Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Memex Reloaded (Digital SObjects part I)

What will happen when our digitization process will come to an absolute perfection, with our virtual representation capable of providing a real-time information about what we see, hear, feel, think, read, write, say, do, receive, give, and take; our blood pressure, heart beat, actually any biometric info, plus our exact geo location, the simulation of our movements and anything else you may think of? What will happen when this information will be stored for good, never deleted, always accessible?

You might instinctively react to these questions by bringing up “privacy concerns”, but then you’d be missing the whole point, because the issue here is neither privacy, nor government control; rather it’s our future as human beings which is at stake. But before going deeper and trying to answer those questions – some background is necessary.

(The following is not a description of the Memex)

In 1945 a SPECer named Dr. Vannevar Bush published a blueprint for our future in two different magazines The Atlantic and Life. A minor text, probably, certainly not a lengthy one, and still its impact, when considered in retrospect, has been impressive.

It’s easy to show how “As We May Think” - that’s the name Bush gave to his spec - influenced the creation of the Personal Computer, the World Wide Web, Speech-to-Text technologies, Web2.0 social networks, Wikipedia, the Semantic Web and even… del.icio.us. You can see most of it mentioned in the Wikipedia entry dedicated to the spec.

Dr. Bush assessed that science is not progressing fast enough because scientists were lacking the tools to process, share and accumulate that impossible quantity of information. He concluded that the imperfect human memory could do with the aid of an extra Intelligent Memory that would help it out with those tasks of processing, storing, and sharing the ever increasing amount of information.

Bush called his solution Memex – which stands for Memory Extension (considering its impact, Meme Xplosion would do just fine). It consists of a Desk (#1) and a Personal Recorder (#2). The Desk contains all possible pieces of information linked one to another, as well as the required mechanism to retrieve it in a brain-like fashion (here Bush describes what I interpret as a del.icio.us style of information tagging for the purpose of fast, associative retrieval).

And so the Memex Desk turned into a PC, then into the Hypertext Web, but not before turning into an Apple concept movie – the Knowledge Navigator (see the clip hereafter) – which inspired the early MAC designs, which inspired Neal Stephenson to create the virtual world of Snow Crash (as stated in the book’s appendix), which inspired the Linden Labs guys to create Second Life, which inspired many current scientists to work on “real” avatars and “real” in-world representations, i.e. avatars that look exactly like human beings and a world that looks exactly like a real world – living in a movie (GA is expected within 5 years), and that inspired DARPA and other agencies to develop special glasses that transmits, in real-time, biometric information from the physical body to the avatar over there, so that the avatar will look happy or sad, stressed or relaxed, reflecting the same movements his operator is doing here, on Earth (already available from Q). And even if all the above is plain junk, bear with me still for a little more of this great stuff.

Apple Knowledge Navigator (Late 80s')

Because now that the Desk part of the Memex turned into a World Wide Web, proving itself to be an attractive and successful spec, we should rather pay close attention to the other part – that of the Memex Recorder. Who knows what this device holds for our future?

The Memex Recorder is a personal device, attached to the human head, capable of recording what the eyes see, and if pushed just a bit further – well, we can imagine the Memex Recorder taking records of anything we speak or hear.

Today’s Memex Recorder is, undoubtedly, the multi-modal mobile device. But how will it look like in the future? Will it remain in its current mobile case? I hope you’re not naïve enough to think so. Clearly, we should expect to have it implanted in our body in the near future and if you don’t believe – well – that’s why visual meme trackers exist.

The first meme tracker is the cult French film, La Jetée (1967), a photo-roman by Chris Marker. In the film, which deals with time-travel, people from the future are having a Memex Recorder encrusted into their front.
The Matrix, both a meme tracker and a SPEC in its own right, presents again the Memex Recorder as a device encrusted into the human skull. Finally, have a look at Anina – the Mobile Queen – and see where she wants her mobile to be implanted :-).

Let’s conclude with some serious stuff: Microsoft and IBM. In the late 90s’ Microsoft’s Research Labs have launched a project called “MyLifeBits", with a charter that explicitly stated the following:

"MyLifeBits is a project to fulfill the Memex vision first posited by Vannevar Bush in 1945. It is a system for storing all of one’s digital media, including documents, images, sounds, and videos".

Next Microsoft added “Telephone calls, more video, all web pages visited, usage logging, radio, TV…”
Next they added sensory data (2003); next they added IBM’s Almaden Research Center (2005).

That’s for now. In my next post I’ll go back to those questions presented in the beginning of this post. Yet as a teaser, here's an image taken from Microsoft's presentation of their MyLifeBits project: it tells everything.

This is the 1st post in the Digital SObjects' series: The Memex Reloaded, The Desert of the Real, Reality, as told by the Machine


Anonymous I am emale said...

"That everyone can learn to read will ruin in the long run not only writing, but thinking too."
Mr Nietzsche

You know I'm no humanist but this is a little unnerving. I can almost smell the spirit being sucked right out of me... I'm beginning to understand the positive meaning of erasure. I want to put a big fat cross right through "MYLifeBits" I can't help but feel Narcissus is flowering in these technologies - beautiful but vegetal... You're right - it has nothing to do with privacy as such but more the fact that it consolidates the "private" in a "public" space, into 'dividuals' yikes! I need to lie down and read some Patrick White...

1:26 PM  
Blogger Muli Koppel said...


You got it. But you went even further to suggesting a reason for why are we doing it to ourselves. Narcissism, manifested in the blind admiration to the beauty of our pure digital form, might be one answer; fatal determinism inspired by evil selfish memes, might be another one. And I think we feel there might be some other answers, although currently blurred. I hope to cover this question in future posts.

Shamefully I've never heard of your country's nobel prize author, so thanks for the implicit reference here.


1:52 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home