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Better to forget, or better to remember?


In a series of posts I ask what are the possibilities afforded by our technological capacity to digitize a substantial part of our daily lives. This gadget enabled data harvesting may be automatic or manual, continual or spontaneous. We see it in galleries of photos and grabs, video clips, podcasts and text – expressions of our externalization of our thoughts, desires and interests. Included are biometrics. We wear kit to record our vital signs and become a lifelong patient and test subject.

  • Who and what are we?
  • What makes us tick?
  • What can we improve, enhance, support or fix?
  • What do we do with this record?
  • What purpose might it serve?
  • What problems may it solve or cause ?

Two books are at heart of the start of this journey.

I read them first time through side by side, so they might have been interleaved – one as an eBook on Kindle, iBook and laptop, the other in hardback taking pencil written notes, as well as grabs as tags with a smartphone. 8000 words and a dozen or more images make my first thoughts. Already there are a plethora of further books and papers to read relating to computer science and web science, psychology, neuroscience, creativity, innovation and law.

The books are:

Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmel  (2009)  Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger (2009) Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age

Jonathan started his first diary when he was 11, then took it up in earnest age 13 ¼. He’s been blogging since September 1999.

  • What is the value of knowing how I felt, who I was with and what I did and what I was thinking on many of these thousands of days?
  • How does it inform my understanding of the human condition?
  • What remains private and what should I expose or share?
  • Who cares?


With the birth of my children I looked at them and have been asking for the last 16+ years ‘what is going on in there?’ yet I still don’t yet understand my own brain. ‘My mind bursts’ is now a decade long inquiry which is shifting from the coffee table to the classroom. Join me here, in your own blog, in forums and webinars.

Jonathan Vernon has an BA from the University of Oxford, and is a graduate of London’s School of Communication Arts. He has just completed an MA in Open and Distance Education with the Open University. His career has been spent in video production, learning and development, linear, interactive, experiential and online learning with experience of the creative industries, competitive sports – teaching and coaching (swimming), retail, manufacturing and the health services. He started the Open University Module H809 : Practice-based research in educational technologyy on 2nd February 2013 with the goal to begin a three to four year doctoral research project in October. He is also taking part in the OLDs MOOC 2013.

The diffusion and use of innovations is complex – like people.

Fig. 1 Who’s the digital native which one is the immigrant? 

There is no evidence to support any suggestion that there was ever such a group as a ‘digital native’ and it is sensationalist claptrap or lazy  journalism to talk of ‘millenials’ – there aren’t any. The research shows the complex and human reality. It is not generational.  (Kennedy et al, 2009., Jones et al. 2010., Bennett and Maton., 2010) I’m not the only father who knows more and does more online than his kids – we had computers at university in the mid-1980s and in the office within a decade.

Bell and Gemmel fall for the falsehood of the ‘Millenials’. (2009. p. 19)

Fig.2. The devices we use do not split us across generations.

On digital natives or millenials add that behaviours supposedly attributable only to this younger generation are also evident in anyone using these tools and devices – the digitally literate is impatient and is easily distracted.

This applies to anyone who spends much time online. It is not age, gender or race related. We all fidget if downloads are slow or we lose a signal. We’re just being people. It is not generational. Rather behaviours with this tools reflects who we are, not what the kit affords.

Fig. 3. Whether you were born before or after this arrival doesn’t make a jot of difference.

So you here anyone calling our parents the ‘TV generation’, or the generation before that the ‘Wireless Generation’. It is shorthand that   is harmless until it is used to define policy.

They refer to those born between 1982 and 2001 as a homogenous cohort, as if they are all born into families where they will have access to gadgets and later the internet as a birthright. The figures given by Bell and Gemmel (2009) stick to those in North America – just the US or Canada too?  So what if a few become software millionaires. Others aren’t getting jobs at all. And there are plenty of other ways to earn a crust.

Of the 70 million they talk about how many have been interviewed?

