The Speak, Memory Machine
The simple invention that promises (or threatens) to change the way we listen to each other
Mike Sarow was on a trip to California when he conceived his strange device.
He’d been talking with a friend, and she was on a roll, and he became so enthralled by what she was saying and so concerned he was going to forget it that finally he broke in: “You know what, I’m gonna save this.” He held out his left wrist and tapped it, firmly, as if issuing a command.
The two of them laughed. It was a hell of a compliment, but she knew there wasn’t anything on his wrist — no fanciful recorder that could reach back into the past and recover her words. Sarow knew it too, but he also knew that that was only because he hadn’t invented it yet.
It’s sort of like dark matter, the stuff we say aloud to each other: it’s this enormous, ubiquitous presence, it may well glue the human world together, and yet it leaves hardly any trace of itself. People talk a lot, in fact almost ten or twenty times more than they write — something like 15,000 words per day. But whereas almost everything we type is committed to an infinite searchable record, the words we say go about as far as the air carries them, which, depending on how you think about it, is either just as it should be or something of a massive tragedy.
This latter view is the starting point for Kapture, the name of Sarow’s device and of the company he co-founded with Matthew Dooley in Cincinnati to build it. The Kapture, in development for about two years, and finally shipping later this fall, is a wristband that passively records everything in a 5-foot radius.
The trick is that it only ever keeps the last 60 seconds, which you can save by tapping the device. So you don’t have to know in advance if something will be worth saving — you can “kapture” a spontaneous moment right after it happens. And if you never tap it, it never saves anything.
When Kapture floated their idea on Kickstarter, there was a groundswell of support, with $162,000 worth of backers enthusiastically dreaming up ways they’d use the device: musicians would save riffs, parents would chronicle their kids’ darndest moments, professionals would take notes on the road, and so on. Sarow explains that a lot of people find something icky, at first, about the concept of an always-on wristband recorder; but then, a few days later, they come back listing all the times they would’ve used it. There have been so many of these reports that Sarow and Dooley now collect them into an unusual document: “testimonials” from customers who haven’t yet used the product.
I think what’s happening (and what happened to me) is that when you find out that a device like this exists, but you don’t have one, you start feeling a little pang of regret whenever there’s a snatch of speech or a joke or a moment that you would’ve saved, if saving it were really just a tap away. It’s like you become a reporter of your everyday life, listening for the good stuff. It’s not unlike that reflex you develop when you first get a camera you can carry everywhere — with the option, always, to take a picture, the visual world glows and pops with opportunity (“here’s something that’d make a good Instagram”). But so why shouldn’t your ear now, like your eye then, get trained this way?
“When we see a thing we like, we take a picture of it, and we’re pretty diligent about it,” Sarow says. “There are 400 million photos added to Facebook per day.” And yet, if you hear something you like, “there’s nothing you can do about it.”
The difference, maybe, is that where photographs are prospective (“I’m going to take a picture of you”), the Kapture’s sine qua non is that it works in retrospect (“I’m saving that thing you just said”). There’s something strange and novel and, apparently, contagious about this backward-looking gesture. Keith Porter, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan and an early employee of Kapture, says that as soon as he told his friends about the device, anytime he’d say something they thought was dumb they’d razz him about it by tapping their wrist; later, it mutated into a shorthand for praise. And of course once wrist-tapping became a thing, so did not-tapping (“Why didn’t you save that? I thought that was pretty good!”).
Part of the feeling of ickiness about the device, then, must come from our sense that conversations are not supposed to be about sending or withholding praise; they’re not supposed to be performative. When you put every conversation on the record, even if only provisionally, you threaten to induce a weird Heisenbergian anxiety, where the mere fact that someone might save what you’ve said, or not, at any moment, changes the way you talk. Some people might get used to it, but it could be crippling. And anyway we already take vacations and go to restaurants with an eye toward how it’s going to play on our newsfeed; ought we become critics and nostalgists, too, of every recently-passed minute of speech? It feels like yet another intrusion of technology into a part of our lives that used to be analog and unselfconscious and safe.
“A plethora of cheap devices for sensing, tracking, and compiling all kinds of information from all corners of life will pour steadily into the consumer-electronics market,” predicted Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell in their 2009 book, Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything. “Our culture will need to develop a whole new body of etiquette about who may record whom when and where.”
“We’re sort of boyishly optimistic that we’re not gonna have a Google Glass backlash,” Sarow said to me. Sarow, who worked at Procter & Gamble for 12 years before starting Kapture, is from Kansas by way of Ohio, and he has a way of talking that blends an engineer’s matter-of-factness with a midwestern aw-shucks sincerity. He’s disarming, is what I mean, and you want to believe him when he says that he bet his career on this product because “the most dramatic and high-level thing there is is a conversation with another human being.” Kapture, he says, “is not a gadget. It’s not a productivity device. It’s a tool that pays off people that listen to each other.”
He doesn’t think of Kapture as anything like Google’s Glass or Apple’s iWatch. In fact he sees it as an antidote to that special form of inattention caused by “gizmos and gadgets and screens.” He talks a lot about presence. “If you’re not gonna listen closely to the people you’re talking to, our product’s not going to do shit for you. It doesn’t even tell you the time.” It’s as if by being so spare, the product becomes a referendum on its core idea — on whether people do, in fact, want to “take a photograph of what they’ve just heard.”
Of course you wonder whether a wristband with a microphonic grill could ever go mainstream, or whether, like the Segway or Glass, it’ll bring its early adopters unfriendly attention. Kapture is hoping to ride the rise of “wearables,” citing, for instance, the fact that the Fitbit is now shipping a million units per quarter. But it’s as likely that Kapture’s first small production run will be their last. “We may not be around 6 months from now,” Sarow says. “There’s a million reasons we could fail.”
One wishes them luck — if for no other reason than that their funny little wristband forces into your consciousness the fact of a tremendous loss: that people say things; that we forget them; that we don’t have to.