Every day each of us is losing memories. Fortunately, electronic memories will soon supplement our biological memories. There are three reasons why this revolution, which Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell call Total Recall, is inevitable. First, we are already recording more without trying, when we use digital cameras, email, cell phones, or personal digital assistants. Second, cloud computing and other advances are making it possible to store all the information cheaply and conveniently, and retrieve it easily through smartphones or similar devices. And third, the technology to organize, search, and analyze it all is being developed. Beyond simply recovering particular names, faces, or events, we will soon be able to sift through our e-memories to reveal patterns. We won't lose our capacity for self-deception, but the truth about what happened will be clearer and more accessible. While some fear the government using our e-memories to spy on us, a greater risk may be omnipresent surveillance by millions of private individuals, so we will need to develop a whole new etiquette about who may record and when.
Throughout human history, our progress in developing better memory systems has made us the dominant species and led to civilization. Language allowed us to share abstract knowledge across space and time. Writing, and then digital computers, made it possible to store and transmit much greater quantities of information more accurately to more people, and to preserve it for the future. Children today are the first generation to experience Total Recall. They are closely monitored by the parents, both for safety and to create memories of each stage of development. They themselves take digital photos wherever they go and socialize online. They are far less concerned about separating the private and public lives than older generations.
Around 1998, one of the authors, Gordon Bell, began to experiment with storing personal information digitally rather than physically, a project he called "MyLifeBits," partly to help lay the groundwork for future commercial products. The experiment was a "three-pronged effort." (p. 29) First, he digitized everything from his past, scanning old paper files and creating electronic records of physical memorabilia. Then he began recording and storing everything he saw and heard. He scanned any bills and documents he received, which took less time than physically filing them. He set his Web browser to capture every page he visited, and he began wearing a small camera on a cord around his neck to photograph events. One of his goals was to make recording as automatic as possible so that he would record more.
The third challenge was figuring out how to organize it all. He first tried the familiar file and folder system, with long and detailed file names. But finding things again was hard because he had to remember where he had put them. He concluded that any successful system will have to use a database with full-text indexing.
Our biological memory actually has three parts: procedural or muscle memory, semantic memory for general knowledge, and episodic or autobiographical memory that stores experiences from our past. Our brain actually stores memory as a sparse collection of details, which it fills in when it recalls the memory later. Memories are therefore susceptible to gradual drift over time, and are sometimes radically revised (not always consciously or with intent to deceive). E-memory will supplement our semantic and episodic memory (but not our muscle memory). E-memory has the advantage of accurately recording everything and retaining it unchanged over time. It is never overwhelmed. It will free our minds from clutter and from mundane memorization while helping us remember what counts, serve as a "fact-checker" for our biological memory, and compensate for our absentmindedness. As for painful memories that we would rather forget, e-memory will allow us to choose to retain them for use when necessary (e.g., testifying in court) while preventing unwanted recall.
At work, Total Recall will help us deal with today's hectic pace, giving us instant access to everything even while away from the office or traveling. By analyzing work e-memories, we will increase our productivity through understanding and modifying our work habits, answer questions by instantly looking up facts instead of relying on our biological memory, and reconnect more easily with former colleagues. For the enterprise as a whole, digital storage and communications make creating and retrieving institutional memory too easy and valuable to pass up. Everythinginternal meetings, memos, email, sales and customer support interactionscan be recorded and made searchable and available to everyone with similar jobs, creating a common knowledge base for problem solving, helping customers, strategic planning, inventory control, and everything else. Data mining will be used to analyze the knowledge base for ways to improve operations.
Our complete health record will be part of our e-memory. Abundant storage will allow collecting and storing data from medical equipment. We may wear sensors in our clothing to record vital signs, exercise, and diet continuously. In the future sensors may be implanted in our bodies. We will record sessions with doctors to replay later. All of this can be shared with other health-care providers, reducing duplicate testing and improving coordination of care. Other benefits will be increased self-knowledge, improved health habits, and immediate identification of health crises. "Do everything you can to get involved in this potentially life-changing and life-saving trend," advise the authors. (p. 189) Collective benefits will include making anonymous health records of populations available to researchers for epidemiological studies.
Total Recall will integrate textbooks and lectures into students' e-memory for lifelong reference. Students will be able to replay sections as often as needed to understand them. Initially, students will record their professors' lectures, but soon they will progress to using the lectures of the best teachers in the field. They will create electronic portfolios of their works, and will analyze their e-memory to understand their learning style. Teachers, once freed from lecturing to classes, will pay more attention to individual students' difficulties, as observed through the student's e-memory and portfolio. Teachers will review their own e-memory to improve their teaching style. Educational researchers will pool data from many students and teachers to better understand learning itself.
In everyday life, Bell and Gemmell foresee that we will be constantly collecting digital artifacts: scanned documents, emails, calendar entries, and photos. "Carry a camera and snap away," they advise. (p. 187) We will create oral histories by recording stories of events during the day. We will enrich our e-memories by sharing with family, friends, and associates. The individual "lifelogs" we create will survive us and be available for our descendants. They will record what we look like; how we sound when stressed, relaxed, pleased, or annoyed; and phrases we use. In the future we may create lifelike avatars that survive us and interact and respond as we would have.
Protecting against loss and decay of data involves replicating and backing up everything. Always have two copies in separate locations. One way to do this is to "mail the backup to a trusted friend or family member who lives far away." (p. 202) Convert files to current formats to guard against obsolescence, choosing widely used formats likely for that reason to be always supported. Protect your privacy with firewalls, security software, and encryption.
We will have to adapt to having more self-knowledge, which could be uncomfortable, but successful people confront their shortcomings rather than hide them. We will also have to adapt to being recorded by others as part of their own e-memories. Lies and antisocial behavior will be exposed, and relationships may become less candid. Bell and Gemmell expect that custom and law will evolve to require mutual consent for recording, and that we will preserve the option to go "off the record" for particularly delicate conversations. If courts treat e-memory as an electronic diary, they can compel disclosure, as they would in the case of a written diary, if it contains information relevant to a case. However, the authors note that a court has held that the privilege against self-incrimination could be a bar to compelled disclosure, which they believe offers some hope that the law will evolve toward protection of e-memory. In any case, the authors expect in the future to be able to store sensitive information in "a 'Swiss data bank,' an actual offshore, encrypted, secret account, which you can plausibly deny the existence of." (p. 171) The goal of this service would be to "protect ... individuals from their tyrannical governments," (p. 172) and to prevent liberal governments from becoming tyrannical. They expect this service to eventually be offered commercially.
If you want to get started making your own lifelog now, you will need a smartphone, a GPS unit, a digital camera, a personal computer, and an Internet connection. There are services that will, for a fee, digitize the documents and photos that you already have, and you can ask to receive future bills electronically. In the future, continued miniaturization of devices and the development of interconnected home and global networks and of more intuitive user interfaces will make creating e-memories easier. Why would anyone want to do any of this? Because, say Bell and Gemmell, "[e]-memories reveal the meaning of your life." (p. 225)
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