When it comes to the use of various online tools and platforms what actually is their behaviour? Its the same behaviour they’d show out in the real world, at school or in the shopping-mall, making and losing friends. And when it comes to blogging, who knows what is going on. The authors assume (2009. p 20) that there is some kind of truth in what people post – that in my experience blogging for many hours a day since 1999 is far, far from that. Indeed finding the honest voice is the one in 30,000.

There is a considerable degree of fakery, and blatant fiction.

I am reminded of the entirely fictitious ‘Online Caroline’ of a decade ago. She posted a sophisticated blog for the era, with photos and video chat. Like Orson Wells following an audience over the invasion of earth this blog had people calling the police when Caroline’s CCTV supposedly logged someone nicking stuff from her flat.

Bell and Gemmel (2009) talk about lifelogging as a panacea.

Fig. 4. The context in which we learn

There are lessons and techniques that have their place. In fact we’re doing a lot of it already. Through several devices or one we are recording, snapping, storing, sharing, loading, compiling, curating, mixing and remembering.

Every example given is a positive, a selected moment on which to build … what about the times of heartache and memory, of parent’s arguments and childhood bullying. Do we want those? If trying a cigarette, getting drunk, being caught in the open with a dodgy stomach or vomiting?

The authors, Gordon Bell and Gemmel (2009) as well as  Viktor Mayer-Schönberger  (2009)  consider four issues in relation to the creation of digital memories:

  1. Record (digitization)
  2. Storage (cheap)
  3. Recall (easy)
  4. Global Access (Mayer-Schönberger, 2009. p. 14)

A fifth should be how this content is managed and manipulated, how selections are made and how it is edited and fed back to the content’s owner, or how it forms another person’s memory when picked up and mashed online.

As (Mayer-Schönberger, 2009. p. 16) puts it, to cope with the sea of stimuli, our brain uses multiple levels of processing and filtering before committing information to long-term memory .

Could decluttering the hoarders house be achieved by creating for them a digital archive and putting everything else in the bin?   

Human Memory

Fig. 5. How we forget. And where software and tools can play a part to help us remember – to create more memories and better recall. 

We forget (perhaps an implicit result of the second law of thermodynamics).  (Mayer-Schönberger, 2009. p. 21) Or a fact. A neuroscientist needs to get engaged at this stage. What IS going on in there?

Let’s say that memory formation could be liken to the aggregation of coral.

This memory has had no opportunity to fix in this way if it is a snap-shot of the an impression of a moment detached from its context – what was going in, how the person was feeling, what they thought of the events, how these would colour and shape their memory .

We are prone to mis-attribute

Language is a recently recent phenomenon (Mayer-Schönberger, 2009. p. 23) Should we therefore remember in images?

Painting dates back some 30,000 years. The written language is even more recent (6000 years ago) as pictographs became cuneiform became an alphabet –  so would an oral tradition be of more value?

REFERENCE

Bell, G., and Gemmel. J (2009)  Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything

Bennett, S, & Maton, K (2010), ‘Beyond the “Digital Natives” Debate: Towards a More Nuanced Understanding of Students’ Technology Experiences’,Journal Of Computer Assisted Learning, 26, 5, pp. 321-331, ERIC, EBSCOhost, (viewed 13 Dec 2012).

Jones C., Ramanaua R., Cross S. & Healing G. (2010) Net generation or Digital Natives: is there a distinct new generation entering university? Computers and Education 54, 722–732.

Kennedy G., Dalgarno B., Bennett S., Gray K., Waycott J., Judd T., Bishop A., Maton K., Krause K. & Chang R. (2009) Educating the Net Generation – A Handbook of Findings for Practice and Policy. Australian Learning and Teaching Council. Available at: http://www.altc.edu.au/ system/files/resources/CG6-25_Melbourne_Kennedy_ Handbook_July09.pdf (last accessed 19 October 2009).

Mayer-Schönberger, V (2009) Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age

 

The memory is the mind process happening in your brain, it can never be the artefact that plays back footage of an experience.


Fig. 1. Bill Gates featured in a 1985 copy of a regional computer magazine

In the introduction to ‘Total Recall’ Bill Gates wonders when he and Gordon Bell first met.

