Big Brother vs Little Brother: Is filming your life a breach of others’ privacy?

Big Brother is a minor problem for those who want privacy compared to “little brother”, A.J. Jacobs tells RT. Esquire’s editor-at-large is in the midst of one of his experiments, filming everything around him 24/7.

Author and journalist A.J. Jacobs is a man who likes to test the modern world, he believes that becoming a human guinea pig is the best way to learn about something. He spent one year living according to the Bible. Another two were dedicated to becoming the healthiest human being. Most recently the editor at large of Esquire magazine spent 12 weeks logging his life, documenting every second with a miniature camera attached to his ear that looks like an oversized Bluetooth device.

In an exclusive interview with RT, Jacobs says it’s only a matter of time before the overwhelming majority of people will be living this way, which is going to create all sorts of problems for people who don’t want public exposure.

RT:For the past 15 years you’ve essentially made your life a series of experiments, having conducted at least 25 of them. Why did you decide to do this?

A.J. Jacobs: I think it’s the best way to learn about something – is to become a human guinea pig. So, if I want to learn about religion, I try to live by the bible. If I want to learn about outsourcing, I outsource my own life. And I think it’s a good way to learn how to improve your life, because after the experiment maybe I don’t want to do everything I did during the experiment, but I always take away something that makes my life a little better.

RT:Can you live a normal life yhile you were doing those experiments?

AJ: It depends on the experiment, but sometimes it’s quite difficult, sometimes it takes over a year of life and drives my wife crazy.

A.J. Jacobs

RT:Let’s talk about one of your most recent experiments. It’s the life-logging experiment that you conducted for about three months. You essentially were videotaping every minute of your life…

AJ: That’s right. From the moment I woke up till the moment until the moment I went to sleep. I had a little camera in my ear, which was videotaping everything. The idea was that our memory is terrible and this was a way that I could actually remember. So, when I got an argument with my wife, and she said: “Oh, you never said that, that’s not what you were telling me before!” I could actually say: “Let’s go back to the videotape and see what really happened.”

RT:How transparent can a life of a human being get when you are recording every second of your day?

AJ: It is a bit of a problem, because we do things that are little embarrassing, but this is sort of taking the whole idea of Facebook and Twitter and taking it to its logical extreme. This is what we are going to be doing where all of our lives are going to be on the record. So, we are all going to be like politicians: whatever we say will be recorded. 

RT:Are there any destructive elements to that?

AJ: Oh, yes! It has some big downsides. Just whenever I wanted an argument with my wife, that was horrible because it was a loose-loose. Because if I was wrong, then I was wrong. If she was wrong, then she just got angrier. So, there are problems with it. But there are also great things about it. I have kids and when they did something cute, I always have it on tape.

RT:How do people change when you know that you are videotaping them?

AJ: Sometimes it freaked them out, as some literally dived under their tables to avoid being videotaped. But it also had an interesting effect, because people acted a little better. People didn’t want to gossip in front of me. So, it will be interesting when everyone has these video cameras, which I believe is coming. I think we’ll see: maybe the world will be a better place.

11th plaque: Multi-tasking

RT:You also conducted another experiment called unitasking. Tell me about that.

AJ: This was because I am a terrible multi-tasker: when I am on the phone, I am also typing e-mails and watching TV and riding my bicycle and so on… But the study showed it’s terrible for you and it’s non-efficient, it’s actually opposite of efficient. So, my idea was: let me try to do one thing at a time. So, if I am on the phone – that’s all I am doing. I actually blindfolded myself to actually concentrate on the phone call. And it was wild, because it totally changed my life. You realize – when you have conversations and you are multi-tasking, they are terrible conversations. But when you really focus, you actually listen to what the person is saying and you respond. It’s a bizarre concept.

A.J. Jacobs

RT:As technology goes forward, there are many more distractions. What kind of stress is it for the society?

AJ: I think it’s bad. I mean the scientists I talked to said it’s not a small problem. This is the 11th plaque (multi-tasking) – it’s making us dumber (studies show that your IQ actually goes down when you multi-task), it’s bad for driving (we get into accidents), it makes you more depressed (we are less able to empathize). So, this was my attempt to try to just do one thing at a time. For example, when I was eating (just trying to focus on eating), that drove my wife crazy, because she wanted a conversation. But I said: “Let me just taste the food.” It was a fascinating project!

RT:Let’s go back to the life-logging. You downloaded all the videos that you recorded every minute of your day. But all electronic communication in the US (we are told) is recorded and stored for security purposes. Usually it’s the federal government of the NSA that has the recordings. Maybe it’s what people are searching on the internet. There are a lot of cameras on the streets that are recording us when we don’t know about it. What are the risks of that (considering you just did this experiment on yourself)? You have it on your videotape. But imagine someone else had all that video of you…

AJ: That’s going to be a problem. I actually think big brother is a little bit of a problem, but I think little brother is going to be more of a problem. By that I mean other people will be videotaping you all the time. So, you do something embarrassing – someone else is going to be videotaping and put it on Youtube and you’ll be humiliated. You won’t be able to slip on a banana peel anymore without it going on Youtube.

