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Participatory Panopticon-level Storage by 2009?
Jamais Cascio, 30 Aug 04

One of the ideas we've talked about in some detail on WorldChanging is the "participatory panopticon" -- the notion that the evolution of networked mobile personal cameras (i.e., cameraphones) will trigger big changes in how we interact with each other both individually and socially. Signs of this are hard to miss, but key aspects of the revolution are still missing. One important step will be to make the devices wearable, not hand-held; primitive versions of such devices are already on the scene. Another step will be to make these devices record images constantly, not just when the user clicks a button, to allow the user to review what s/he had previously seen. Again, primitive versions of this concept are in development, although these are set to record a picture a minute -- a snapshot, not a journal.

When I say "big changes," I mean it. The number one comment I get when I talk about the participatory panopticon is "Great! I'll never lose another fight with my wife/husband!" Mildly amusing, sure, but think about it: what does it do to a relationship when everything you ever say to each other may be recorded for later review? And we shouldn't assume that partners will just shut off the capture when talking to each other. Even for healthy relationships, the ability to recall exactly what one's partner said (a grocery store request, for example, or a casual mention of a favorite movie) will be hard to ignore.

That's off in the future -- but how far off? One key reason why such devices are currently limited in how often they record an image is storage. Taking one high-resolution image every minute can add up quickly: taking a 5 megapixel image every minute will fill a typical 50 gigabyte hard drive in a matter of a couple of weeks (depending upon compression and whether it ever gets turned off). Filling that same space with 24 frame-per-second video would take far less time, probably less than a day at a reasonably high resolution.

Colossal Storage may have the technology on track to make this concern go away: "3D rewriteable atomic holographic optical data storage nanotechnology". This article at the physics and technology news site, although basically a rewrite of a Colossal Storage press release, gives some detail (and is more readable than the company's website). If the technology they've developed works -- and they claim that it will, of course -- we could see relatively inexpensive 10 terabyte to 10 petabyte removable disks (with read/write speeds in the 1000 Mbps range) on the market by 2009.

10 terabytes is 10,000 gigabytes; 10 petabyes is 10,000,000 gigabytes. With that kind of storage, it becomes possible to imagine keeping a real-time video (and audio) record of one's life, swapping disks out perhaps only once a year. (I have this sudden image of one spouse shouting to another from across the apartment, "Honey, do you remember where we put 2013?" "You put it away last April, do a lookup!")

There are other uses for such a volume of storage, of course, particularly in medical research. While the data from the Human Genome Project fits nicely on an iPod, data from the Brain Atlas Project will likely take "petabytes." But for most people, keeping a record of one's own life is the use that has the most potential to demand massive amounts of storage.

Colossal Storage may be onto something important, or may be little more than big promises and dodgy research. I'm not qualified to say, and would certainly appreciate comments here from people who can parse the research material linked on the company's website. But regardless of whether this particular development works out, the technology is coming, and faster than we may be ready for.

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What about a world where those doing public service jobs are constantly monitored by those they are supposed to represent? Where politicians and policeman run for jobs on the platform that they will allow every meeting and decision to be captured. Populations could easily examine if there representatives are above board and honest, or do things for surreptitious, prejeudiced reasons. Do others think this scenario is plausible, or would all genuine decisions just be made in the toilet?

Posted by: Daniel Johnston on 31 Aug 04

Ever been to Their approach to privacy issues is obviously relevant -

Posted by: John Atkinson on 31 Aug 04 looks interesting, but unfortunately the site looks to be very infrequently updated.

Political decision-making transparency would be one of the better outcomes of this constant-monitoring world. I'm not sure it will come about, though; I suspect that those making the laws will not like the idea of abundant sunshine on the process.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 31 Aug 04


3.5" disk = roughly 30 cm^2

10 petabytes = 80 Pbits

that comes to 2.67E15 bits / cm^2, or

1 bit = 3.75E-16 cm^2.

Since that is about 0.04 nm, I have some serious
doubts we'll be seeing this any time soon. Subnanometer interferometer lasers are serious bits of hardware right now.

Posted by: Howard on 31 Aug 04

I don't know, is this actually something that would really make a difference, or would improve our lives? Personal black boxes?

Already, we could spend so much of our life reviewing what we've done with regular cameras -- and what good does that do, really? And that at least has the benefit of someone frame an imaging. If something were just attached to your forehead...

I get the stated goals of the transparent society (David Brin wrote a good essay about it a while back)... But how is anyone going to get through this vast amount of imformation? Aren't we already suffering from information overload?What would people do to screw with it (and they most assuredly will try)?

Further, why would anyone really want to collect every minute of their life (I can assure you there will people who don't want it)?

The only real positive effect might be that people would be confronted with the fact that most of their life and work is vastly dull. Though I think there may be some things that we should at least have the hope that we can forget.

But I'm sure the shows Funniest Personal Recording, and the Darwin Awards Show would be great hits.

Posted by: adrian cotter on 31 Aug 04

Howard: you're almost certainly correct, but I would encourage you to read the journal articles linked from the Colossal Storage site.

Adrian: good questions. I don't doubt that personal black boxes would improve aspects of our lives, but at a definite cost. Going through the information would require much more substantial search engines, but that's an area of research aggressively being pursued by most major software companies. Yes, people would screw with it.

I suspect that, with early generation equipment, some people will try to edit out the dull parts of their life recordings, but as storage gets more capacious and less expensive, eventually many people will just let it record everything, and not worry about excising the unneeded bits.

Why would people do this? If you think of them as "personal memory assistants," not as "personal black boxes," you can begin to see the attraction. What was on that sign I just passed? What was I supposed to get at the store? When was my dentist appointment? Especially as the population ages, such a memory helper could be extraordinarily useful.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 31 Aug 04



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