Space, Place, and Memory Prosthetics

Space, Place, and Memory Prosthetics

Phil Turner (Napier University, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-020-2.ch014


Recent years have witnessed a number of initiatives to develop technology (“memory prosthetics”) to enhance and extend human memory. Typical of these is “Memories for Life,” which is one of the Grand Challenges in Computing identified by the British Computer Society in 2004. So far, the emphasis has been on the development of psychologically informed technology. This chapter, in contrast, proposes a conceptual framework based on the Heideggerian concepts of being-with and being-in for the development of such technology.
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People have always striven to address the deficiencies of individual human memory. Recognising the limits of human memory (and wishing to transcend them), we have long sought to augment and otherwise improve upon it by means of technology. Burke and Ornstein (1997) have suggested that the alphabet (the sequential ordering of phonemes) made “a special contribution to the human ability to dissect and reshape the world” (1997, p. 71). With the Greek alphabet we had, for the first time, an easy to use external storage medium replacing oral traditions (and the much more difficult to use hieroglyphic systems) that allowed us to separate thinker from thought and within this, the beginnings of philosophy. Less dramatically, many of us support our memories of events with photographs and souvenirs of various kinds (mementos, reminders, keepsakes, bric-a-brac, and knick-knacks, the wealth of synonyms is quite revealing).

The idea of memory augmentation through digital technology in itself is not, of course, new. Most commentators credit Bush (1945) with the origin of the concept, with his speculations about a “memex” system (which sounds a little like a cross between a personal computer, the Web, and an odd looking piece of furniture). Let us consider an extended quotation for this famous paper for a moment.

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, “memex” will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory. It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk. In one end is the stored material. The matter of bulk is well taken care of by improved microfilm. Only a small part of the interior of the memex is devoted to storage, the rest to mechanism. Yet if the user inserted 5000 pages of material a day it would take him hundreds of years to fill the repository, so he can be profligate and enter material freely.

While the description of the memex presents an interesting vision of the augmentation of human memory, the real focus, despite a statement to the contrary, appears to be the issue of storage. Memex is where “all his books, records, and communications” are kept on “improved microfilm” with a project storage capacity of less than 400GB1. In essence, memex was the first vision of an electronic memory prosthetic. Realisations of different aspects of this concept are readily available. For example, Microsoft’s SenseCam technology, which lies at the heart of their MyLifeBits programme (Microsoft, 2007), is a device that captures up to 2,000 images per day together with contextual data. MyLifeBits can, in principle, store a lifetime’s worth of anything that can be digitised. Advances in storage technology have removed the barrier to collecting “everything”; as a Microsoft Research spokesperson has recently observed “you can store every conversation you’ve ever had in a terabyte. You can store every picture you’ve ever taken in another terabyte. And the net present value of a terabyte is $200.” So, a lifetime’s worth of data may be stored for as little as $400 (FutureWire, 2005). Whether this optimism is realised remains to be seen.

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