A Life Well Documented

Photo by Tony Lam Hoang on Unsplash

‘Minutiae’ is an app that prompts users to photograph their lives. In the process, it breaks with all conventions of social media and the internet.

Any life is the sum of small moments: Minutes that become hours, hours that become days and years. “Everything is a fearless process of becoming”, writes photography critic John Banville.

Like him, many inventors and documentarians have grappled with the passing of time and the way it accumulates into a human life. American inventor Buckminster Fuller kept a “rigorous record” of his life: He documented each of his days between 1917 to 1982 in the “Dymaxion Chronofile”, a 700 volume diary of his life in 15 minute intervals.

Much of Fuller’s time was undoubtedly consumed by writing his journal, which is why newer generations of so-called lifeloggers rely on technology to construct a record: In the 2000s, Microsoft engineer Gordon Bell began wearing a camera that took a photo every 30 seconds. Meanwhile, designer Nicholas Feltron used an app that had him answer a quick questionnaire about his activity several times a day. At the end of the year, he assembled the data into “Yearly Reports”, breaking life down into beautiful graphs.

In recent years, the notion of lifelogging (or flogging, its rather unfortunate abbreviation) has become rather commonplace: It’s something many now voluntarily do on social media, building a record of their days through incremental status updates or Instagram posts. And as technology becomes so pervasive that it starts disappearing, it’s easier than ever to live a life well documented: Phones already seamlessly track such diverse data as location, physical activity, or even health.

Artists Martin Adolfsson and Daniel J. Wilson have taken on lifelogging from a completely different angle: They argue that it’s the unremarkable, random moments that are worth documenting – and have built an app to do just that. I sat down with them to talk about how their app Minutiae does it, and how they broke with all conventions of social media in the process.

My dictionary defines the word ‘minutiae’ as “the small, precise, or trivial details of something”. What’s so fascinating about triviality?
Daniel: We began this project through the New Museum, which had a theme called ‘The Invisible City’. Part of that was a focus on big data, which was on the rise in New York City. We realized that big data always means you lose the small details: The outliers, the round edges. When we created the app, we wanted a name that hinted at recapturing moments that would otherwise disappear. Moments that seem like they don’t have an impact, even though they do.

What do you mean?
Daniel: We won’t know what the impact is until the experiment has run its course in four years. But studies have shown that an old photo triggers memories. We don’t want to show you something you remember, like the birthday from four years ago. We want to show you something like the sink you used to wash dishes in four years ago. Chances are you won’t remember that – but now that you got it documented, it’s going to bring back a bunch of other memories. The photo is a memory trigger.

A photo taken with Minutiae.

Another photo from Minutiae. The kitchen sink you might remember in a few years.

Social media networks like Instagram work by showing life as a succession of exceptional moments. You are suggesting that’s an illusion.
Martin: We can all just look at daily life around us. Every now and then there are highlights, but most of our daily lives are made up of routine moments, repeated day after day. Over time, we tend to not think of these moments as significant, even if at some point they might have been. When you first move into an apartment, everything feels new and exceptional. But over time, it becomes routine, just like everything else. Minutiae helps us document those moments we wouldn’t consider important when we experience then, but over time become more and more valuable.

The unexpected ones
Look at what happens on Instagram: People share highlights, but I believe that ordinary moments are more valuable in helping us gain an understanding of a person’s life that unique highlights do – just because they’re more relatable.

Since you mentioned the word ‘routine’: Your app relies on routine as well. Once a day, it prompts users to capture and upload whatever they’re doing. Walk me through that.
Martin: Once a day, all participants receive an alert, regardless of time zone. This means all participants take part in a routine, or rather a ritual. You have a window of one minute to respond to the notification. Once you open it, you have five seconds to actually take a picture…

…to prevent artful composing?
Martin: …and to make people more spontaneous. The more time you have, the more you can overthink your photo. We want you to document what’s in front of you with all honesty.

What happens with the picture?
Martin: Slowly but surely, you build a own timeline consisting of 1440 pictures. Each represent a minute, and all those minutes add up to one day. Since you only get an alert a day, it takes you 1440 days to collect all the minutes. When you access the app outside of the alert, you just see a screen, a grid of 1440 squares. If you miss an alert, you just get a black square and a new alert the next day. Each square represents a day of your life, so if you’re asleep for one third of the day, one third of your squares are going to be black.

There’s also a social component.
Martin: Once you’ve taken the photo, you can peek into someone else’s timeline for 60 seconds: To see someone else’s photo taken at the same time as yours, and to scroll back and forth in their timeline to build a short narrative about that person’s life. After 60 seconds, the app shuts you out, and the next time you take a picture, you’ll be matched with someone else.

You play with the assertion that this is an unsocial network, which departs from everything we think of as a social one. Why add the social component at all?
Daniel: It is social, but also not social. You get to peek into someone’s life but there’s no way to connect with them whatsoever. It is more of a voyeuristic experience.

To see how normal their lives are?
Martin: That’s the point. You take a step away from the curated self, from the highlights, and actually peek into a mundane, everyday moment. I’ve been using the app for three, four months now and it’s remarkable how similar everyone’s life is, regardless of whether you get matched with someone in South Africa, Israel, Egypt, or Sweden. Everyone shares a similar routine.

Normal life, randomly captured.

In the early 2000s, Gordon Bell experimented with lifelogging, wearing a camera around his neck that took a photo every 30 seconds. He stopped his experiment after eight years, saying that the activity “wasn’t bringing a lot of value to my life.”
Daniel: There’s no guarantee of value, but what we find interesting is both our own experience and the results of the Harvard report. Nobody denies that a photo album or taking photo has a value to it – it’s good to document your highlights. But we already have multiple ways of remembering highlights already: Camera, Facebook, Instagram, and our memories.

None of those mediums captures the mundane moments.
Martin: Exactly. The Harvard study found that people who were instructed took both ‘highlights’ and ‘boring’ photos. After just six months, they were asked what they wanted to see – which was the boring moments. Because they don’t remember them. That’s what the Minutiae project is trying to experiment with. It is an art project, an experiment, after all. For some people it might be more meaningful than for others.

Isn’t €16,99 a bit high of a price for confronting me with how unremarkable my life is?
Daniel: A lot of the ideas in Minutiae go against what is the dominating business model of apps: Trying to maximize the amount of users, trying to maximize the amount of time spent with the app, and trying to sell as much user data as possible. Our app is not free, we’re paying for bandwidth and server cost. What you get for that is never getting advertised to and never having your data sold. I like that some people are upset about the price. It reminds us that when something is free, you are the product.
Martin: It’s actually $14.99 in the U.S. But Apple charges more money in other countries and unfortunately we are unable to change it. But we’re not a start-up and out business model isn’t that – this is an art project and art costs money.

You’re getting a lot of attention because you’re so radically departing from what we consider an app should do: Users aren’t pushed towards perfection, they barely even have agency.
Daniel: The most common rating we get on the App Store is five stars. The second most common one is two stars. You either love it or hate it. Some people think an app should be free, on their own terms, trying to make their lives more interesting. But Minutiae doesn’t fall into any of those traditional categories. Some people find it ridiculous, others love it. This isn’t Facebook, we’re not trying to get everyone on the planet on board. This is a project for people who are into it and actually go through with it will have an interesting experience, something meaningful in the end.
Martin: Everyone is participating in the same ritual at the very same time, regardless of nationality, religion, or gender. I think that’s pretty unique, and that makes it fairly unique. And to make it more democratic: The Android version is in the works.

Check out the artists’ website or download Minutiae on the App Store.