Was in 1983 or 1982. What was the context? Can they pinpoint the moment with certainty? I ask, does it matter? I ask, who cares? What matters is that they met. A moot point if either one of them claims that at this time one took an idea from the other … and they want to claim bragging rights for a new word or financial rights to a product.

The players in this game of life-blogging or developing the digitally automated photographic memory (total recall) are communicating, sharing ideas, creating or stating an identity, forming allegiances and developing ideas or hedging.

Our memory is  selective

Having some sense of what we put in and what we leave out, then having a way to manage what we retrieve how we use this and then add to the record.

As someone who kept a diary and put a portion of it online it surprises me and now worries me when a person I know says that x, or y found out something about them courtesy of this blog (posted 1999-2004).

 

Fig. 2. A grab from my Year 2001 Diaryland Blog. An evening out with the web hopefuls of Wired Sussex, Brighton.

I thought I’d locked the diary long ago – but of course various digital spiders have always been crawling the Internet snapping pages.

I think there are around 100 pages of some 1500 that I can never get back. It took me a few years to realise that I ought to change names and locations, but this became convoluted.


Fig. 3. Apple have started in an in-house business school, the Apple University, to teach people to be like Steve Jobs.

How might a digital record of a person have assisted with this? And what would be the warnings over diet and over behaviours?

The value of this content would be if I had a life worthy of a biography, but I am no Steve Jobs.

The value might still be for writing, though could have been even then a portfolio for specific subjects of study, such as geography, history, art, filming and writing. In these respects it still is.

Then it becomes an aid to the construction of ideas and the development of knowledge.

Personally, if I wanted to build on my knowledge of meteorology I would start with my Sixth Form classes with Mr Rhodes. I may have some of the newspaper cuttings I kept then of weather systems and may even being able to put some of these to photographs. I have a record of the 1987 Hurricane over Southern England for example.

I might tap into a Physics text book I first opened when I was 14 and recuperating at home from a broken leg.

There are those we know who have stored digitally the product of their illegal behaviour – paedophiles who are hoisted by their own petard when their digital record is recovered or identified. There may always be images that you may never want stored for later retrieval – a scene in a horror film that captures your attention before you flick channels, worse a real car accident … even making the mistake of clicking on footage of the hanging of Saddam Hussian. The image will be even less likely to be wiped from your memory if you have it stored somewhere.

Google, Facebook and other sites and services are not the only ones to capture a digital record of our behaviours – as I know if I write about and publish the activities of others.

Fig. 4. ‘Total capture’, as we ought to call it,  could be the digital equivalent of hoarding

Sensors on and in you will know not only about your body, but your environment: the location, temperature, humidity, sound levels, proximity to wireless devices, amount of light, and air quality. (Bell and Gemmel, 2009 p.217)

Just because we can, does not mean that we should. Bell has a record of such minutiae as when he blew his nose – he has too given the detail of what he captures. I know of someone with an obsessive disorder who keeps the paper tissues he uses to blow his nose.

For what purpose?

A data grab of Ridley Scott or some other director as they plan, develop and create a movie might be a fascinating and rich journey that would serve an apprentice well. A detailed recovery from an illness or accident too. There are problems for which a comprehensive digital capture could be a helpful, valid and possible response. How about wearable underpants that monitor your activity and heat up if you need to exercise – eHot Pants ?! Better still, a junior doctor who has to cram a great deal may extract parts of lessons. However, who or what will have structured these into bite–sized pieces for consumption? Is there a programme that could be written to understand what to grab then offer back? But who would pose the testing question? Or can AI do this? From a set of question types know how to compose one using natural language and create a workable e-tivity such as those produced by Qstream (were SpacedEd).


Fig.5. Watching students of the SCA at work I wonder how life-logging would assist or get in the way.

Reflection in working is a way to think through what they are learning – a grabbed record of kit on their person cannot construct this for them. Without a significant edit it would be cumbersome to review. In a digital format though it could be edited and offered back to aid review. Would the return of the bad or weak idea be disruptive or distracting? It could infect the unconscious. Would there not need to be a guide on how to use this log in the context given the outcomes desired? They can’t be up all night doing it.


