Throughout the month of March 2004, I secretly recorded 240 minutes of my conversations with others. If you spoke with me socially last month, even via phone, it is somewhat likely I recorded our exchange. I did so not to inform on my trusted acquaintances, but rather to spy on myself.
Since reading an article about a proposed system to record, index, and access one’s entire history of conversation months ago, I haven’t been able to get a certain problem-solving scheme out of my head. Backstory on that scheme: Those who know me well are quite aware that, usually in the mid-morning, I tend to force anyone who’ll listen into a discussion of how others perceive me: Do I act natural? What kind of things do I say? Here’re are the things I regret saying/not saying. Do I repeat myself often? How often do I make no sense? What reaction do others have to what I say? Do they see through my lies, track my tiny discrepancies? Do I interrupt people? Do I give people too hard a time? I regret giving so-&-so such a hard time. Am I frequently interrupted? How often do I provide an answer to a question that does nothing more than mask the fact that I don’t know the answer to that question?
The minidisc recorder and lavalier microphone I bought for the Iceland trip provided me with the means to answer some of these questions. The intent of this endeavor was, again, not to pull anything over on my crew, but rather to collect some field data on myself. I must admit though, I quickly became consumed with the fact that I was amassing collections of the personal conversations of others as well.
To me, these recordings would be an opportunity to catch myself lying, leaving things unsaid, being difficult; to see whether or not I act as I expect myself to. I wonder if, upon reading this, any of you decide I am hopelessly despicable; there were times in March during which I felt hopelessly despicable.
Starting on 1 March, I regularly carried the minidisc recorder in my left-hand rear pants pocket, with the microphone cord threaded through my belt-loop and into my front-left pants pocket. From there, the wire ran up under my perpetually-untucked shirt, terminating at the small bud microphone discreetly clipped to my undershirt just beneath the buttons of the untucked one. The sound of my voice on the recording was remarkably clear with this set up, and the voices of others, in most cases, were audible but somewhat diminished. I was a little worried that the mic would be detected, but after the first couple of tries, I realized that no one looks at my chest or bottom and felt safe enough. No one ever noticed it; in fact, this is the first anyone’s heard of the whole endeavor. While engaged in conversation, I would reach back and push what I thought to be the appropriate button every few minutes.
Before beginning, I was particularly worried that what I said and did would be influenced by the fact that I knew the recording was underway. However, as the recording played out, I found that a) I forgot about the recording very quickly (in a few cases, it ran for quite a while I was alone) and b) my estimation of whether or not the recording was actually underway at any given time was sheerly a guess. I could not see the minidisc recorder’s display, in my back pocket as it was, until retrieved later in solitude. The record and stop buttons are relatively easy to blindly identify, but the machine’s operation was also subject to my position and discreet fumblings. I realize now that many attempts to begin recording only woke the machine from sleep mode, attempted stops merely inserted a new track, and crouches and sitting often paused or stopped the the recording altogether.
Since I was never really sure that I was recording, I think what I recorded was pretty much the natural me. Listening to the recordings, I am assured of this. Though I didn’t catch myself lying, or acting outside the parameters I believe define my personality, I did learn several things.
ITEM: Though I profess my love for nearly everything I encounter (as in: I love that somone totally wants to pick a fight with him or, I love the bullethole in this giant concrete rabbit), shitty is at the top of a very short list of adjectives I often use in conversation. Heartbreaking is a close second.
ITEM: I constantly finish other people’s sentences, but with precisely the wrong words. This is interesting, because I seem only to attempt to finish others’ sentences; a startling percentage of sentences I begin on the recordings myself are never finished, due either to others’ interruptions or my own preoccupied trailing off. One minute-&-a-half-or-so very direct, two-person conversation I had included ZERO complete sentences (or even complete thoughts for that matter) on my end. Interestingly, both parties were apparently satisfied with the fast-paced exchange of information.
ITEM: I ate, and reported on the eating of, many, many delicious cookies during March.
ITEM: I often sing the songs of Squeeze when no one is around. For all my listening to them, I remember and articulate relatively few of the words to these songs correctly. I also tend to moan the familiar, persistent, closed-mouthed moan that got me sent out of class in pre-school.
ITEM: Many of my most considered statements go ignored, and rightly so.
ITEM: At some point in March, I heard an amateur pianist work slowly though a medley of favorites, including "The Way We Were," in a crowded corridor. Uncharacteristically, I made no mention of it.
ITEM: Want an earful? Ask me about games.
ITEM: The immediate shame one feels for automatically uttering hackneyed "If by x, you mean ~x, then yes/no" statements does not diminish with subsequent playback. In fact, it increases rather significantly.
ITEM: Ew, I can operate my minidisc recorder while urinating.
ITEM: No one laughs at statements referring to Deep Blue, even if they are clearly intended as jokes.
ITEM: Contempt is much quieter from the inside.
ITEM: Those of us whose voices were captured on the recordings seem to delight in tales of shame and woe that, in retrospect, are veiled descriptions of moments of personal triumph.
I’m pleased with both the quality and the content of the recordings. More interesting, to me, however, have been the results of my preoccupation with with this month-long super-secret mission. March and April have certainly been months of audio-obsession for me (but, seriously, though, which months aren’t?), but I think that this particular activity has flavored my interactions with the world. For example, at Sam and Margaret’s last week, I felt it appropriate, even necessary, to provide an intermittent commentary of the night’s events (like: 11:22. No one has touched the nunchuks. This is a shame.) in the audio file Sam created on his computer to receive the cheer of his guests upon entering the new home.
There were some unintended effects and striking coincidences I noticed during the process. First of all, during the times I was not recording, I was filled with guilt and haunted with pressure– about all the great content I was missing, about the feeling of power it gave me to know that I may be recording things that shouldn’t be recorded, about the repercussions of these recordings on my relationships with those recorded (or even those who don’t know whether or not they were recorded). In a number of the unrecorded conversations I had in March, the idea of being secretly recorded came up, people other than myself joked of the implications of secret recordings, and the general awareness of what could be done with such recordings was discussed. This is most likely due to the fact that while my recording was taking place, many of us were involved in the process of remixing an interview with j for the j remix challenge.
The most notable coincidence that took place, however, involved a later-discovered unintended recording by a different source of events and conversations I was myself concurrently recording.