Saturday, September 26, 2009
To E and back
Human memory is a wonderful thing. They are still trying to figure out what determines how we remember stuff from how long ago. And just how the brain manages to keep all the links associated with that memory. And how it decides how to classify some memories as more memorable than the others.
In my childhood, memorizing of things was an important part. There were certain parts of scriptures and prayers that every child memorized and performed daily. Reaching home after an hectic evening spent playing outdoors, would see us all washed clean and changed, and sitting in the prayer room for the evening prayer recitations. Children regardless of age, joined in, and the younger ones, learned by simply hearing words again and again. They would know the meanings a bit later.
Many of these recitations were in Sanskrit, and were said in firm ringing tones by groups of children . For some reason, saying mathematical tables around this time, was also in vogue. Could have been a left-brain, right-brain thing. Parents would be bustling around organizing meals and stuff with a sharp eye on these recitations, ensuring that no one was fooling around. Saying tables up to 29 was almost the norm. Some folks with stricter parents even knew tables of half, three-fourths ("paoonkee"), one-fourths ("paokee"), one-and-a-half ("deedkee"), and even two-and-a-half ("adeechkee").
The ancestors believed in the adage of Use it or Lose it, and boy, did we use it. It wasn't just the maths, but we even memorized various language poetry as school requirements. All these things left indelible marks in our brain memory circuits, which kind of got sharpened finely with the repetitions over time.
I used to think that computers happened because someone tried to figure out the workings of a human brain. It certainly looks that folks were on more or less the correct track, when champion chess players actually started playing with machines. Over the years computers have gotten faster, slicker, and sometimes, it appears wiser, and the number of things that can be connected to them and enjoyed have increased by leaps and bounds, at the same time decreasing in size, that too, by leaps and bounds.
The Bard of Avon, would have been nonplussed to see that his entire works could fit on something that looked smaller than a slab of chocolate, and whats more, you could just carry it everywhere in your pocket, along with your loose change, wallet, credit cards, and other such mundane non literary things.
Having said that, the computers today, are not even close to approaching how the brain works and coordinates happenings in our human body. Handling information passed on my media of different densities such as fluids, muscle tissues, cells , electrical impulses, etc, and then exercising decisions, given the physiological and environmental restraints, is something the computers will have a hard time replicating.
So far so good.
And then I hear about a person from Microsoft called Gordon Bell, who is 75 years old, and has spent the last ten years moving stuff from his brain, on to computers. He moves around with all sorts of cameras and video equipment recording his life. He saves every scrap of paper , like restaurant receipts, and doctor's prescriptions and so on, and stores these as .pdf files, along with .pdf versions of every web page he visits. He has accumulated more than 35o gigabytes of stuff by now.
And the whole idea, is that by 2020, you won't need to remember anything yourself, as it will all be online. Hopefully with an unbreakable password. Microsoft is actually working on something called a Sense Cam which would a pictorial record of your life.
I don't understand this.
Save everything you want with built-in redundancy. Watch it on a screen as you indulgently pat the CPU. You have a doubt, then you Google, and the thing points you to another place, where you go, and smile to yourself. Wonderful. Your records remain after you don't.
Sometimes your old age may consist of memory related diseases, and dementia. The question is, what use is all this to you, if you forget that it is there ? What use are all these stored facts, if seeing your children in a photo, leaves you inert, blank, and staring ?
And given, that you are spending all your good days, making life easy for your brain means, you are not encouraging your brain , to "learn", per se. You are actually training your brain to be robotic . See, flip, switch, fastforward, stop, see, flip.....ad infinitum.
Why knowingly underutilise the brain ? Have we evolved so far that we need to de-evolve and become stupider ? And what happens when all this millions of Gigabytes of stuff falls into the wrong hands ?
My concern is purely as an individual , who today sees so many people struggling to achieve a decent standard of living in the face of so many difficulties, and they do this , basically using their brains .
However I am pretty sure, there is one class of folks in India, who will violently oppose this archiving of life as proposed by Bell.
Our industrialists and politicians.
Imagine, a pen drive containing .pdf files, of all the before and after versions of websites , showing how you changed rules around to ensure your sister's brother-in-law's niece got the candidature from somewhere.
Imagine, video clippings of how you came out after a press conference in New Delhi, and told someone exactly the opposite to what you just said you would do, publicly.
Imagine, audio clippings of the phone call you received which forced you up your contribution for elections and quadruple it .
Imagine, a politician , now that his video and audio histories are public, being unable to deny an accusation about someone funding all his childrens' education abroad, presumably in return for some dicey change in import rules beneficial to someone.
Imagine a politician's twittering archives exposing the gulf between what he says and what he does.
Imagine how many evenings of boring political TV news would be avoided, if we only had video and audio archives of who instigated whose expulsion from which party, and who is actually telling the biggest lie while saying "I do not remember !".
For us common people, memories don't just have a value they have a fragrance as well.
How do you record the memory of a grandparent lifting a grandchild as a baby, and rubbing the nose against the baby's neck, sinking in the wonderful mixed aroma of milk and talcum powder ? Or the look on the face of a mother, as her teen aged daughter drops whatever she is doing and rushes in, shaking her head at the frumpy way her mother has worn the sari, and then sits down ,and does bits of pulling here and there so the border gracefully flows against the ground, as opposed to floating four inches above ground ? Or the lump in the throat as you recall your sons first violin recital on stage, and how he did wonderfully well, and then dashed to the loo as soon as the curtain fell.....
Mr Bell, the digitally obsessed brain archiver, however, continues his project .and calls this as akin to being a librarian of your life.
"I think it's inevitable because so much content is being created. Virtually everything is coming in digitally -- everything from your photos to your videos to your music. ... I will love that day when the world is just bits. It's the ultimate in green, by the way.", he says in answer to a question on whether its possible to turn away people from such new technologies.
Don't know about this bit about "bits".
The word should have been "pits".