I wrote about Gordon Bell’s MyLifeBits project a year ago. Gordon Bell, now of Microsoft Research, was once the CTO of Digital Equipment and a pioneer in computer networks and clusters, among many other research initiatives. Now The New Yorker is writing about him and MyLifeBits too.

Thanks for the memories
MyLifeBits is Bell’s project to record his life and to make that record accessible. So far, the former is a lot easier than the latter.

Among the several interesting threads in the article is how might such a record impact our perception of our life. It has only in the last 100 years – out of 7,000 years of human civilization – that high quality recordings of events and performances have been possible. Today, thanks to cheap cameras and storage, almost anyone amongst the relatively few living in affluent industrial economies can now take a stab at recording far more of their life in high-def color than anyone dreamed even 40 years ago.

From the article:

Memory revises itself endlessly. We remember a vivid person, a remark, a sight that was unexpected, an occasion on which we felt something profoundly. The rest falls away. We become more exalted in our memories than we actually were, or less so. The interior stories we tell about ourselves rarely agree with the truth. Someone uneasy with the candor of his archive could delete the material that pained him. People do it all the time: they destroy papers; they leave instructions in their wills for letters to be burned. In the novel “So Long, See You Tomorrow,” William Maxwell writes, “Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.” In “The Seven Sins of Memory,” the Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter mentions the work of Shelley Taylor, a psychologist at U.C.L.A., who has written that optimistic people tend to recall their pasts more favorably, and that the versions of their selves that they recalled contributed to their mental and physical health.

A reliance on the actual record might also inadvertently distort our impressions. Schacter has conducted experiments in which he photographed subjects performing several simple activities. He showed some of the subjects photographs of them doing a few of the activities. They recalled those activities easily, but were less likely to recall the activities that they had not been shown.

“What it suggests is that there might be unknown or unintended effects,” he told me. “By overemphasizing certain parts, by recalling July 4th, for example, you might make it more difficult to recall July 5th. Even if you had time, which you don’t, to recall all of it, your review has to be held onto by your memory, and at some point you’re going to run into the limitations of memory. The archive idea suggests you could have it both ways, and in a limited extent it might be helpful, but I don’t think it would end up being so utopian. The limitations of memory will intercede.”

Two sides to every story – just one set of facts
The irony of this effort to record everything in a man’s life, juxtaposed against the deliberate loss of 5 million emails by the White House in a successful effort to conceal unethical and criminal actions, suggests a glimmer of hope for the future.

So much of what passes for political discourse consists of arguments about facts. What if we could agree on the facts thanks to advanced recording and storage technology? Would it be useful if we could spend that time discussing why some people approve of the facts and others don’t?

The power of partial memory
One of the problems with laws and regulations is that, if successful, the problem they eliminate disappears from human memory, while the laws themselves remain all too visible. Take the American abortion debate. Pictures of aborted fetuses stir sympathy. There are no recent pictures of dead women lying in pools of blood in hotel bathrooms. The latter records helped shaped the abortion debate in the 1960s. Their absence today lets the anti-abortion folks ignore a very likely outcome if they get their way. And that is just one example.

The StorageMojo take
No technology, such as MyLifeBits, can improve human nature. It just might be that if we could see ourselves as others see us, we might generally become kinder and gentler people, and more likely to think about how we might be creating the reactions we see in others. Maybe.

In any case, massive storage is creating possibilities of which we are only dimly aware.

Read The New Yorker article here.

Comments welcome, of course. Monday is Memorial Day, a national holiday in America. To my fellow Americans, I wish you a happy holiday. To the rest of the world Monday may be a little quiet.