Saturday, September 19, 2009

E-memory, quantitative or qualitative change?   posted by Razib @ 9/19/2009 12:07:00 AM

I recently listened to a radio program which featured the topic of "e-memory." The guests are promoting their book, Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything. Here's part of the description:
Total Recall provides a glimpse of the near future. Imagine heart monitors woven into your clothes and tiny wearable audio and visual recorders automatically capturing what you see and hear. Imagine being able to summon up the e-memories of your great grandfather and his avatar giving you advice about whether or not to go to college, accept that job offer, or get married. The range of potential insights is truly awesome. But Bell and Gemmell also show how you can begin to take better advantage of this new technology right now. From how to navigate the serious questions of privacy and serious problem of application compatibility to what kind of startups Bell is willing to invest in and which scanner he prefers, this is a book about a turning point in human knowledge as well as an immediate and practical guide.

First, there were callers who objected that this development was against our nature. It was frankly the rather standard Luddite position. In fact the same arguments which seem to crop up societies which are experiencing the first flushes of mass literacy are being recycled. The arrival of the printing press witnessed the decline of the ancient techniques of Ars Memorativa, so surely much will be lost. I don't dismiss all objections to the utility of technology, everything has its limits. Telecommunications has not, and will not, replace face-to-face communication in many situations or contexts for most people. But the same stock objections seem rather tired after a few thousand years.

And yet I wonder if this is that big of a deal. How many people memorize their friends' phone numbers in the age of the cellphone? There are already things you don't have to memorize like you did in the past. But facts stored outside of our brains exist a la carte, as opposed to being embedded in a network of implicit connections. To generate novel insight these connections and networks of facts need to exist latent as background conditions underneath reflective thought. Of course for most people novel abstractions, analyses and streams of data are irrelevant. So a perfect record of one's personal life and relationships may change a great deal. I have a rather good memory and would honestly appreciate it if others had has much recall about the details of individuals who they might have met years ago and such. Much less awkwardness.