Archive for July, 2008

Collective Memory

Some years before Vannevar Bush wrote about the Memex, the solitary Jorge Luis Borges penned a singular short story: Funes el Memorioso.   There is a good translation by Andrew Hurley, with the somewhat awkward title of Funes, His Memory.   At first it may seem strange to pair these two men in a sentence.  Borges was not very much interested in technology, science and policy, as was Bush.  His interests where in riddles, myths, language, infinite libraries and mirrors and copulation.  But both Bush and Borges where concerned with the possibility of infinite memory, classification and information retrieval. 

Funes is a young lad in a town somewhere in rural Argentina, that is in possession of a prodigious memory.  He can recall every detail in the world, just by willing to thinking about it.  He later begins to develop knowledge systems and classifications of his own.  He is a kind of idiot-savant, that eerily reminds of El Niño Fidencio.

Both Bush and Borges conceived the expanded memory as personal “appliances”, in the case of Funes his abnormal brain and in Bush’s idea the Memex machine itself, which resembled the desk of a clerk with some complex machinery and microfilm inside.

Today we have a working version of this idea of an expanded memory.  It is contained in the Web.  But it is not something personal, it is a collective memory, that is created by large number of persons, and made available for everyone to use as an Information Commons.

We have to kinds of competing collective memory systems. 

The first is the shallow web.  It is formed by millions of websites with easy to access information, created by individuals all over the world.  Google Search is the most common retrieval tool of information.  It uses the links within the websites to decide about the relevance of each website, in fact extracting by this method a system of collective cataloging and ranking of information. 

The second are meta-web systems like Wikipedia.  Wikipedia tries to obviate the need to search the shallow web for information, instead offering multi-language articles that are crafted by a collective of editors worldwide.  The idea of an Encyclopedia expanded to every aspecto fo human knowledge and endeavour.

The most evident problems of a collective memory are its accuracy and completeness.  But in the end, information, like any other human activity, is a representation of the world.  The representations reflect our ideas about ourselves.

Writing Diaries

Robert Musil, a writer and novelist, author of “The Man Without Qualities“, was a prolific writer of diaries and letters.   He viewed the diary as complementary to his work as a writer, and thought of how it fitted his artistic and political vision.  The diary as a collection of ideas, projects, secrets.  As a code to interpret the work of the novelist after his passing.  As a semiotic excercise.

A couple of weeks ago I tried to retrieve an important e-mail that I wrote using my e-mail account @ Yahoo!  It was not possible.  Yahoo! had somehow cancelled or deactivated my account because I had not used it for a while (I switched to Gmail some time ago).   The email, and the important text that it contained, is lost or orphaned in cyberspace.   That event started me thinking of Musil and of the act of disseminating our thoughts to a medium not entirely controlled by oneself. 

Think email, IM, blogs, wikis, twitter, dopplr, Facebook, etc., etc.  It may seem that you are in control of the media, that you own yor account and your information.  But is that really so?  There are a lot of e-calamities that can happen, to name a few:  you lose your account (my case), the servers crash and no DRP is in place, the company goes out of business, you are a victim of vandalism.  Disaster can be only a step away !

Questions: Are you interested in keeping a copy of all your utterances (however irrelevant) for posterity ?  Do you own you copy ?  Do you have a backup ?  I for my part would like to have my texts survive in some form.  Maybe not all of them, but that is not the point.  The point is that what you thought or wrote is a reflection of your life and interests.  A snapshot that contains more than the information coded in writing (when you collate it with time, place and events).  Many of the forms of writing a diary today are done online (just now for example).   And that means that your work is disseminated and decoupled from you, and that it may be in danger of no making it for many years alive.  We should find out a way to have our diaries restored to us for keeping safe.  I have no real solution now, maybe I should have a print out of everything.


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