The Rise Of The Digital Superego - InformationWeek

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Commentary
9/24/2009
02:25 PM
Michael Hickins
Michael Hickins
Commentary
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The Rise Of The Digital Superego

Gordon Bell, often described as "the Frank Lloyd Wright of the Internet," firmly believes we'll all be paperless and recording our lives digitally within a decade.

Gordon Bell, often described as "the Frank Lloyd Wright of the Internet," firmly believes we'll all be paperless and recording our lives digitally within a decade.If that sounds like an unlikely change to occur within the next ten years, keep in mind that the role of a futurist isn't to tell us when so much as what.

In a New Yorker article from 2007, Bell, now a principal researcher at Microsoft, predicted that a typical life would fit on a cell phone by 2010. Depending on how you define "typical," "cell phone," and "fit," the premise sounds about right, even if the timing seems a bit off.

No matter. Bell (and fellow Microsoft researcher Jim Gemmell) have written a book called Total Recall, in which they describe the benefits of recording literally everything we do in digital formats, and the process by which we're going down that road. Among the benefits they describe:

  • definitive and easily-accessible health records;
  • settling who-said-what disputes with your spouse;
  • being able to figure out who was at last year's Christmas party; and
  • never losing an important written document or photograph.
  • Bell writes:

    Software will allow you to sort and sift through your digital memories to uncover patterns in your life you could never have gleaned with your unaided brain... [anything] you care to know about yourself can be chronicled, condensed, cross-correlated, and plotted out for you in useful and illuminating ways.

    More generally, total digital recall would mean having less actual clutter and less mental clutter as we struggle to remember names, ideas and critical details about our lives. Our society would probably also benefit from a measure of enforced reality -- not to mention a reduction of spurious lawsuits, deceit and almost comic misunderstandings.

    Not only wouldn't we have to remember everything, but we wouldn't have to make room for bulky stuff like books, videos and tax records. Bell and Gemmell maintain that we already have the means to accomplish this: cheap storage, ubiquitous recording capability on mobile devices, and the digitization of just about everything, including movies, music and books. Applications like iTunes help us organize all this stuff, and search and even facial recognition technology are already advanced enough for us to be able to retrieve just about anything.

    So assuming we want to get going on a personal level, how do we do this?

    Start with a simple goal, Bell suggested to me over the phone the other day: get entirely paperless within a year. Start systematically scanning everything you've already got (photos, receipts, etc.) and gradually stop accumulating more of the stuff. Given the relative inexpensiveness of electronic storage and the power of search, once you're entirely digital, you'll never go back.

    And yes, Bell shoots video and pictures of virtually everything he encounters, and uses a Microsoft Research gadget that snaps photos of people anytime they're in range (which the camera knows thanks to a heat sensor).

    If you're wondering if I found this "total recall" stuff more than a little ominous, the answer is yes. Isn't it going to freak everyone out when they realize I'm taping their every word. How 'spontaneous' am I going to be with my girlfriend when I'm feeling totally self-conscious? Are we going to turn that thing off during sex?

    Bell concedes that there's a slight chance we could become like stilted politicians on TV, careful not to say anything that could offend anyone. But he thinks we'll develop rules covering this kind of stuff, with some societies being more permissive than others.

    "There's going to be deep legal and societal issues we have to settle before we really roll tape 24/7; that will be the last thing to come, if it comes at all," he said.

    And Bell believes that we'll in fact be better off than we are now, with no accepted norms, and people like Michael Phelps have to live in constant fear of seeing themselves on YouTube.

    There's another danger, which is that we end up getting so caught up in our own memories that we quit living in the present. (There's an awesome, if flawed, movie by Wim Wenders from 1991 called Until the End of the World, in which people can record their own dreams and get hooked on their subconscious musings worse than Isabel Bradley gets hooked on opium in Razor's Edge).

    When I asked Bell and Gemmell about that possibility, there was a long silence. Were they rolling their eyes? Possibly.

    "It's conceivable you'd get so enamored with your own life that all you'd do is spend your waking hours going back and looking at that," Bell allowed. But "we have a problem in the opposite direction right now. Most of us would like to be able to enjoy our memories more than we do. We're a long way from neurotically getting too engrossed in our memories."

    Bell confessed that the pair aren't sure about exactly how people are going to go about recording their lives. "But a lot of it is pretty inevitable," he said.

    As the guy at DEC who first thought up the idea of linking supercomputers together into a network, I guess he'd know.

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