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Nothing, not even your digital memories, lasts forever

Commentary: The future of life logging means fragmentation and uncertainty. Consider the tale of Narrative.

"Please read: Narrative Ceases Support and How to Use Your Clip."

The email came on my commute home to New Jersey. I read it on the train.

I knew what this meant. I had tried the Narrative Clip before. You probably haven't. It's a small life-logging camera that was released several years ago, well before Snap Spectacles, but after Google Glass tried to capture photo memories as a lifestyle, too. I reviewed the first one back in 2014. Since then, a new version added video recording and better-resolution photos, but, it was designed to be an automatic wearable camera that recorded snaps and clips to be uploaded online, capturing memories when you might forget to otherwise.

The email continued:

On September 26 2016, the company Narrative AB filed for voluntary dissolution. While this means that the Narrative team can no longer continue sales and support of the Narrative Clip, we are committed to secure the future use of all existing products currently in customers' hands.

Narrative Clip auto-snapped photos and uploaded them to a server, where these endless memories would be organized by time. These bits of your life would function, perhaps, as tiny ways to jog memory. MyLifeBits, as Gordon Bell called them years before even Narrative Clip existed (Gordon Bell's idea, captured in his book Your Life, Uploaded, was an extension of Vannevar Bush's idea of the Memex, which dates back to 1945.) It's the fantasy of digital storage as surrogate memory. And we live in that surrogate memory now, deeply. But sometimes it's not there for us.

Previously, Narrative uploaded those photos (through a tethered phone). But now that the company is going away, it's no longer hosting those collected photos anymore on its server. To get to Narrative's stored photos of you, you'll need to use an upcoming tool and manually offload them to an app. Narrative, however, hasn't yet defined how that tool will work, and when asked for comment a representative declined to go into further detail.

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What happens when that Black Mirror idea of memory recall has a server issue?

Zeppotron

The point is, infinite storage is no longer there for you. For photos that are taken continuously, that's a problem. The camera can't hold enough on its own -- that's what Narrative's server was for. It's a problem for all photos, and the things we keep snapping of ourselves: where do we put them? And will they always stay there?

I live off Google, and my endless, scattered social media feeds. Something's on Facebook, some stuff is on Twitter, and oh yeah, Instagram -- and what did I do about LinkedIn? Snapchat, which made "autodestruct" messages famous, switched over to archiving your memories, too. The feature is even called "Memories."

Most services I use feature nearly infinite storage. A promise of memory that goes on forever. But this is a reminder for any future gadget that funnels its photos or content into one place: Snapchat and its Spectacles, Google and any future Glass follow-up. We are pushed to live in digital spaces, and sometimes those spaces disappear.

I'm just concerned about living too heavily in any experimental life-logging world where I'm dependent on one tool and one app. If that app or that service goes away, I'm lost. It could happen anywhere. And to Narrative Clip, it just did. Sure, Narrative was a small company, and the camera wasn't even very good. But how do I know what services will last, or what ones will disappear? Just ask devoted users of Twitpic. And even if the company is alive and well, there's no guarantee the service will go on: just look at Google Reader, Google Wave, iGoogle and Google Notebook, for instance. Or consider how cloud-storage services continually change rules on pricing and storage.

If we're diving headlong into keeping our memories on someone else's servers, I'd rather know that I can always reliably get them back -- and that I won't have my memory dissolved at a future date. That Black Mirror vision of your life always being logged isn't just bothersome because of the nightmare of everything being able to be recalled at a moment's notice. It's a nightmare because someday, when you least expect it -- server outage, company going out of business, customer service error, a glitch or something in between -- you also might not be able to access anything at all.