Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Memory, Reminders, and Wisdom

Even researchers confront "senior moments" as they get older. So perhaps Stefanie Olsen's latest Digital Media post on the CNET News.com Web site is a reflection of the "graying" of IBM Research:

For the past two years, IBM researchers have been developing technology to help people recall events, names of new acquaintances, and details of a conversation in their context with the use of cell phone and computer. On Tuesday, IBM Research Labs plans to publicize an early version of its personal-assistant software, called "Pensieve," after the fictional memory bank described in Harry Potter books. IBM posted a video on YouTube.

Not available publicly yet, the software could feasibly be used with any mobile smart phone. The technology relies on people keeping track of what's important to them by using the phone to snap photos, create text documents, or record audio. When the phone is synced to a computer via a Pensieve-enabled dock, the software takes over. It collates files by their tagged GPS location and time, among other rules, and creates associations between them.

"As it processes the information, it's building an associative network of people and places and events," said Laura Haas, director of computer science at the IBM Research Center in San Jose, Calif.

For example, if a person takes a photo of an event poster, the software's optical character recognition technology would take down the details of the event and make a calendar entry. Or if a person takes a photo of someone new at a business workshop, followed by a picture of his or her business card, Pensieve might create an address book entry that's linked to the photo and notes taken at the workshop. Later, when the person tries to remember the name of new acquaintance, he or she could use Pensieve's search engine to recall data from the workshop.

"If I'm trying to remember the name of this interesting person, maybe all I remember is that I met them at Google, I would search for 'person at Google' and it would show my contacts from there and start jogging my memory," Haas said.

I have no idea whether or not Olsen is up on her Plato; but, at the very least, it looks like those IBM researchers forgot about what that old Greek wrote in his "Phaedrus" dialogue (as translated into English by R. Hackforth):

The story is that in the region of Naucratis in Egypt there dwelt one of the old gods of the country, the god to whom the bird called Ibis is sacred, his own name being Theuth. He it was that invented number and calculation, geometry and astronomy, not to speak of draughts and dice, and above all writing. Now the kind of the whole country at that time was Thamus, who dwelt in the great city of Upper Egypt which the Greeks call Egyptian Thebes, while Thamus they call Ammon. To him came Theuth, and revealed his arts, saying that they ought to be passed on to the Egyptians in general. Thamus asked what was the use of them all, and when Theuth explained, he condemned what he thought the bad points and praised what he thought the good. On each art, we are told, Thamus had plenty of views both for and against; it would take too long to give them in detail. But when it came to writing Theuth said, ‘Here, O king, is a branch of learning that will make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories; my discovery provides a recipe for memory and wisdom.’ But the king answered and said, ‘O man full of arts, to one it is given to create the things of art, and to another to judge what measure of harm and of profit they have for those that shall employ them. And so it is that you, by reason of your tender regard for the writing that is your offspring, have declared the very opposite of its true effect. If me learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.’

This is not to argue that a technology for "reminder" is entirely a bad thing; but, from the point of view of those of us who draw heavily upon our memories, it may be a displaced priority, whose most dangerous flaw is the extent to which it can escalate our reliance "on that which is written" to a richer body of captured digitized content.

As I have argued in many previous contexts, this is yet another example of what happens when technologists jump with both feet into noun-based thinking when they should be thinking about the verbs. The biological evidence now is pretty strong on the proposition that human memory is not some vast filing cabinet (or, in more modern language, database). Rather, it is an ongoing process; and Gerald Edelman has even tried to make this more specific by concentrating on the process of recategorizing our perceptions. Therein lies the problem: Capture and retrieval have very little to do with any dynamic process of recategorization; and, indeed, almost no work has been done on trying to investigate Edelman's conjecture through digital models. Instead, the digerati jump on their horses and ride off madly in all directions that take them away from any serious thinking based on ongoing processes or, to draw upon a related school of thought, Israel Rosenfield's verb-based concept of "invention" as a process of memory.

Now I have no difficulty owning up to my own problems with "senior moments." I am even willing to confess that, when I am on my own, I often rely on my own mechanisms for "reminder," many of which involve the search engines available through my computer. However, the "senior moments" that matter most tend to be those that take place when I am away from my computer; and, at such times, I have discovered that the best way to deal with them is through conversation. I confess to my loss and start talking about what I am trying to recover; and, more often than not, some Rosenfield-like "invention" emerges from that conversation and comes to my rescue. At the very least I find this far more socially acceptable than excusing myself while I pull out a mobile tether that has been designed to achieve the same effect more efficiently! I would further argue that, because my "old-fashioned" technique keeps me engaged in conversation, it keeps that process of memory (whatever it may be) properly lubricated and frees me from excessive reliance "on that which is written."

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