Monday, February 16, 2009

The Dullest Person I've Ever Come Across

I’m not particularly interesting.
Gordon Bell

I was at the National Library in Wellington this time two weeks ago for a forum on the National Digital Heritage Archive, a project that I’m going to write about in some detail in the coming weeks and months. It was a very enjoyable occasion, and the library needs to be commended for opening it to the public free of charge, as well as for putting the presentation materials online. I’m not going to discuss any of that today, though, I just want to share with you a phrase that Penny Carnaby used in her introduction to the day's proceedings:
We live in a ‘press delete’ generation.
It’s a point I heard her make before, and it’s always struck me because it’s the exact opposite of how I’d characterise our default setting in relation to the digital products of our culture.

How to preserve born-digital objects is of course an important issue in these relatively early stage of the age of bits, and in her capacity of chief librarian of our National Library Ms Carnaby has a right as well as the duty to be concerned. But it seems to me that what is being lost for the most part is not being actively deleted, but vanishes rather due to lack of care, both cultural (digital objects need to circulate in order to remain viable) and technical (to combat the obsolescence of hardware and software, as well as the physical decay of the storage media). I also happen to think, not unrelatedly, that the act of pressing delete has in fact a lot going for it.

For there is another threat our efforts of preservation, and it’s the rate of content generation. I’m waiting for the next HMI report from the Global Information Industry Center to tell us how much information there might be in the world, and just exactly how staggeringly fast it might be growing. As of 2003, the year of the last report, the estimate included the following take-home points:
Print, film, magnetic, and optical storage media produced about 5 exabytes of new information in 2002. Ninety-two percent of the new information was stored on magnetic media, mostly in hard disks.
We estimate that the amount of new information stored on paper, film, magnetic, and optical media has about doubled in the last three years.
An exabyte equals one quintillion bytes, which is to say ten to the eighteenth power. It really is impossible to contemplate a figure like that other than by going ‘wow, that’s loads’. And besides I have all sorts of problems with measuring the information in the world in bytes, as if it were all digital - but I’ll leave that for another rant. The more meaningful and human-readable conclusion is in fact the second one: the amount of new information annually produced doubled between 1999 and 2002. Now ask yourself: has this situation changed in the last six or seven years? Are the cultural and technological conditions in which new information gets produced and stored substantially different, in a way that is likely to have slowed down this rate of increase? If anything, I would say it’s probably the opposite. Blogging, Twitter and Flickr alone would have made sure of that.

So we could equally be saying: we live in a ‘press save' generation, for Save is in fact the default behaviour, when in any sort of doubt, of a computer system in relation to a digital object. Want evidence? When you instruct a computer to delete a file, you are generally asked if you’re sure you want to do it, but when you go to save it, whirr, it just happens.

If you equate information with knowledge, as so many people do nowadays, you may of course opine that none of this constitutes a problem. I will come back to this in a future instalment, and take issue with astute commentator Manuel Castells on whether the talk of an information glut is legitimate and what some of the cultural ramifications of that kind of thinking might be. But today I want to be less subtle and deal with a limit case that perhaps we can all agree upon.

Meet Gordon Bell, IT luminary, former Microsoft executive and dedicated lifelogger. I didn’t seek permission to use the friendly-looking picture on his home page, so kindly navigate to the link above for a glimpse of how he rolls. You’ll see he’s carrying two devices around his neck: one appears to be a voice recorder, while the other is a SenseCam, an experimental Microsoft camera that operates in permanent stand-by mode and wakes up to take pictures every time it sense the heat likely to be emanated by a human body transiting in front of Mr Bell or a change in the lighting conditions suggesting that its carrier might have moved to a new location. This is all part of MyLifeBits, a project initiated by Bell in 1998 but whose origins could be traced back not so much to the visionary genius of Vannevar Bush - as he maintains - but rather to something that Bell’s employer wrote in 1996 in The Road Ahead:
[T]he highway will also make it possible for an individual to keep track of his or her own whereabouts--to lead what we might call "a documented life." Your wallet PC will be able to keep audio, time, location, and eventually even video records of everything that happens to you. It will be able to record every word you say and every word said to you, as well as body temperature, blood pressure, barometric pressure, and a variety of other data about you and your surroundings. It will be able to track your interactions with the highway--all of the commands you issue, the messages you send, and the people you call or who call you. The resulting record will be the ultimate diary and autobiography, if you want one.[1]
Bell wants one, and he’s doing just that. It started with a lot of old-fashioned digitisin’ - of books, scrapbooks, collectibles, papers - and is continuing nowadays with the recording of every waking moment of Bell’s life. As of May 2007, when The New Yorker wrote a piece on MyLifeBits, the archive included, besides the non-born digital objects
a hundred and twenty-two thousand e-mails; fifty-eight thousand photographs; thousands of recordings of phone calls he has made; every Web page he has visited and instant-messaging exchange he has conducted since 2003; all the activity of his desktop (which windows, for example, he has opened); eight hundred pages of health records, including information on the life of the battery in his pacemaker; and a sprawling category he describes as “ephemera,” which contains such things as books he has written and books from his library; the labels of bottles of wine he has enjoyed; and the record of a bicycle trip through Burgundy, where he tried to eat in as many starred restaurants as he could (he averaged 2.2 stars per meal—“I do a lot of measuring,” he says).

