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Monday, January 23, 2006

MyLifeBits, Borges, and big ideas

On yesterday’s episode of NPR’s Living on Earth, Steven Cherry interviewed Gordon Bell about his project at Microsoft, called MyLifeBits. Bell is in the process of recording everything in his life in digital form:
Gordon Bell has captured a lifetime’s worth of articles, books, cards, CDs, letters, memos, papers, photos, pictures, presentations, home movies, videotaped lectures, and voice recordings and stored them digitally. He is now paperless, and is beginning to capture phone calls, IM transcripts, television, and radio.
Most of the story consisted of an interview with Bell, who is justifiably famous in the computer science community. It was clear from the tone that Cherry’s concluding words weren’t meant to scary, but judge for yourself:
In ten years time, all your life bits will easily fit onto two or three hard disks the size of matchboxes. Your smartphone-sensecam will dangle casually around your neck, snapping away. Can’t remember what you wore on that blind date last Saturday? How many glasses of Chardonnay you drank? Who you called on the phone the next day and what you talked about? Where you were, what you did every minute that weekend? Let’s just open up that database of yours, the matchbox containing your life bits, and take a look.
The dystopian nature of this predicted future reminded me of Jorge Luis Borges’s great short story, “Funes the Memorious,” as did Cherry’s words just before his conclusion:
Frank Nack, a Dutch computer scientist based in Amsterdam, has given a lot of thought to the issues raised by MyLifeBits. Do we always want to have at our fingertips the answer to each and every question about our past? The act of forgetting, he says, makes our life bearable, and is closely related to some essential cultural concepts, such as forgiveness and absolution. Would removing this human imperfection do more harm than good? Would we be as creative? As free?
But Cherry made no explicit or even implicit reference to Borges. If you haven’t read his story recently, or haven’t read it at all, perhaps I’d better quote from it, so you can see the connection. Here is a critical paragraph from the middle of the story, followed by one close to the end:
We, in a glance, perceive three wine glasses on the table; Funes saw all the shoots, clusters, and grapes of the vine. He remembered the shapes of the clouds in the south at dawn on the 30th of April of 1882, and he could compare them in his recollection with the marbled grain in the design of a leather-bound book which he had seen only once, and with the lines in the spray which an oar raised in the Rio Negro on the eve of the battle of the Quebracho. These recollections were not simple; each visual image was linked to muscular sensations, thermal sensations, etc. He could reconstruct all his dreams, all his fancies. Two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day. He told me: I have more memories in myself alone than all men have had since the world was a world. And again: My dreams are like your vigils. And again, toward dawn: My memory, sir, is like a garbage disposal.
Without effort, he had learned English, French, Portuguese, Latin. I suspect, nevertheless, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes there were nothing but details, almost contiguous details.
Yes, “to think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract.”

Or, as Robert Pirsig wrote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “data without generalization is just gossip.”

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