Friday, November 17, 2006

Gordon the Memorious

Gordon Bell, a computer scientist, is attempting to preserve every detail of his life . 'His goal,' says Clive Thompson of Fast Company, 'is never to forget anything.' He has designed software called, with distressing banality, MyLifeBits which, has so far collected more than 101,000 emails, almost 15,000 Word and PDF documents, 99,000 Web pages, and 44,000 pictures. 'It gives you kind of a feeling of cleanliness," says Bell, 'I can offload my memory. I feel much freer about remembering something now. I've got this machine, this slave, that does it.' This reminds (!) me of two things. The first is an odd character called Greg Ryker whom I encountered on the Microsoft campus when I interviewed Bill Gates in 1995. Ryker was working on what he called the 'wallet PC' which would record every detail of a life. He was testing the idea with a Psion organiser and a voice recorder. This aspiration to record every moment, rather than let it be lost in time's capacious maw, plainly stems from a fear of death, a fear that the world which is your and yours only will be lost forever. But, like immortality, infinite memory has serious shortcomings. The second thing I am reminded (!) of is the magnificent story Funes, the Memorious by Jorge Luis Borges. As a result of a brain injury, Funes can forget nothing. 'In effect, Funes not only remembered every leaf on every tree of every wood, but even every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it.' Funes is overcome by detail. He finds it hard to imagine how a creature seen at one moment is the same as a creature seen at another and that both can be called 'dog'. Realising all this, the narrator is 'benumbed by the fear of multiplying superfluous gestures', knowing each would add to the irreducible clutter of Funes' infinite memory. What Funes knew, and Gordon and Greg do not, is that to forget nothing is also to remember nothing. Read the Borges and note the placing of this line, 'The equivocal clarity of dawn penetrated along the earthen patio.' Genius beyond the dreams of technocrats.


  1. ...overcome by detail...

    Like Dreiser. On the other hand, what parts of your life would you cork up in a bottle and bury deep in your back garden?

  2. I'm looking forward to someone finally developing a precise memory-erasure device, in the style of 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind', the Kate Winslet/Jim Carey film.

  3. Ever read anything by Temple Grandin, Bryan? She has autism and writes about it in this way. Everything hits her at once -- the dust motes swirling in the air, the light falling over the windowsill, the dog snoring in its sleep, the sound of water running in a sink two rooms away, the gust of air scented with burned cherry wood from the fireplace in the house across the street -- and Grandin, too, remembers everything.

    She notes that we *all* take in everything that is happening at every second, but that people with autism are not able to subordinate the minor stimuli to the major ones -- or, at least, not without great effort. The rest of us do it constantly. I am writing this and prodding the dog with my foot when she gets too loud, but I'm not overwhelmed by the stimuli bombarding me from every direction, through every one of my senses. Yet, somewhere in my brain, it's all being recorded. If a neurosurgeon years from now were to put an electrode in the right place, he might summon up this exact moment.

    I think being able to focus on what is important and subordinate what is not in art is the mark of genius. It's being able to put into a higher form what almost all of us do, all of the time, in our daily lives.

  4. You don't think this guy is the reincarnation of Proust, do you?