There is a flash in the last sentence of my beloved Georges Perec, who amongst other self-archival activities at the very border of what others would call sanity attempted an ‘Inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by [Him] in the Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-Four’[2], but without any of the poetic self-examinations and reflections that accompanied those endeavours. I saw Bell speak at Victoria University in May of 2006, in front of an audience of information technology students, and not once did he pause to consider the staggering ethical and philosophical implications of the project. Come question time, it was all that he was asked about, and he proceeded to politely deflect the questions, in the apparent hope that the next one would be about some aspect or other of the software architecture.

Let’s examine some of these questions. Is Mr Bell in fact authorised to record other people? What is the usefulness of all this data? How could it be accessed, except ultimately by replaying the subject’s life? (And whilst recording the act of replaying, presumably.) How might carrying recording devices around one’s neck influence one’s behaviour, outlook, attitudes towards others - not to mention theirs towards us? Wouldn’t you be very careful of what you said and how you looked in the company of Mr Bell?

I’m sure you can think of several more questions besides. But here’s one I find particularly intriguing: for this project Bell employs an assistant, Vicki Rozycki. Now if Ms Rozycki wanted to document her own life, would she need her own assistant? And what does this say about class, status and memorability?

Not only the Bill Gates of the roughly hewn The Road Ahead, but also the far more sophisticated and compelling thinking of Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital needs to be borne in mind here if we seek to shine a light on the ethos behind Bell’s project. Negroponte’s understanding of technology is unwaveringly utilitarian, and strictly at the service of business and progress, but with a curious whiff of old aristocracy about it. He talks of the digital butler and of electronic cufflinks communicating with each other via low-orbiting satellites, and you can imagine him typing those words in the executive suite of an hotel somewhere in Asia while the permanently over-excited Brit who covers the business world for CNN brays about something or other on the telly. Indeed, while Negroponte proclaims that we are all digital, Bell chimes “I am data”[3]. But no matter how frustrated one might feel at the shallowness of their thinking, there is a significant extent in which it is also true. The executive of a transnational corporation or the high-powered consultant who advises the rich and powerful and sits through corporate meetings in which minutes never fail to be taken; who regularly consumes in-flight entertainment and receives daily emails in the hundreds – this is the kind of person who has an ‘output,’ whose words are always recorded, who is data.

At the same time, Bell undercuts this narrative by eschewing Negroponte’s constant reminders of his own status and (self) importance, claiming instead:
I’m not particularly interesting. I’m just typical of what you should be able to do.
Isn’t this then also a case of the ‘lowering of the threshold of description’[4] that Foucault so ably describes? It used to be that only the rich and powerful could aspire to have their lives documented. When Winston Churchill was born, for instance, his (aristocratic, powerful, connected) family duly began to collect and record all manners of information about him in the very reasonable expectation that he would one day be biographised, and the Churchill biography by his son Randolph and Martin Gilbert contains indeed a truly phenomenal amount of documents about the man. But Bell proposes to bring a Churchill biography in every home, one for every member of your household in fact. And you should be excited about this, because... because...

Because why? I honestly couldn’t tell you. Bell and his collaborator Jim Gemmell open a paper on MyLifeBits by claiming that ‘[h]uman memory can be maddeningly elusive. We stumble upon its limitations every day, when we forget a friend's telephone number, the name of a business contact or the title of a favorite book.’ And yes, I too get frustrated when I forget a phone number. But surely the answer is not to record everything - that way lies the paranoiac hypermnesia of Funes - but rather to make a note of the things that seem important, including phone numbers.

I am convinced that Bell’s solution is in fact the answer to a whole different question. And perhaps a clue can be found here, in a document that reveals his involvement in another project at Microsoft Research: Digital Immortality. The abstract, from October 2000, reads in part
Both one-way and two-way immortality require part of a person to be converted to information (Cyberized), and stored in a more durable media. We believe that two-way immortality where one’s experiences are digitally preserved, and which then take on a life of their own will be possible within the this century.

