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Saturday, April 9, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.

Computer sage cuts paperwork, converts his life to digital format

Seattle Times technology reporter

Gordon Bell

Trees must love Gordon Bell.

The Microsoft researcher set out years ago to live a paperless existence, and he's just about there.

He's scanned thousands of old photographs, cards, memos and letters, and now uses the digital copies. He canceled his newspaper and magazine subscriptions, preferring to read the publications online. His home videos, compact discs and books are digitized as well. Even the artwork on his office walls has been scanned into the computer for safekeeping.

His mailbox is almost always empty, and that's a good thing. He receives his bills online, and friends know better than to write him the old-fashioned way.

"I cringe when I get a letter," he said.

Not what you'd expect from a 70-year-old. But Bell said he just lives the way he expects everyone will in the future.

"I felt it was an inevitability that the world is going this way," he said.

Bell works out of Microsoft's San Francisco laboratories and is one of the most well-known researchers at the company. He is considered the father of the minicomputers of the 1960s, having spent 23 years at computer company Digital Equipment, and has made a career out of thinking about where technology is headed.

And while it's hard to imagine a time when people toss their pencils, seal up their mailboxes and send all paper to the recycle bin, Bell has shown that such an existence is at least possible.

That's not to say that Bell is completely paperless. His office assistant won't let him throw out things that have sentimental value. He still has copies of old journal articles he wrote and notebooks that he no longer refers to, as well as a few items left to be scanned into computers. When he travels, he prints out articles to read on airplanes when he must turn his computer off.

But he has electronic versions of everything he needs for daily life, and those are stored on the four computers he calls his "main" computers. It's so rare for him to put pen to paper that now he has a difficult time doing so.

"You should never store paper," he said. "The likelihood of you finding it again is nil."

In case one computer dies, Bell has everything backed up on other computers.

Bell is a volunteer guinea pig for a project he is developing at Microsoft called MyLifeBits, which explores the possibility of storing a lifetime of everything. Is it possible to capture a life on a hard drive? Would you want to?

The idea for the project goes back to a 1945 article published in The Atlantic Monthly by Vannevar Bush, then the director of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development. Many scientists had been focused on the U.S. war effort in the early 1940s, and when World War II ended, Bush encouraged them to start looking at ways to handle all the knowledge in the world.

Long before the personal computer, Bush predicted that a device, which he called a "memex," would arise in the future that could act as a storehouse of knowledge.

"A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility," he wrote. "It is an enlarged intimate supplement to [human] memory."

Bell began scanning his life in 1999 but was unhappy with the software available at the time. He recruited another Microsoft researcher, Jim Gemmell, to incorporate features such as an ability to add written and recorded comments to each digital file.

"It started out with just being paperless," Gemmell said. "But it really grew into saying, 'Let's digitize everything we can.' "

The effort is reminiscent of the "paperless office," an idea that gained popularity decades ago as futurists breathlessly predicted that electronic formats would replace paper documents. But experts say that workplaces now produce more paper than ever, partly because it's so easy to print from the computer.

According to a study released in the United Kingdom last month by printer company Lexmark, 2 percent of the working population there claims to have a clutter-free desk, and the average office desk has 135 pieces of paper on it.

There are still some practical problems with storing individuals' lives in electronic form. Copyright questions could arise, for example, if people were to convert the books they read or the art they owned to a digital format. There's also the issue of preserving such a vast store of information — even compact discs and hard drives deteriorate over time — and ensuring that future software and devices could access the data.

But before addressing those issues, Bell has had to prove that a true digital life was possible. Gemmell said technology has just recently arrived at the point where storing such volumes of data is even feasible.

"It's only been in the last couple years that hard drives are big enough and home systems are powerful enough that I could store a lifetime," he said. "We've just hit the point where this could become possible. Now it takes time to iron things out and figure out how to make it all work very nicely."

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or

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