Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Man With The Perfect Memory: The Inside Outside of Autobiographical Memory.

Do you know how many memory bytes one needs to record everything, including documents, medical history, conversations, movement, steps, all... except video, in a life of 83 years on an average ? Only 1 terabyte, the equivalent of one fiftieth of the memory available on actual ipods. It takes, of course, a lot to have video recordings for the same period, 200 more terabytes approximately.

Ian Sample (The Guardian, December 28, 2005) reports that Microsoft is conducting such an experiment since 2001 on Dr. Gordon Bell. Cameras, sensors for light, heat, movement, steps, are part of the everyday equipment of Dr. Bell.

''At first, he merely scanned books and work documents, but the project ballooned, embracing the mundane and the moving: details of plumbers, of others he's met, sit digitally alongside letters from his children, his advice when they hit difficult times. Conversations with his grandchildren, his wife, are there too. Occasional musings on the world that would otherwise be confined to a diary now go straight into the database, accompanied by a thousand pages of medical records.
The trickiest decision came a few years ago when Dr Bell was trawling through old files and scanning them in. His assistant found a memo with a stern note urging: "Do not ever reproduce this." It was an extremely frank letter purging his thoughts on a company he was involved with at the time. It named names, pointed the finger, ranted. It was never meant to be posted, copied, or seen by anyone other than himself. "I decided we should put it on the system after all. I still feel the same about it, but it's on there," he says
. ''

The experiment is generating many challenges, not only for Dr. Bell, but also for the company's programmers who must struggle with the organization of the information and more importantly with ways to retrieve it. Moreover, the personal, ethical and social implications of the experiment are many. Among them, Sample points to three: Forgetfulness becoming impossible and its contrary, Reliance on an external memory, but also the Privacy of the information and its Ownership. Dr. Bell decided to bequeath his external memory or this part of his life, as recorded by Microsoft, to his children.

The problems of Privacy and Ownership have been brought upon us by the communication technologies and existing legal decisions concerning these issues can be applied with some modifications and adaptations to this new technology. However, the most important implications of this new technology, in my opinion, are that the organization of the facts of one's own life, as well as the routes to their retrieval, are made here, not by the subject himself, but by external agents, in a way understandable, not only by the subject, but also by the programmers who are working on the project. This has a direct effect on the structure of consciousness and the sense of Self.

Even though most neurocognitive and philosophical theories consider consciousness and sense of Self within the domain of subjectivity, there is a difference to be made for the subjective experience between its ownership and its genesis. Because even if we own completely our experience, since it takes place within the limits of our body and mind, its genesis still depend on the interactions between our body, mind and the environment, stretching beyond our own physical limits. This is the case for all creatures with a sense of Self and since the beginning of time for our species. However, the human environment participating in the genesis of the conscious experience and the sense of self, being physical or cultural, is not static. This is an environment that is continually changing with every new addition in knowledge and technology and each new addition in knowledge and technology affecting communication between the subject and its environment have a potential impact on the Self.

We are inclined to believe that we have total control over the process of organizing and retrieving our intimate experience, our memories and our past. But early in the history of mankind, storytelling, myths, writings, correspondence, literature, postal service, telephone, television, and recently, internet and email, have all participated, not only in the way we organize and retrieve our own memories and experience, but in the way we view and reflect on our own experience. This sums up to the way we construct our sense of Self both on the intimate and the social levels.

On the intimate level, our own personal history is narrated with stories taken from our uninterrupted episodic memories; facts about ourselves situated in time and space. On the social level, this intimate experience is shared to the extent it accommodates the image we want to divulge to others and/or in order to treat others tactfully. The new technology developed by Microsoft is different from previous cultural artifacts for communication because it will record and sense, for the first time, our movement in real space and real time. Being so close to our bodily and daily experience, the records will be able to serve, not only as a helper, but as a substitute to an important part of our episodic and narrative memory. Even if we keep constructing our own experience on the basis of our internal memory, we may have to face this 'external' experience and reflect on the whole thing differently. So for the first time, the external factors participating in the genesis of our autobiographical memory are qualitatively different since they are closer to our experience, more integrated into the body than anything else before - i.e. sensors for movement- and more integrated into our mind- since they stop us from forgetting.

The technology has tremendous clinical applications for the care of Alzheimer's patients and it was partly developed for this purpose. A pilot study suggests that a recording of the events of one day, viewed at the end of the day, seems to calm the high levels of anxiety felt by these patients.

But used in everyday life by people with a normal memory, the technology may become a substitute to our episodic memory, a mirror of our Self. A Self upon which we will not have absolute control since it must conform to the capacities of the machine, the format of the computer programs being implemented to store our life, open to the scrutiny of other persons and, in itself, a legal issue which will not die with the death of its original owner. If applied widely outside clinical settings, this tool may change the way we organize our memories, the way we view ourselves, the way we construct our narratives and ultimately, our intersubjectivity. For we may start to rely, in the process of social identification and communication, not on our inner projected Self but on a Self that exists already out there. Although this external Self is not or will not be always and/or integrally public, because it exists already outside us, may change the construction of our inner narratives for purpose of social communication.

Didn't the age of the image media took over the discourse and the argumentation ? Even though this new technology offers an image of the Self that is as faithful as possible to the original, the difference between the original and the duplicate could arise over a long term period. The internal narrative can always be 'corrected', rearranged and the drafts thrown into oblivion while in a recorded narrative oblivion is impossible. We may have then to confront our own contradictions and lose ourselves into them. On the other side, the recorded Self will not be able to retain events situated within a very short time period and inaccessible to consciousness, the time of brain mechanisms, the inner deliberations behind every action, decision or judgment; the language of thought. These processes are being investigated by brain imaging techniques.

However, while both our inner Self and our social Self are the subject of scientific monitoring and inquiry, what will be left unaccounted for, in our autobiographical memory, are the identification processes by which we came to define ourselves as moral agents in our inner narratives. Because this is not an assumption, an a priori and a constitutive part of the narrative, neither a given proposition imposed upon us, as a whole, from the outside. It is rather constructed by the continual dialogue between our inner narratives and our projected, external Self. But this external Self is becoming, with the new technology, less and less projected and more and more constructed by outside factors which escape our subjectivity and our ownership.

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