I have to be honest; I wasn’t a fan of Chapter Four: “Automated Diaries” in Jill Walker Rettberg’s Seeing Ourselves Through Technology: How We Use Selfies, Blogs and Wearable Devices to See and Shape Ourselves. There are a lot of scary, uncomfortable realities that come with writing “digital diaries”—like privacy concerns and data collection—but in this article, Rettberg doesn’t explore any of those pressing issues. Instead, she spends pages tediously reviewing obsolete “lifelogging” apps by sharing the apps’ taglines and describing how she personally logged her own mundane daily routine into each different application. (I really didn’t need to know about Rettberg’s sleeping habits, or the difficulties she had pinning the Narrative Clip to her chest, or her friends’ opinions of Facebook’s year in review videos.) Her tone as she meticulously describes these details makes her seem like an outside observer who’s fascinated by her findings as she studies the strange, newfangled concepts of “apps” and “technology.”
Technology is such an obvious part of life for me that reading this kind of detailed “academic” description of it makes me cringe a little. Maybe the reason I recoiled when reading this article is because I’m completely enmeshed in the phenomenon of digital journaling, and I don’t want to confront the problematic aspects of the daily routine I take for granted. Although I don’t technically have any dedicated “diary” apps, my phone is constantly recording data about where I’m going, what I’m doing, and who I’m seeing. I post images of fun activities on Instagram, share funny anecdotes about my day on Snapchat, and take pictures of my cats every time they do something cute (which is pretty often).
All of these apps know a disturbing amount about my personal life, and—like I discussed in my blog post “The Internet of Publicity, Bigotry, and Liberty”—this ominous data collection and erosion of privacy are looming concerns in the back of my mind every time I post something online. But instead of addressing these concerns, Rettberg just spends page after page describing how she used each app, the types of notifications she received, and the results of her personal “automated diaries.”
Honing in on these minutiae makes the article feel outdated. For example, Rettberg recalls how the Narrative Clip’s algorithms couldn’t recognize the difference between important personal relations and models’ faces in advertisements (52-53). Today’s technology is a lot better at recognizing faces; Google Photos knows the difference between my cats and my parents’ cats, and the app even creates automatic albums based on each cat’s face.
These kinds of increasingly intelligent AIs and algorithms are kind of terrifying, but they’re also so convenient. Apps like Google Photos, Snapchat, and Facebook are getting better and better at organizing photo albums and reminding users of happy memories, but it’s tough to decide whether these positive convenience factors outweigh the myriad ethical issues this technology presents (e.g., unwanted data collection, biased algorithms, loss of privacy, etc.). Frustratingly, Rettberg’s article doesn’t really make a statement about any of these concerns.
I wish she’d expanded on some of the more thought provoking points in the article; for example, she observes that nowadays, people use photography to “document the everyday” instead of only taking photos of special occasions (54). I completely agree (and the fifty photos I took of my cats this week prove that point), but I wish Rettberg had explored the implications of this cultural shift. What does it mean for an individual’s privacy when every moment is captured on camera? Does our need to record each moment affect our memories and perceptions of reality? How might our obsessive documentation of the everyday help future researchers and historians understand cultural trends? There’s so much to explore here, so I’m disappointed in the article’s limited scope.
Unlike Rettberg, I do want to explore the implications of automated diaries, specifically for the post pandemic university. The ethical issues I mentioned earlier are still in the back of my mind, but I can’t help thinking that automated diaries would be an excellent addition to education. To a small extent, I use this kind of constant digital record keeping in my own classroom; I post daily agendas and time stamped assignments on Google Classroom, and I use Google Docs to take private notes for myself on each day’s lessons. A student who’s never attended a live session of my class could use Classroom to receive a play by play of each day’s lessons, and—like a writer flipping through a diary and reflecting on earlier entries—I can easily go back into Docs and review old lessons to reflect on what went right and what I should change for next time.
As technology continues to improve, these types of “digital (classroom) diaries” will only get more accurate. Autumm Caines touches on this in her article “The Zoom Gaze” when she ponders the possibility of Zoom “highlight reels,” which would be a bit like a more advanced and accurate version of the Narrative Clip technology Rettberg describes. Highlight reels of lessons would condense the recorded lecture into a few choice clips, which would allow students to go back and review the important points of discussion. Ethical issues aside (of which, as Caines describes, there are plenty), this technology could be incredibly useful to students who can’t access the physical classroom for whatever reason, and it would allow educators to more easily reflect on their own pedagogy and practices. However, if automated diaries are implemented in the post pandemic university, schools will have to be be wary of privacy concerns, unnecessary data collection, and biased software, and they must carefully balance convenience with ethics.