Category Archives: ong

From Writing to Personal Memory Device

h+ Magazine postulates a seemingly distant future where we all have “personal memory devices,” that record, index, and make available every second of our experiential lives:

In the near future, someone will decide to record every moment of a human life from birth to death in digital storage…It will mark the era of personal memory offloading, an adaptive memory technology that records and indexes every single moment of your life. Offloading personal memory begins with a personal memory device, or a PMD. The basic PMD would be no more complex than a small video and sound recorder that captures your every experience. A PMD could be easily fitted shortly after birth; the least invasive option would be like a Bluetooth headset worn over the ear connected wirelessly to a local device no larger than a cell phone. Once installed, the PMD would capture and upload all first-person memories to a centralized database for indexing, search, and recall.

To be clear, the author isn’t talking about embedding chips in our brains, or recording our innermost thoughts and feelings. The idea here is more like a video recorder that’s running all the time, like a playback of your avatar in SecondLife. It would capture “GPS, Google Maps, facial recognition, speech/text recognition, brainwave analysis and so on,” recording this all for posterity, and making it available for use later on:

Whatever you do will be captured by the PMD for later playback and recall. Your PMD will remember every place you visit, every person you meet, every conversation you have, every object you look at, every movie you watch, every meal you eat, every page you read, every email you write, everything.

It sounds like Big Brother. But isn’t a lot of this already happening?

Our calls and email messages today leave traces that the government can use to spy on us. Search engines track what we do online. Our browsers track what what we do as well. We post most of what goes on in our lives on social networking sites, while remaining clueless about how these sites protect — or don’t protect — our privacy. We post our location without thinking of the implications.

The technology behind a personal memory device isn’t all that far-fetched. It’s possible to stream video from wherever you are already. This dumped to a database, time-stamped and geo-located, would provide much of the basis of such a system. Or, even closer to the vision of h+’s futuristic article, here is the Sensecam — a device, available today, that helps people with Alzheimer’s and other memory disorders to remember:

The concept was simple: using digital pictures and audio to archive an experience like a weekend visit from the grandchildren, creating a summary of the resulting content by picking crucial images, and reviewing them periodically to awaken and strengthen the memory of the event.

The hardware is a little black box called the Sensecam, which contains a digital camera and an accelerometer to measure movement…For the elderly, though, it could herald a new kind of relationship between mind and machine: even as plaque gets deposited on the brain, everyday experience is deposited on silicon, then retrieved.

Admittidly, the personal memory device still does not exist today, but we are close. Rather than this being some shocking sci-fi, and maybe even dystopian vision, I think this is actually predictable.

Isn’t this, in fact, the logical conclusion to a path humans have been on since the invention of writing? A line that can be drawn, from pre-literate humans, to writing, to the dawn of the computer age, to today — it is a line that finds humans almost compulsively drawn to recording our existence.

As Walter Ong has explained, before writing, humans existed in a culture of orality. Phrases such as “take a note” or “look something up” had no meaning, because they are visual metaphors, rooted in literacy and writing. Before humans could write things down, we thought differently, we spoke differently. Thinking “long” thoughts required formulaic speeches and mnemonic tricks. But these tricks only went so far. Writing, by fixing thoughts into somewhat permanent media, allowed humans to think in much more complex terms.

Fast-forward to the age of computers (machines that are integrally tied to the concept of memory), and we have a world in which it is not only easy to record our thoughts, but, increasingly, pieces of ourselves exist only within media that, by design, records our presence. Humans are inseparable from our machines, but today’s machines are machines of inscription, digital recording devices, and when we use them we leave a trail of bits and bytes for others to follow: “Our best machines are made of sunshine; they are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals…”

This is the central idea behind a paper I wrote as a grad student, where I described the group blog (Daily Kos, in particular) as a “space to create a collective memory, without which the blogger does not exist.” As we chat with our friends on Twitter, as we post pictures to Facebook, as we share our music preferences on Pandora, all these actions exist solely within the realm of the digital — there is no analog, biological counterpart to the “follow” on Twitter.

So we essentially have the technological basis today for the personal memory device; we already record what we do online. The only piece that is missing is a local database in which to record our digital selves. And we will get there — rather than this being a surprise, it is really just an expected step down a path humans started on a long time ago.