Monday, January 04, 2010

Total Recall

Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell, Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything (New York: Dutton, 2009) is an engrossing book that may inspire or infuriate you depending on your view of things. Bell, building on his MyLifeBits work and inspired by the Vannevar Bush Memex idea, expands the notion to lifelogging whereby most every one of your activities are captured and retained forever. By doing this, he claims, “You become the librarian, archivist, cartographer, and curator of your life” (p. 5), although there is no evidence that either Bell or his co-author ever talked over such matters with a librarian, archivist, or curator.

This book is part prediction, part polemic, and part practice. Bell and Gemmell discuss the equipment needed to do this, the empowerment that capturing all this personal information means, and slip and slide around issues such as privacy, ethics, identity theft, and so forth. They believe that Total Recall will be fully underway by 2020, and only would not happen except if a “vast legal or political effort of social engineering” prevents it (p. 8). The book presents a lot of information suggesting that we have the technology to do this and do it inexpensively (the basic equipment needed is a smart phone, GPS unit, digital camera, personal computer, and Internet connection) and that if we do not do this we are stupid (“Abstaining from lifelogging will begin to seem more like avoiding the use of e-mail or cell phones, because so many advantages and conveniences will be foregone. Those who shun recording will be less empowered than those who embrace it” [p. 21]). Still, there is not a lot of reality in the book about just who can afford such devices or who has the time or other resources to do this (the specter of the digital divide looms not too far below the surface).

What I like about the book is its description of one possible scenario for the future, especially for those who work with archives and records systems. Bell and Gemmel’s description of applications in digital memory at work, in personal health, learning, and everyday life are engaging. When they dig a bit more deeply, they present interesting possibilities for future records and information management professionals. For example, “To date, it is common for a published paper with a few tables and charts to be the only long-term survivor of a research project that once had volumes of data, ‘metadata’ that describes how the data was gathered, copious notes, and conversations among the researchers” (p, 127). Now “researchers . . . will be able to preserve and share all of their material and notes to the benefit of others” (p. 128). The “scope of original sources is about to explode as lifelogging increases. We shall have to see how society evolves to deal with the legacy of e-memories, but I presume that eventually many lifelogs will be opened to a trusted historian to excerpt, if not entirely released to the public” (p. 129). Their effort to consider such matters would have benefitted considerably from some discussion with archivists, records managers, and, increasingly, historians and other scholars who are currently working with an array of digital sources (both digitally captured from analog sources and digitally-born). Bell and Gemmel argue, “If we can have a complete record of the things about people that especially provoke meaning for us, what will we do with this complete record when they are gone? We will maintain the e-memory of that person as a treasured heirloom. And, someday, we will ask it questions. The e-memory will answer. You will have virtual immortality” (p, 139). Since Bell and Gemmel place Total Recall within a personal realm, they never address the issue of why or how some of these digital memories might be placed in repositories for open access (what archivists would describe as being part of the appraisal function).

Some of their commentary suggests notions needing far more discussion. They “see four steps in the progression of digital immortality. First is digitizing the legacy media one has. Second is supplementing one’s e-memories with new digital sources. The third is two-way immortality – the ability to actually interact with an avatar that responds just like you would. The fourth is an avatar that learns and changes over time just as you would have” (p. 154). Why steps two, three, and four are necessary is more science fiction than practical necessity or reality, but, at least, they will prompt debate and discussion that ought to generate some new thinking within the community of information professionals including archivists and librarians.

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