Fig. 6 Age 17, for one month, I became a hoarder of a kind, of the pre-digital keep a record of everything kind.

A diarist already, starting a new school, back at home from boarding school and a new life opening up – so I kept bus and theatre tickets, sweet wrappers too. And when I sat down in the late evening to write the day I did so onto sheets of paper I could file. With no parameters I soon found myself writing for two hours. September 1978 is a book. Would a few lines a day, every day, in the tiny patch of a space in an off the shelf Five Year diary do? It would have to.

An exchange trip got the file treatment.

And a gap year job of five months was a photo-journal – one file. And then the diary resorted to one page of A4 in a hardback book. This self selection matters. It makes possible the creation of an artificial record or ‘memory’. The way content is gathered and stored is part of the context and the narrative, and by working within reasonable parameters it leaves the content, in 1980-1990 terms, manageable.

I have letters from parents, grandparents and boyhood ‘girlfriends’ from the age of 8 to 18 … and a few beyond.

Perhaps science and maths should have been the root to take? If there is value in reflection it is how I might support my children as they have to make subject choices, choices over universities and their careers beyond. Seeing this I am more likely show empathy to any young person’s plight.


Fig. 7. A boy’s letter home from Mowden Hall School. Presumably Sunday 14th July 1974 as we wrote letters home after morning Chapel. I can see it now, in Mr Sullivan’s Room, French. Mr Farrow possibly on duty. His nose and figures yellow from the piper he smoked … looks like I would have been younger. He never did turn up on Saturday … or any school fixture. Ever. See? The pain returns. 

I have letters I wrote too. I feel comfortable about the letters I wrote going online, but understandably shouldn’t ‘publish’ the long lost words of others. I might like to use the affordances of a blog or e-portfolio, but in doing so I would, like Gordon Bell, keep the lock tightly fixed on ‘Private’. Is it immoral to digitise private letters, even those written to you. How will or would people respond to you if they suspected you would scan or photograph everything, load it somewhere and by doing so risk exposing it to the world or having it hacked into.

People do things they regret when relationships fall apart – publishing online all the letters or emails or texts or photos they ever sent you?

Putting online anything and everything you have that you did together? Laws would very quickly put a dent in the act of trying to keep a digital record. In the changing rooms of a public swimming pool? In the urinals of a gents toilets? It isn’t hard to think of other examples of where it is inappropriate to record what is going on. I hit record when my wife was giving birth – when she found out she was upset. I’ve listened once and can understand why the trauma of that moment should be forgotten as the picture of our baby daughter 30 minutes later is the one to ‘peg’ to those days.

Selection will be the interface between events

What is grabbed, how is it tagged, recalled and used? Selection puts the protagonist in a life story back in control, rather than ‘tagging’ a person and automatically and comprehensively recording everything willy-nilly.

We don’t simply externalise an idea to store it, we externalise ideas so that they can be shared and potentially changed. Growing up we learn a variety of skills, such as writing, drawing or making charts not simply to create an analogue record, but as a life skill enabling communications with others. Modern digital skills come into this too.

Just because there is a digital record of much that I have done, does not mean I don’t forget.

If many others have or create such a digital record why should it prevent them from acting in the present? A person’s behaviour is a product of their past whether or not they have a record of it. And a record of your past may either influence you to do more of the same, or to do something different. It depends on who you are.

The memory is the mind process happening in your brain, it can never be the artefact that plays back footage of an experience.

REFERENCES

Bell, G., and Gemmel. J (2009)  Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything

Blackmore, Y (2012) Virtual Health Coach. (accessed 28 Jan 2013 http://mobihealthnews.com/16177/study-virtual-coach-improves-activity-levels-for-overweight-obese/

Isaacson, Walter (2011). Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography (Kindle Locations 3421-3422). Hachette Littlehampton. Kindle Edition.

Ituma, A (2011), ‘An Evaluation of Students’ Perceptions and Engagement with E-Learning Components in a Campus Based University’,Active Learning In Higher Education, 12, 1, pp. 57-68, ERIC, EBSCOhost, viewed 13 December 2012.

Kandel, E. (2006) The Emergence of a New Science of Mind.

