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Using an app that remembers all my digital activity felt like putting my brain in a jar

Using an app that remembers all my digital activity felt like putting my brain in a jar


It sounds appealing and then again it doesn’t

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atlas recall

Atlas Recall, created by Napster co-founder Jordan Ritter, is what he calls a “juicy” idea.

It remembers everything you do on your computer — or on all of your computers, if that’s how you live your life — and automatically creates a searchable database that can peer into your browser history, your text messages and emails, and just about every major app you can think of, including the Microsoft suite, Slack, most Adobe, Google Docs and Drive, Evernote, Dropbox, and Twitter. The goal is to make it impossible to lose anything in your digital life, eliminating the questions “Where did I see that information?” or “What did I do with that file?” It’s like Finder or Spotlight or Hunchly, but for everything.

It’s easy to set up — you don’t have to give authorization on an app-by-app basis, just create an Atlas account and adjust the Accessibility settings on your computer.

Atlas Recall is also cool. It looks nice and it’s fun to play with. That’s just my average human narcissism talking — what’s more fascinating to me than a beautifully laid out map of my own brain? Nothing!

atlas recall screenshot

Since almost everything I do is in a handful of apps and on one MacBook Air, there’s not much need for Recall in my daily work routine. I can pretty much remember if a piece of information was in Gmail, Slack, The Verge’s CMS, or a Google Doc, and use the native search there to find it. I’m a faithful disciple of Pocket, and habitually save anything and everything I see online that I might want to come back to. Atlas also saves your previous searches by name, cluttering up Finder results for actual files. It’s sort of obnoxious, and it’s unclear why anyone would want to search for previous searches.

Recall is probably most useful for someone with more than one computer and more than one email address, as well as a job that requires them to be on the go a lot. The most handy feature is the ability to search your computer from an iPhone (Atlas says Android functionality is coming later). So if you’re away from your computer and suddenly need to send someone everything you’ve written, emailed, and searched about say, Jake Gyllenhaal, that’s easy to do.

The most useful feature is searching your computer from your phone

It’s not always spot-on. The search results are best when you’re looking for something very specific in a small window of time and even then you’re apt to get curveballs. Sometimes the system can direct me to my email but doesn’t pull up a specific thread, which points me in the right direction but means I still have to perform a second search in Gmail to get all the way there. Right now there are some problems searching Slack with macOS Sierra installed, and it occasionally turns up bizarre results. For example, I searched the word “Thanksgiving” to find an email thread with my family: it found the email thread but it also returned half a dozen still images from something I was watching on Netflix (there was a roast chicken in one of them, so that’s something).

Atlas CEO Jordan Ritter told me this isn’t really a glitch because the software is meant to learn context as well as content — it should pull up things you had open at the same time as the thing you’re looking for so that it can learn more about you and become something like a personal assistant (the AI buzz term of the year). Eventually he wants Atlas to bring users things unbidden and learn so much about their habits that these suggestions are actually useful. This would be a premium paid feature down the line. Of the bumbling searches I told him about, he said “It’s not that the system isn’t working, it’s that it’s trying to get to know you.”

atlas recall

The biggest question about Atlas — which is a good enough idea that works well for an open beta — is whether it’s secure and whether it’s private. Obviously there are some things you do on a computer that you might not want stored at all. For that reason, you have the option to pause Atlas for various increments of time and rescind its ability to remember what you’re doing. You can also add URLs to a Block List so that Atlas will never remember you going to certain sites. Those filters are applied locally so anything you block doesn’t get fed into the Atlas system at all.

You can also delete data after the fact, and Atlas promises you have the sole ownership and control of all your information. There are algorithms that can see everything, but Ritter says no human beings at their HQ can look at the particulars. They do note the important exception that information will be shared to comply with any legal process.

atlas recall

Items in Recall are encrypted in transit to their servers and while at rest, which Ritter notes is as vital for him personally as anyone else using the app: “I run my company, I can’t have my employees sifting through my data.” However he still notes that, as with anything, “the user is the most important aspect of security. If you hand your laptop to someone else they can read your emails or see what you’re saying in Facebook Messenger.” That’s true but it’s clearly not close to as robust a danger as someone searching my laptop for their name and immediately seeing every time I’ve mentioned them in any app or browser tab I’ve ever opened. So that’s definitely something to seriously consider before you install Recall — especially because there’s no option to set up two-factor authentication.

This isn’t the only reason I find using Recall to be a little unnerving. Scientists are already finding evidence that our brains are rewiring themselves to prioritize the memorization of pathways over pieces of data. In other words, we remember the most efficient ways to find information and we get faster all the time, which disincentivizes the long-term storage of the individual facts we look for. Recall then disincentivizes remembering the pathways to information, too, which sort of makes me feel like I’m off-loading my brain into a jar. It’s fun, and handy, but sometimes there’s value in the hunt. That’s how you make unexpected discoveries and you know... use your brain to perform the basic tasks of being alive.