffle," he says. "At this point, it’s just another device."
10:00 a.m. Wednesday I upload the photos from Narrative Clip expecting a clear diary of my day. That’s not what I get. There are few moments the camera captured clearly, and they’re not they ones I’ve thought about. There’s a photo of my subway pass, a shot of a coworker, a few subway riders, and hundreds of views of my desk. The app chooses some of these as the cover shots for the six "moments" that it has placed on my timeline.
But the yoga class and dinner, since they both took place in dim lighting situations, are both represented in exactly the same way: with a chance shot of a ceiling lamp. Like my mind, Narrative has captured only snippets of a day that can’t ever be rewound. And though there are plenty of people who would disagree, for today at least, I prefer my version of memory.