Please wait: the saving of Gordon Bell is in progress.

(To be continued.)

[1]Bill Gates, The Road Ahead (New York: Viking, 1996), p. 303.
[2]In Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, translated by John Sturrock. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997, pp. 244-250.
[3]Slide of Gordon Bell's presentation at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, on May 29th, 2006.
[4]Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish – The Birth of the Prison (London: Penguin Books, 1997), pp. 77-78.

Gordon Bell, Jim Gray. 'Digital Immortality'. Association for Computing Machinery, 2000.
Gordon Bell, Jim Gemmell. 'A Digital Life.' Scientific American, February 2007.
Vannevar Bush. ‘As We May Think.’ Atlantic Monthly. July 1945, pp. 101-108.
Michel Foucault. Discipline and Punish – The Birth of the Prison. London: Penguin Books, 1997.
Bill Gates. The Road Ahead. New York: Viking, 1996.
Nicholas Negroponte. Being Digital. New York: Knopf, 1995.
Georges Perec. ‘Attempt at an inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy Four.’ In Species of Spaces and Other Pieces. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997, pp. 244-250.
Alec Wilkinson. 'Remember This? A project to record everything we do in life.' The New Yorker, May 27th, 2007.


Daphne Moran said...

Thanks for this interesting post. One thing it made me think about was the perception of machine memory as objective and 'truth-like'. I still think of it as subjective - or rather, as one version of the past. Anyway, thanks again.

Long-time reader first time poster.

Jake said...

I'm curious to know what you think of the relationship between Gordon Bell and Leonard Shelby. I finally got around to watching Memento again this weekend, and certainly took your point that Shelby's reliance on various technologies to substitute for his own memory left him unable to make meaningful connections between nodes of what he thought of as objective information.

Will Bell's capacity to record what he thinks of (and what we may well think of) as absolutely everything mean that the technology will serve as a substitute, and that we'll no longer need the narrative that links discrete objects of knowledge together, because it inheres in the information itself?

(As a student of history, I wonder about this, because one of the things one learns is that archives are made meaningful in the relationship between the material, the archivist and the researcher who reads, requests, and draws connection between and conclusions about the information with which he or she is presented. And, of course, history and deterioration plays its part as information gets lost and assumptions about not only what is worth recording, but the methods and categories by which information should be organised, shape what information is kept. I'm assuming Bell doesn't record nostril flares, or the salinity of his saliva. Why not?)

Will Bell's large archive of the self -- which is not the same thing as the museum of you -- be any more meaningful than Shelby's small and decidedly inadequate one, without the capacity to sort, and sift, and extract what is useful? Bell might assert that he is data, but without someone to read that data with the capacity to organise it for themselves into something coherent, it is as vulnerable as Shelby's system of tattoos and polaroids.

Sorry for the incoherent ramblings, but whilst I'm on the rhetorical questions tip, why is it that nearly every male character in Memento had their name as a diminutive i.e. Sammy Jankiss, Teddy, Jimmy, and Lenny (although he hated it and corrected everyone who used it?

Paul said...

I am not surprised that Bell should be so boring and so uninterested in the implications of his work. He is a collector. It the desire for completion (to have an example of everything in a particular category of objects, to record everything in his life) that motivates him. He has no conception of the possible meanings of the things he collects and records.

Perec (whom I also revere)was interested in the processes and outcomes of recording. He gave it shape, as you do and as does Jake.

Giovanni said...

One thing it made me think about was the perception of machine memory as objective and 'truth-like'. I still think of it as subjective - or rather, as one version of the past.

Bell, like Leonard in Memento, complains that memory is "elusive", "not good", but then they both give the silliest examples: a telephone number, a business meeting, the colour of a room. Those are the kinds of detail that have a true/false value, and that a computer handles well. But it's not what memory is primarily designed for, which is to construct and maintain an understanding of ourselves, of other people and our environment. To do that, to remember the gist of a conversation instead of every single word that was said, or to pass on knowledge such as how to care for children or prepare food, you need to select and isolate essential elements, think narratively and yes, I agree, subjectively.

Long-time reader first time poster.


Wait: did I write that out loud? Damn!

@Jake: I thought more about the connection between Funes and Bell than Bell and Leonard, but you're right, and in fact I wonder now if Bell's apparent lack of self-regard - which is a rare trait in proponents of digital immortality - may betray the aspiration to let got of those memories altogether, become a body without psyche and identity so that the body of data, HisLifeBits, can assume those functions and represent a true transition to the digital state, his 'Cyberization'.

