< The Persistence of Memory

Transcript

Friday, January 05, 2007

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Gordon Bell is a 72-year-old computer scientist with an eye for detail – every detail, in fact, that he's accumulated over the course of his life. A senior researcher for Microsoft, Bell is at the vanguard of a movement called "lifelogging," digitally storing every letter and photo, every phone call, email and video, every conversation, keystroke and scrap of paper, the entire minutiae of his daily routine, onto a hard drive.

He wears a camera around his neck, called a SenseCam that takes snapshots every minute of whatever may be in his path, including you if you happen to be standing there.

Gordon Bell is creating a complete virtual memory to supplement his own imperfect one, a defiant, Proustian reclamation of lost time that may be changing the very way we think about the past. But why?

GORDON BELL:
Why?

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Yeah.

GORDON BELL:
Why does anybody ever preserve anything? Is there any value to having a photograph of my mother at age three or so, you know, or a deed that I happen to have that would have been around in a shoebox that came from great-grandparents before 1900? So anything that, in fact, represents information, those things are all put in cyberspace, and those are the things that I think should be in cyberspace.

I go further than anybody else, which is to essentially really overtly get rid of anything I can that I can scan, and that includes coffee cups and tee shirts and mugs, you know, things like that, where I may want a memory of that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
I suspect this isn't for everyone. I mean, some of us really like to get rid of stuff. I feel the burden of all of life's flotsam and jetsam.

GORDON BELL:
Yeah, that's true. But I've got a kind of a systematic way of getting rid of it, but yet it's there if you ever will, in fact, want it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Gordon, do you see your computer as a real extension of your brain these days?

GORDON BELL:
I think I do. I really do. I think of it as offloading a tremendous amount for me and giving it a lot of responsibility.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Could you go back to life before?

GORDON BELL:
Oh, I think I could go back to life before. It's a different life. Frankly, I think of myself a little bit, I'm in an explorer's life right now. I see it as a quest to have an electronic memory that has so much of one's own real memory in it, because I tend to think that everybody is going to be here in or at some point in time.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Lifelogger Gordon Bell. Journalist and technology whiz, Clive Thompson, wrote about Bell and the implications of lifelogging in Fast Company magazine. Clive, welcome back to the show.

CLIVE THOMPSON:
Good to be here.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So what did you expect, and what did you find when you went to visit Gordon Bell?

CLIVE THOMPSON:
Well, I think I expected that there would be this guy who has, you know, this brain that would give him perfect recall of everything immediately. And I could ask him, who's the person that sat next to you on the plane three weeks ago, and, you know, what was the recipe that you cooked two years ago for dinner? And there would be this very precise thing because all the information is there.

And it's true - all the information is there - but he hasn't quite figured out how to organize it and sort it perfectly. So although he would sometimes be amazing at recall - like he was talking about a jazz symphony that he saw in Australia, and he's trying to describe it and you realize he doesn't need to describe it. He can just play it for me, you know.

So sometimes it was amazing, but a lot of the times he would start to try and find something and then spend 20 minutes trying [LAUGHING] to find it. And it eventually would sort of get lost in this buggy software, because it's a new piece of software. It's a demo.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So it's easy to preserve all this raw data.

CLIVE THOMPSON:
Yes.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
But it's extremely hard to lay your hands on exactly the piece you want at that time. But isn't he developing or aren't other people developing for him programs to do that – LifeBrowser, Remembrance Agent, FacetMap?

CLIVE THOMPSON:
You know, that's the Holy Grail quest right now. Like at Microsoft, they have this thing called FacetMap. It's this beautiful sort of graphical interface where you can zoom down on any one thing and it's connected to everything else. Like you could say, okay, show me last Thursday, and it'll show you all the emails you send and all the documents you looked at and all the websites you looked at.

And then you might go, well, let's look at those websites. And you find a website, and it might show you all the other days that you accessed that website. So you can sort of tunnel through your memories in very interesting, sort of dreamy ways.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And is it also FacetMap that uses not just days or time periods, but you can also drill down on a person?

CLIVE THOMPSON:
Oh, yeah, yeah.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Tell me everything about my Aunt Susie that I've stored up.

CLIVE THOMPSON:
And that's very useful, because what'll happen is you'll think, okay, well, you know Brooke mentioned this book to me. I can't remember the name of the book, so I'll start by just looking at everything I have that's related to Brooke. And I'll remember that you said that to me, I don't know, a month ago when I was on the show, so I'll look at all the communications I had with you a month ago. And so, it actually becomes very quick to find the name of the book, because I find the email or the conversation.

It works very well though because that's sort of the way our memories work. Psychologists have long discovered that we organize our memories very often based on people and time. And if you put those two things together, you can index the vast majority of your memories very quickly.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So if you want to be able to find this information, you have to sort of replicate what your memory would naturally do.

CLIVE THOMPSON:
Yes, exactly.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And you focus quite a bit on the effect that a surrogate brain has on actual carbon-based memory, our physical minds.

CLIVE THOMPSON:
Sure, absolutely. Well, I mean, what Gordon's found is that it's changed the way that he decides to remember things and what he decides to remember. And he compares it to doing long division. He could probably remember how to do long division if he really thought about it, but he doesn't need to, because he has pocket calculators.

Just think about our behavior with our mobile phones. A lot of people can't remember the phone numbers of their very, very close associates because their phones remember it for them. And they put it in once and they forget it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Long division we were forced to learn at some point.

