Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Seven thousand trillion floppy disks

I thence concluded that I was a substance whose whole essence or nature consists only in thinking, and which, that it may exist, has need of no place, nor is dependent on any material thing.

(René Descartes, Discourse on Method)

Tacky image via
Twenty years ago, the freshly privatised British Telecom embarked upon a quest to end death. It might seem an unusual endeavour for a telecommunications company, unless you consider that Microsoft was hatching similar plans at this time, or you cast your mind back to Norbert Wiener’s prediction that it might be possible some day to send a human being through a telegraph wire. ‘Conceptually’ possible is how Wiener put it, so at BT they were now going to explore that concept.

The research, carried out for a trifling £40 million at the company’s Martlesham Heath Laboratories, was centred around the hubristically named ‘Soul-Catcher chip’, a device designed to be neurally implanted onto the visual cortex of the bearer in order to capture the entirety of his or her visual input. Once perfected and extended to the other senses, the chip could amass and store a record of the entire sensory experience of its host, and function as a perfect memory repository, to be replayed and searched at will. It is clear from their public pronouncements, however, that the scientists working on the project regarded memory as the essence of consciousness and personhood. The stored data, therefore, would be the same as the person. Here’s an item published in Earth Island Journal in the Fall of 1996, reproduced in its entirety:
UK -- The Liverpool Echo reports that British Telecom (BT) is working on the “Soul-Catcher”–a microchip device small enough to be implanted in the optic nerve and capable of capturing “a complete record of every thought and sensation experienced during an individual’s lifetime.” Dr. Chris Winter, head of BT’s artificial life team, declared that the Soul Catcher chip promised “immortality in the truest sense.” Winter suggested that police could use implanted chips “to relive an attack, rape or murder from the victim’s viewpoint to help catch the criminal responsible.” Each individual’s visual record would be transmitted to central computers for storage. Within 30 years, BT predicts, Big Brother could be watching – from inside your own head.

What’s most striking here – even more explicitly than in the case of Gordon Bell’s vision of the dullest life imaginable, lived forever – is the connection between immortality and a surveillance society described with all the tropes of the available dystopian literature. Nowadays this connection is framed a little less crudely or naively, but it survives in the efforts to master immortality by the likes of Google, whose overarching goal remains that of controlling and manipulating the majority of the world’s personal information. Your past is who you are and who you are is what the computer networks seek to acquire and reproduce with absolute fidelity, until it’s more you than the original. Hyper-text. Hyper-real.

Immortality as a corporate goal makes perfect sense in an industry and a culture fuelled by such messianic impulses. ‘The Net will save us,’ said Beppe Grillo some years ago, before articulating that pronoun, ‘us’, into a nine million votes-strong political force, but it would be a very ordinary kind of salvation if it were limited to the economy, or the environment – or even to humanity itself. That promise must extend, at least for some, into personal salvation and a hyper-connected afterlife.

The eighties and nineties were great decades for the revival of Cartesian dualism, on which the idea of a digital afterlife rests. This is as much a rhetorical as a techno-scientific project, as is evidenced by the efforts to sell the Soul-Catcher chip to the consumers of reports about the outer edges of scientific research. Consider again David Winter’s grandiose line about ‘immortality in the truest sense’, or the pronouncement by Peter Cochrane – then Head of Research at BT – that the human body is a ‘carcass’, a mere ‘transport mechanism’ for the mind. But I am especially fond of the statement to The Ecologist by another scientist involved in the project, Ian Parson, who explained that the idea to digitise human experience was based on a ‘solid calculation of how much data the brain copes with over a lifetime’, yielding the figure of ‘10 terabytes of data, equivalent to the storage capacity of 7,142,857,142,860,000 floppy disks’.

The idea that an unfathomably large pile of floppy disks should be regarded as a functional equivalent of the human mind must have sounded comical back then, too. Consider also how by this time (1996) the floppy disk was well on its way to becoming an obsolete technology. How secure would you feel, if someone told you that the record of your existence were to be transferred onto seven thousand trillion of these bad boys?

Nothing is ever a figure of speech. Nowadays we talk of the cloud as if it, too, weren’t made of disks stored in large stacks in vast data centres, here on Earth, with power bills and outages of both the scheduled and the unscheduled kind. You wouldn’t be safe. You wouldn’t be immortal. Not even in the cloud.

But perhaps the point of that wonderful image – of a tower of colourful plastic disks climbing into the heavens – was to distract you from the premise: that your mind is data which can be quantified, therefore organised, therefore acquired and stored. That is the essence of the belief in the digital age and in its powers of salvation. If you can buy that, you are sold.