On why he doesn't record physiological data: He does, actually, 'things the body cannot even sense', including the performance data from his pacemaker. Gates talks about recording environmental elements as well (barometric pressure) and I used to think it was because that's easy to record, unlike a state of mind. But there may be something a little more complex going on, a willing of the transition from subjectivity = bad to objectivity = good, which again echoes Leonard's fierce determination to hold on to bits of record, facts, solid clues, and build his identity from those.

whilst I'm on the rhetorical questions tip, why is it that nearly every male character in Memento had their name as a diminutive i.e. Sammy Jankiss, Teddy, Jimmy, and Lenny

Heh! I have absolutely no idea. The hotel guy was called Burt (short for... Burton?) and Natalie's boyfriend is Dodd. All very short male names, thus conveniently easy to remember, I guess, but otherwise I'm stumped.

@Paul: according to the New Yorker article Bell is a bona fide collector, not just a metaphorical one, in particular of commemorative T-shirts and interesting coffee mugs (which he digitizes) and was in the past of razor blades, postcards, balsa-wood model airplanes and salt and pepper shakers. Having never been a collector of anything myself, there may be some important insight I'm missing here. (I'm trying to be more like Perec and keep lists, but boy do I suck at it.)

Paul said...

Indeed; I had read the article, so I was commenting carefully. I was not at all surprised that he should be a collector. Someone in England published psychological research about train spotters, concluding that they are nuts. Train spotting is a British thing: men stand on platforms and note the serial numbers of trains. The psychologist identified a desire for completeness in the train spotter's urge to collect all the numbers, to have one small part of the world which he has made his own. Life may be out of control but at least he has seen every Diesel Multiple Unit on the East Coast line. I think the same condition (a form of OCD, perhaps) can be found in collectors of things.


backin15 said...

Gio, you always write such challenging posts. Best I don't read them en route to bed... The press save generation phrase better reflects my approach although my information management leaves a great deal to be desired.

When can I get an exabyte iPod?

I rewatched Deja Vu tonight. I enjoyed it if only 'cause I like Denzel Washington. The notion of time isn't nearly as well explored as it is in Momento (and really it's an entirely different approach) but I wondered if you'd seen it, what you thought.

Giovanni said...

Someone in England published psychological research about train spotters, concluding that they are nuts.


Like most Italian kids, I used to compile these sticker albums about footballers and cartoon series when I was a kid. All the fun was in exchanging doubles with your mates at school. I don't think I ever finished one, although I came close a couple of times. Last year I discovered, buying one for Joseph, that you can (and always could) send the publisher a letter with some money and the numbers of the missing stickers, and they'd mail them to you. But what's the fun in that? It's raising wee trainspotters, I say.

I wondered if you'd seen it, what you thought.

Not only I haven't seen Deja Vu, up until today I didn't know it existed. Some researcher, huh? Thanks for that, I'll put it on The List.

When can I get an exabyte iPod?

Patience, grasshopper. Bell and Gemmell reckoned some years back that "a life" would fit on a device the size of a cellphone by 2010. I wonder if they reckon we're on track.

backin15 said...

Deja Vu mightn't live up to elevated expectations. The time shifting is just a plot device to distinguish an otherwise pretty straight forward murder mystery. If you like it, you might also like an early Dennis Quaid movie called Dead on Arrival... the story is told somewhat in reverse.

A life on a device that small hey, there goes any sense of meaning I had!

Giovanni said...

Deja Vu mightn't live up to elevated expectations.

Hey, I've watched Butterly Effect and 50 First Dates for the love of this topic. I'll take anything marginally less painful than being hit on the head with a spade. (The jury is still out on whether Butterly Effect qualifies based on this criterion).

A life on a device that small hey, there goes any sense of meaning I had!

Curiously, digital immortalists always enthuse about advances in memory technologies and how little physical space they're going to occupy once they've shuffled their mortal coil.

harvestbird said...

Innumerable soft, flat shoes,
twenty or more cardigans,
some house coats,
others I think were thrown away
by the nursing staff.

Her jewellery and its box
were separated,
one to daughter, the other to granddaughter:
they shared her possessions as they share her name.

You cannot have her;
she is dead.
You cannot say her name
save in her absence.

(When we asked
why she didn't see her father before he died,
she cried:
"I can't --
I can't remember.")

Giovanni said...

Thank you HB although... that makes my next post as I was planning it entirely redundant.

You owe me a topic. Might have to hurry that guest post after all!

harvestbird said...

Ah, but no problem: it is but a few hours until your next post goes up, which will more or less suppress the poem! Sometimes the blog is its own censor ...

Giovanni said...

There are ways around that.