Why I secretly recorded my life
- 11 September 2012
- From the section Magazine
It's normal now for people to document their lives on social networks, but you can take this kind of thing too far - as I did when I secretly taped all my conversations for three years.
Recently, I was listening to a recording I made six years ago.
It was a conversation I had in a noisy bar in Seattle with my friend Mark. The reason I have this recording is that at that period in my life I was wearing a wire and recording everything. Mark was one of the few people at the time who knew about this secret obsession of mine, and he didn't approve.
Mark: It's not that I'm afraid I'm going to say something I will regret and you will play it for someone. It's that life is temporal and fleeting.
Me: Doesn't that make you want to record every moment of your life?
Mark: No! I like that my life is fleeting. Posterity is only good in certain doses.
Let me explain why I was wearing a wire. It started when I was 23. I wanted to be a radio journalist. At that point in my life I had been kicked out of college, I was delivering pizzas for a living in a town in Colorado and I was unhappy. I heard a story on the radio by a writer named Scott Carrier, who had been travelling around Utah interviewing schizophrenics, and it had a profound effect on me. It was like the rest of the world melted away and there was this singular voice talking directly to me.
It seemed very simple at the time. All I had to do was buy a MiniDisc recorder, make some recordings, produce my first story, play it for some people who worked in radio and they would give me a job.
The problem, I quickly discovered, was that I was terrified of interviewing people. I was afraid that my story would suck and instead of radio being my salvation, it would just be one more thing in life I had failed at. Instead of overcoming my fear of talking to strangers and doing interviews, I decided to wear a wire - a hidden microphone under my shirt - and for the next three years I recorded my life in secret.
Whenever I wanted, I could just slip my finger in my pocket and press record.
Amazingly, the first night I wore the wire, someone pulled out a gun in a bar and started yelling at a friend of mine. It was a dramatic start.
My plan was to record for a little while, until I had enough tape to make a story. But for three years something kept me from sitting down and learning how to edit tape and produce a story. Again the fear. And so recording became an obsession and I couldn't stop.
During this period, Mark and I took a trip to New York City to visit our old high school friend Sriya. We showed up at her apartment without notice, expecting her to let us crash on her floor. She was upset that we showed up unannounced and expected to stay there. We spent the night awkwardly playing cards and drinking whiskey, but eventually she kicked us out and we ended up sleeping in a parking lot. What Sriya did not know was that I was recording the whole time.
Earlier this year, I began working on a radio story about the wire for CBC radio in Canada. I started calling up people from my past to tell them that I had recorded them, and I recorded two phone calls so I could use them in the story. The first person I called was Sriya.
She was shocked and said it was creepy and perhaps even unethical. If I had broadcast those recordings, I would have "crossed a line". I would never now record someone secretly for a piece of journalism, but I don't think what I did was immoral. I agree with Sriya that it depends what you do with the recording.
Sriya also said there was a part of it that was positive. It was fascinating that I could go back to this earlier period and reflect on it and remember things that neither of us had any recollection of. And she felt bad, she said, because that was the last time she ever saw Mark. Four years after that night in New York, I moved to New Orleans. Mark came to visit and while he was there he drowned in the Mississippi river. I was with him when it happened.
I called other people besides Sriya to tell them that I had secretly recorded them. One was the captain of a boat I worked on in Alaska. He was the quintessential sea captain, white beard, in the Navy for 40 years. When I told him I thought he was going to start yelling, but there was a long pause, then he said: "I didn't use any bad language did I?" Strangely, none of the people I told was angry.
I wonder, though, if their reactions would be the same if it was pre-internet, pre-social media, pre-ubiquitous surveillance cameras? Are we so used to broadcasting our lives on the internet and being spied on that what I did seems normal? I don't know.
But what I do know from my experience is that when I was recording - I did it routinely for three years, and another two years on and off - I wasn't myself. I was so conscious of how I sounded that I became someone else. I was hyper-aware of my own voice. I spoke less. When I did speak, I had this idea in my head that I was a documentarian. I tried to sound important. Sometimes I would "get personal", when no-one else was around, and narrate my life like it was a diary entry. You can imagine how fun that is to listen to.
I probably never would have listened to most of those recordings. But when I got the opportunity to produce a story about that period, I had to go back and listen to a lot of that old tape and it was awful. Most of it was mundane and it's unclear why I thought any of it was worth committing to tape, though I did discover a few gems. Like that argument I had with Mark in the bar. I had forgotten about it until I found the recording of it.
He was totally right about posterity only being good in small doses. I realise that now. Having to slog through hundreds of hours of my own boring life has made that very, very clear to me.
I am a radio producer now. My job is to make recordings and decide which moments are worth reliving and which should be erased. Mark also made his living recording. He was a musician and an engineer in a recording studio. He was a perfectionist. For him, the only moments worth capturing on tape were the transcendent ones that stop you in your tracks and make you marvel at the wonder of sound. The ones that remind you that life is temporal, that our existence is fleeting. Which I understand now is precisely why it's remarkable.
But I also think Sriya is right about the the positive aspect of having all these recordings of Mark. It's those recordings, the ones he didn't want me to make, that I love most.