|Dale Asberry has been working on a Personal Knowledge Management project that essentially treats your hard drive as an extension of your memory — an easily retrievable ‘aide-mÈmoire’ like speaker’s notes or mnemonics. Dale’s idea is to use tools akin to blogs (to capture stories and other context rich ‘memories’), wikis (to capture conversations and other multi-participant ‘memories’) and visualization tools to represent how these memories are connected. The poor guy has had to delve into the whole ‘categorize vs. tag’ taxonomy debate to try to decide whether/how the PKM ‘interface’ would index all these memories. It’s not clear what method our brains use to ‘look up’ and ‘retrieve’ memories, though we know that sensory clues are probably more important than conceptual correlative ones: A once-familiar smell will ‘bring back’ memories decades old far more effectively than ‘searching our brain’ to recall who we talked with and what we said about subject or idea X.
The degree to which we cherish old photographs suggests that sensory triggers are quite critical to rich memory recall. Our visual sense is the only one we currently capture aides-mÈmoire for, through photographs and home-made videotapes. While snapping photos is considered socially acceptable (in some places and contexts, anyway), making audio recordings of conversations has never caught on (except among some of society’s more bizarre elements, and then principally to incriminate). I have some scented candles that bring back floods of teenage hippie-days memories, certain music also stirs powerful memories, and sometimes an overheard voice reminds me of someone I knew long ago and makes my hair stand on end — but for the most part our sensory aides-mÈmoire are pretty thin and fragile. I suspect that most of what we’ve really learned in our lives has been quickly and almost totally forgotten, at least to the point that the few fragments we still recall are no longer useful and may even be dangerous to rely on.
The BBC this morning reports on a new British university study that suggests your ability to remember depends more on your ‘state of mind’ immediately preceding the event than during and after it — so that you must essentially ‘prepare to remember’, or you won’t. This has some intriguing implications for loss of short-term memory as we age, and for Alzheimers research. Perhaps as we get older we’re not quite really there anymore — we don’t live in the moment so we perceive less and as a result are less prepared to remember anything. Why would that be? A coping mechanism for a world that eventually just gets to be too much? Information overload making our brains physically incapable of absorbing any more? And why is it that certain events, settings, even times of day (“midnight shakes the memory, as a madman shakes a dead geranium”, as Eliot said — hey! I remember that word for word!) seem to provoke memories that otherwise lie dormant, seemingly forgotten?
If information overload is a culprit in our fading and unreliable memory, especially as we age, Dale may be on to something. Many of us use techniques like Getting Things Done, one of whose principal functions is to clear out our short term memory of ‘stuff we have to remember to do’ so that that memory can be used to support more concentrated processing instead of being tied up. It is dangerous to draw too many parallels between the human brain and computers (the processing is utterly different), but the fact we call computer storage ‘memory’ suggests it is analogous to what our brain uses and does to store and retrieve what we have sensed, perceived, conceived and learned. If ‘personal knowledge management’ technology can help us to recall more, better, when we need it, this could be one of the most important uses of information technology of all. It also explains why portability and shareability of our new technological ‘memory’ is so intuitively important to us. We don’t want to leave our memory at home.
Suppose, further, we had a way to capture, with greater sensory richness, much or all of our lives using recording ‘media’? If we could maintain a private ‘film’ of everything we did in our lives, taken from both an inside view (what we saw and sensed) and an outside view (how another viewer would have seen us at the same time, with our body language visible etc.), how often would we later refer to it, and for what? If your whole life was filmed, would you watch the re-runs? If you could use these ‘recordings’ to keep old memories much more alive, how would this change you? Would it make us less amenable to change, and more nostalgic? Would some of us (those prone to grow up slowly) end up getting buried in the past, reliving cherished times over and over in preference to the terrible knowledge, dimmed senses and checked emotions of the present? Or would it allow us to learn much more, and keep those important learnings alive in ourselves?
An even more intriguing issue is the value of these filmed archives to others. Why settle for a mere story when you can see the story-teller’s experience, and the experience of each of the characters in the story, first-hand? Suppose you had access to (or inherited) your grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ filmed archives — the most amazing experiences of their lives, good and bad, to learn from almost as if you experienced them personally, in much more detail than any recounting could ever achieve. Suppose you could fast-forward through the life of a personal hero — a great scientist, or humanitarian, or businessperson, or athlete, or artist. Or experience the wonder or horror of a day in the life of an Inuit villager, a Darfur survivor, an Iraqi businesswoman, a Rio street-child, an elected official.
Economist Herb Simon famously said “I keep my knowledge in my network”. When we want to recall something that we learned from someone else, we often call that person and have them ‘recall’ it for us. With a lifelong filmed archive for everyone, we wouldn’t have to bother them, or limit ourselves to people in our network. We could keep our knowledge in everyone’s network.
Aside from the obvious issues of technological feasibility (bandwidth and digital memory aren’t quite free, yet) and privacy, how might we edit, organize and search such a vast archive, so that what is most important could be found easily among the minutiae of everyday life? Or could we just leave this up to everyone, relying on billions of browsers to ‘bookmark’ the most valuable passages of our own and others’ lives, to the point we could just surf on top of others’ research, and live much of our lives ‘learning vicariously’?
It would be interesting to discover how much is lost, missing, in the absence of knowledge of what the participants of the events we are ‘reliving’ were personally thinking and feeling. Can such a grandiose play function without a narrator? When we blog, we are not just telling stories (ours and others), recounting the sensory details. We are telling others what we think about them, what we feel about them. Is it enough to see what a street urchin in Rio sees, says and does in a day in her life, in order to appreciate what such a life must be like, and learn important lessons about the world from such a perspective, and the imperative of making the world for such children better? Or are we missing the real story if we don’t hear what she has to say, hear her tell the story of the fear and aching she feels waking up every morning and at every moment during her anxious day? Does listening to an organic food co-op owner’s explanation for why she made a particular decision add or detract from the learning value of witnessing a day in her life?
Simon and Garfunkel’s song Old Friends concludes with this ‘bookends’ theme:
Time it was, and what a time it was! It was
A time of innocence, a time of confidences:
Long ago, it must be — I have a photograph.
Preserve your memories: They’re all that’s left you.
Our life is a play that we are writing the script for as we live it. Now that we have the technology to show us the ‘rushes’, the out-takes, and what the other 6.3 billion producers came out with today, last year, a century ago, can we afford the time to press ‘re-wind’ and take a closer, sober look at what we have done, what we are doing, and what we are not doing, and think about, in that context, what we should bedoing tomorrow?
Self portrait pencil sketch made yesterday, drawing on the right side of the brain (no memory required!)
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