RT:That really changes the way an entire society can behave though? 

AJ: It will be fascinating. I think we are all already seeing it. People are taking much fewer risks. I mean it’s really interesting to see that people may get totally used to and just to realize: my flaws are going to be out there. What am I going to do? Which is I think what you see on reality television.


A.J. Jacobs

RT:How about other people when they knew you had a video camera on be it friends, family or strangers? What was the reaction?

AJ: It was mixed. Some people hated it, so they would cross to the other side of the street. Some people liked it, because maybe they wanted to be actors, so they did a little song or a little dance and they showed off for the camera.

'Seeing people in their worst moments is a very humble experience'


RT:What are the truths that you believe people don’t like to know about themselves (based on your experiment)?

AJ: That’s a good question… I think people… For example, when I showed my wife our argument, she saw herself losing control and she hated it - it was a horrible experience. So, seeing herself in her worst moment is a very humbling experience. It also has its positives and its benefits. I tried it with my kids as well. I showed them when they were throwing a tantrum and I would show them the video of that, and say: this is what you look like when you are throwing a tantrum. And they didn’t want to see it, they covered up their ears and walked away.

RT:What were your biggest disappointments when it came to that experiment?

AJ: One was – how hard it was to find footage, because I thought this will be the end of me losing things. So, if I lose my wallet, I’ll just be able to go back and look at the videotape and say: oh, I left it on the counter. But the problem is that I would look and it would take me around six hours to find my wallet on the videotape. And my wife would find it in 10 minutes by just looking the regular old way.

RT:So, you became a little too reliant on this video, and not using your own mind or your own memory.

AJ: Yes! I was becoming too reliant on the video. I was outsourcing my memory.

RT:Did it make you filter yourself in anyway – just the way you interact with people? Did you end up filtering yourself?

A.J. Jacobs

AJ: I did! I felt that this is on tape, so I am not going to gossip about my friend. So, actually I did another experiment, where I lived by the rules of the Bible. So, it was like living by the Bible, as I wasn’t allowed to gossip.

RT:Tell me about some of the equipment that you used when you were documenting yourself.

AJ: I used a small camera that’s attached to my ear (it’s called the look-see). And it could hold 10 hours of video. So, it was remarkable. There was another one that people use, it’s called the go-pro – and that’s a camera that you can sort of strap to your chest or strap to your head. So, I did that. It looked a little weird when you walked around with that.

RT:It requires a great deal of a discipline what you do with the life-logging experiment, the unitasking experiment, you’ve done many other experiments. Where do you get that discipline from?

AJ: I think it’s partly because I am obsessive compulsive (I have obsessive compulsive disorder) – so, this is the way I channel that into something productive instead of washing my hands 40 times a day. I may one day channel it into one of my projects.

RT:Is your wife the same? Living with this and having the tolerance for these different experiments can’t be easy.

AJ: I would say my wife is a saint. She puts up with quite a bit. Some are harder than others. When I lived by the rules of the Bible I had to have this huge beard. And she hated that, she wouldn’t kiss me for four or five months. But other times she actually liked it – like during the Bible period I became a little more compassionate and I would try to think about my neighbor a little more. She liked that. She is a saint!

Stunt journalism

RT:Is that immersion journalism?

AJ: Yes! It’s called immersion journalism or method journalism, experiential journalism or stunt journalism. I’ve heard also all these names.

RT:Do you think it’s the best way to write about a topic clearly is to live it?

AJ: I think in some cases it’s the best way to learn everything. If you are going to write about politics, it’s time to become the President of the US and write about it from the first person’s point of view. But there are many topics, even something like fame. At one point I looked very much like an actor, who was having his 15 minutes. So, I went to the academy awards dressed as that actor and it was amazing, because I got to feel what it’s like to be famous. And I was signing autographs and people were telling me how brilliant I was. So, it was a unique point of view – I would never have been able to learn what it’s like unless I did it myself.

A.J. Jacobs

RT:And have you got any suggestions for your future experiments?

AJ: I get tons of suggestions. Some of them are good, some of them are not so good. Commonly some people say that I need to become the world’s greatest lover and do all the positions from the Kamasutra. And my wife says no way that’s happening. That’s sounds exhausting, I am not going to do that. Sometimes they make suggestions that I actually do like. There is one (which I already did), which tells me to do everything my wife says during one month, just to be a doormat of a husband. That was horrible. That was one of the worst months in my life, because she became drunk with power. 

RT:What’s your next experiment?

AJ: I am actually still deciding on my next experiment. The life-logging was the most recent. I am still following a lot of what I did from the health experiment that I did, where I tried to have the healthiest person’s life. So, I spend a lot of my time on a treadmill. That’s how I work: I put my computer on top of a treadmill and I type. So, I’ve adopted bits and pieces from all of my experiments. And that takes a lot of time.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.