Scientific studies on memory are usually focusing on how people remember things. Applied technologies are using these models to increase how much or how well we can recall about the information that surrounds us. As both theory and technology develop at an increasing speed, we see how the human mind becomes extended and embodied into its environment (Clark, 2008).
My PhD supervisor, Itiel Dror and Steven Harnad (2008) explained this process as a natural continuation of how all cognizing agents -let them be biological or artificial- are offloading their cognition into different cognitive technologies. The boundaries between the memories in my head and the ones on this blog have become fuzzy. Please, don’t think of me as a cyborg with microchips on my temporal lobe, but rather someone, who searches unfamiliar things in Wikipedia and keeps a good amount of his data in the Cloud.
A new book with the cheesy title of Total Recall, written by Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell, two senior researchers at Microsoft, show how far this offloading can push the limits of our imagination. They present their MyLifeBits project that digitized all documents, photos, external memories of Bell so that he could truly become paperless and uncluttered ‘both in his head and on his desk’. But they went further and since 2001, Bell has also attached a SenseCam and a GPS on his body to record and log all life events, meetings, trips, emails and telephone conversations that he faces. This is his personal life’s chronicle, which he calls ‘life-logging’. Here’s a long interview video with the authors.
As I’m reading through the book, arguments are firing to convince me that being able to life-log gigabytes of information per month about my own life and smart-search it back in its exactness all that happened with me via time-place concept tags are the best things the modern human can do. To overcome our mind’s limited memory capacity and extend it into a perfect e-memory is the revolution on our doorstep. It is the deliberation of humankind from its mortal biological chains.
Why is it that it somehow makes me feel uneasy? Because it’s just new as computers or televisions were in their times? Maybe. But the first thing that I could think of was a very human psychological mechanism: forgetting. I feel blessed that I can forget and that every day I do so. Even if the research on repression and trauma is still controversial, I feel reassured that most parts of my life will disappear from myself and from other human beings. Not because I’m not happy with my life, but because in most times, I want to reconstruct and not review my own memories.
Memory reconstruction gives me integrity and a sense of who I am. I think the source of my uneasiness about Total Recall comes from a lack of trust in the SenseCam, in contrast to a self-deceitful comfort that my limited mind’s distorted camera has provided to me in the past almost thirty years.
Lastly, the anecdotal evidence which suggests that those who survived a near-death moment experienced a video of their life flickering in front of their eyes makes me suspicious that our mind is in fact not as much limited in its capacity as we thought. It may actually record everything that we encounter, but perhaps what makes us human is that we’re not capable (yet) to do a Total Recall. The real question is still : why?