A New Approach to the Memex

In 1945, Vannevar Bush published his now infamous article in the Atlantic entitled “As We May Think.” In that article, he proposed the idea of the memex, a computer like device that would record its user’s interactions with the world for easy retrieval later. The system was based on microfilm (it was 1945, after all), and was meant to emulate human memory’s associative powers. The memex became the working inspiration for hypertext technologies, which now drive the Web and its 2.0 applications.

Yet the memex’s memory functions were largely overlooked by technologists since 1945, not because the idea lacked merit but because technology could not fulfill the requirements of recording daily life. Now things have changed. According to an article published in the March issue of Scientific American, Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell say that new projects partially funded by Microsoft’s research wing have made life recording possible.

The program, called MyLifeBits, uses massive storage hardware (terrabytes’ worth), automatic cameras, biometric sensors, and software to track your digital life. The result if the program were used for an extended period of time, say a lifetime, would be an indexed, searchable archive of everything you’ve said and done.

As one example from the article goes: Say you remember that you were on a certain Web page when you got a phone call from a friend or student. You want to find out what that Web page’s address was so you can cite it in a paper, but you can’t remember the title. Just perform a MyLifeBits search for all Web pages viewed during phone calls with that student and abracadabra!

The idea is to make it all database driven and meta-tagged. That makes all the information highly searchable, much like the Semantic Web that some theorists are predicting will usurp the World Wide Web in coming decades. Software alarms could monitor patterns and report on regularities. Are you eating too much? Has your heart rate changed lately? The computer could compare data to archived records and determine whether you’re in need of a physical or whether you’re being just plain unproductive. Imagine, a pop-up window on your screen telling you that you’re spending too much time e-mailing someone who’s not important enough to warrant that amount of time. By god, that’s progress!

Of course, Plato would have a fit. After all, he thought writing would be enough to ruin human memory for good. He’s already reeled in his grave at the advent of personal organizers and datebooks. Now the technology exists to all but replace human memory. Will people cease relying on their own brains in favor of the easier, digital approach? Will we stop remembering mundane details like phone numbers and names because we know we have a backup? Will this hurt human memory or free it to think on more important matters?

And socially, how will be tolerate a new group of cyborgs (in the Donna Haraway sense) who wear their technology, literally, on their sleeve? Digital sensors would intrude on some people’s sense of privacy until time and popularity wore that sense away. Court procedures would change immensely as the evidence would be neatly stored in server farms. Circumstantial evidence would become a thing of the past, as would hearsay. The record could stand for itself.

All this striving for perfect recollection reaches for the permanence of memory, to make memory objective. There were after all at least three different recordings of Christ’s final words. That sort of inefficient writing would be a thing of the past. Memory not only departs the subjective realm, it become objectified in the process of becoming objective. It becomes a commodity, an industry, valuable to more than one person.

Imagine. With all the hubbub over Anna Nicole Smith’s corpse, how do you think the courts of the future would handle the posthumous disposition of a person’s life record? The tabloids could have a field day with all the accurately recorded infidelities!

Is digital memory like this inevitable? It does have certain benefits, but do they outweigh the current cultural value of privacy and personal memory?

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