CLIVE THOMPSON:
That's right.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So we have the luxury of forgetting it – but not these phone numbers. Without our cell phones, we're lost.

CLIVE THOMPSON:
Right. And, actually, in Europe, where their phone really has thousands of phone numbers and emails, because it's their central device and there is a huge anxiety about losing your phone or losing the memory on your phone. They have all these backup devices for like saving all your phone information, because they'd just be like emotionally destroyed if they lose their phone, because everything was on it. You know, it's like having a stroke. The information's all gone.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Exactly. And, actually, you met another lifelogger, not Gordon Bell, who actually went through a kind of digital stroke – a crash of his computer.

CLIVE THOMPSON:
Yeah. He lost about four months.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Who was this?

CLIVE THOMPSON:
This was Jim Gemmell, and he is one of the software engineers who work along with Gordon on essentially trying to figure out ways to sift through Gordon's enormous decades of memories. And so Jim decided, you know, as he developed the software, that he would do it himself. He would start doing his own lifelogging. And he showed me. It's wonderful. He's got some amazing things – trips he's taken with his kids, and some really wonderful stuff that is very emotionally touching.

But what happened was that he had a crash and he lost about four months of it. And up until then, he had sort of thought, well, this is just this funny little experiment. I'm doing it to sort of learn how to make this software. I don't really rely on this stuff. But once the information was gone, he realized that he did rely on it, that it was like hot water or lights in his house, and that when he lost it, he felt absolutely bereft.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Now, losing that day at the beach you spent back in April, I mean, your brain was still working then, wasn't it? Don't you still have it?

CLIVE THOMPSON:
Yeah, theoretically. The workings of human memory are very, very complex. Psychologists are as yet uncertain as to what the effect of all this virtual memory will be. Will it really be true that we'll sort of stop remembering things? Or will it release us to remember things in different ways? Or, in some cases, will it make our memories better, because the one thing that some scientists found, in Ireland - they took Gordon's camera that he wears around his neck. It takes pictures every minute or so, all day long.

And, you know, he's got thousands and thousands and thousands of these pictures. And you think, well, what are you ever going to do with those? You're never going to look at them again, right?

What these guys in Ireland discovered was that if, at the end of the day, you look at all those pictures, just flip, flip, flip, really quickly scroll through them in about a minute, you relive your day as seen out your eyes, and it dramatically improves your long-term recall of what happened.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And this has been applied to people who are afflicted with short-term memory impairment, right?

CLIVE THOMPSON:
That's right, that's right. This is being done with a woman in England who has a very severe form of amnesia. She really has no recall past a day or two. And so, what she started doing was that every time there was something that she wanted to remember – a dinner with her husband, perhaps – she would make sure she wore this camera, and that after the event was over, she would review the images every day for a couple of days. And she started to be able to remember this stuff; it would last for months.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And you can really see the value of it in that case.

CLIVE THOMPSON:
Oh, my goodness, yes.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
I guess I still find puzzling why we need this kind of recall in our everyday life, unless you believe, as many people do, that really all we are are our memories. Are we fuller, more complete people if we can hold onto that stuff?

CLIVE THOMPSON:
Yeah, that's a very good question. I think that's what's going to happen is that people will sort of make decisions about what type of memory they want to have. You might decide that, you know, I'm actually someone who just wants to see that one perfect picture from last summer – the sort of classic shoebox idea where by the time you're 60 you've got a shoebox full of pictures, and that's all you've got – these little snapshots that represent an entire year in your life. And when you look at it, you recall everything, and it's a really majestic, almost poetic way of looking at your life.

And you'll find other people who really want to have everything there. I think some people might choose to record a lot of stuff and then realize later on that, my God, why did I do this, you know, in the same way that some kids are discovering now that all the stuff they put on their websites is being googled by their employers.

So, you know, we'll make decisions about what type of memories we want to have. And in some cases the decisions will be taken out of our hands, and that's where things get troubling, potentially.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Privacy then becomes a huge issue, doesn't it?

CLIVE THOMPSON:
Sure.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
There are certain things we'd all rather not remember. If you're engaged with, you know, one or two other people, one of them's bound to have it on tape.

CLIVE THOMPSON:
That's right. But I think there's also a sort of a very weird form of privacy when you have this automatic recording capability, which is privacy from yourself. There are parts of your life that maybe you shouldn't remember, and making sense of your life is as much about forgetting the vast majority of it or subtly distorting it as it is perfectly remembering it.

Any psychologist would tell you that forgetting is an incredibly important part of how we make sense of ourselves and of our lives. And being able to reexperience directly everything might be sort of nightmarish.

And the very few times that psychologists have encountered people with absolutely perfect recall – and it has been found, it's very rare; it's sort of a mental condition where people literally can, if you ask them, two years ago on this date, what did you do, they'll be able to tell you – these people do not have remarkable lives in any way. You would think that they're smarter or that they did better at college, and they're not. And they don't necessarily have a better emotional experience of their lives.

The idea of remembering everything, it might not be as much of a gift as we think it would be.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Clive, thank you so much.

CLIVE THOMPSON:
Thanks a lot.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Clive Thompson is a contributing writer for Fast Company magazine and others. Go to onthemedia.org if you'd like to listen to the unedited version of this conversation. It's all there, as it really happened.