Kennedy G., Dalgarno B., Bennett S., Gray K., Waycott J., Judd T., Bishop A., Maton K., Krause K. & Chang R. (2009) Educating the Net Generation – A Handbook of Findings for Practice and Policy. Australian Learning and Teaching Council. Available at: http://www.altc.edu.au/ system/files/resources/CG6-25_Melbourne_Kennedy_ Handbook_July09.pdf (last accessed 19 October 2009).

Mayer-Schönberger, V (2009) Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age

Myhrvold, N Princeton Alumni (accessed 29 Jan 2013 http://www.princeton.edu/pr/pwb/04/1122/ )

Schmandt-Besserat (1992) How Writing Came About.

Vernon, J.F. (2011) Life according to Anais Nin, Henry Miller and Samuel Pepys
(accessed 28 Jan 2013 http://mymindbursts.com/2011/08/13/1162/ )

W. Boyd Rayward Wells, H,G. World Brain.
http://people.lis.illinois.edu/~wrayward/HGWellsideaofWB_JASIS.pdf

Waybackmachine
http://archive.org/web/web.php

Wixted and Carpenter, (2006) “The Wickelgren Power Law and the Ebbinghaus Savings Function,” 133– 34.

 

 

The power to remember and the need to forget

Fig 1. Your life? Remembered or forgotten?

Digitally record or better to delete?

INTRODUCTION

It frustrates me to try to read two complementary books e in two different formats – the first is marketed in its traditional hardback edition with a designer cover and eye-grabbing introduction from Bill Gates, while the second, an eBook I find understated – as if it is ashamed to compete. They are a pair. Twins separated at birth. They argue from opposite sides of the digital coin, one in favour of digitizing everything under the sun, the other for circumspection and deletion. Perhaps there should be a face off at the Oxford Union Debating Society. My role here is to bring them together and in doing so provide a one word conclusion: selection.

TOTAL RECALL

‘Total Recall’ (Bell and Gemmel, 2009) with its film-reference title and sensationalist headline ‘how the e-memory revolution will change everything’ risks ostracizing a discerning academic readership in favour of sales reputation and coining a phrase or two. It’s hero Gordon Bell might be the protagonist in the movie. The is is shame is that at the heart of what is more biography than academic presentation there is the desire to be taken seriously – a second edition could fix this – there needs to be a sequel. My copy of Total Recall arrived via trans-Atlantic snail mail in hardback, with it’s zingy dust jacket – it feels like a real book. I’m no bibliophile but I wonder if the pages are uncut and this edition has been pulled from a reject pile. It was discounted Amazon and as I’m after the words contained in the book rather than the physical artifact its state ought not to be a concern. Though the fact that it is a physical book rather pegs it to a bygone era. Total recall refers to the idea of a photographic or ‘eidetic memory’ – this needs to be stated.

Fig. 2. DELETE

‘Delete’ (2009) Viktor Mayer-Schönberger is subtitled ‘The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age’ and sounds as if it was authored by a vampire from Transylvania. It is a foil to ‘Total Recall’ with Viktor the antagonist to ‘Flash Drive’ Gordon. Delete hasn’t been – its in its fourth printing, needless to say I got mine in seconds as a Kindle version. I only ever by a book if I have to. I am too used to the affordances of the eBook to skim, search, highlight and share – and to have it on multiple devices, the Kindle, iPad, laptop and smartphone.

The copyright notice in Total Recall on ‘the scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet’ is ironic because this is what Bell does with his life – he has scanned and uploaded his life (though access is totally private). A double irony as he elects for Web 1.0 but won’t join the Semantic Web 2.0 and share.

I have been an exponent of ‘exposure’ – the release of a substantial part of who you are for others to chew over.

The online diary.

The way forward stands between the two, selective extreme gathering, storing and retrieval of your personal archive, while discretely deleting the irrelevant, possibly illegal (copyright, plagiarised, libel) and otherwise potentially reputationally damaging to kith or kin. (How can these be avoided if you wear a device around your neck that takes a digital snap every few seconds?)

They could be landform and landfill.

 

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