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, 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".


  1. That was a great piece Suranga.I was amused at the plight of our politicians whose fibs could be carried around in pendrives. Hurray to technology.

    Jokes are fine but there is also a serious side to your post that set me thinking. Are we making way for a generation of robots? I wonder if these children will ever know what it meant to be punished for not memorising tables and the pleasure one got while answering mental sums and spellings?

  2. I agree, 'the word should have been pits'.

    We had started this game where we all had decided to memorise every family member's 10 digit mobile numbers, and also addresses (which we did when we used to write them on envelops) and other such things... Most of us still value our brains and wouldn't want to surrender our lives to computers. I agree about the ridiculousness of letting the brain de-evolve!!

    LOL@ how politicians will find this raher inconvenient :)

  3. Very insightful post. Kept me thinking for long. Pluses and minuses - but in between there is the choice when it comes to softer things in life.

  4. George Orwell would be pleased (or not).

    Where would emotions fit in, as you pointed out in your post? Where would logic and critical thinking fit in?

    Oh, it's all too much - sorry, my brain is getting tired.

  5. I remember the memorising of tables in maths, poems and Shakespeare's plays in English, chemical formulae in Science and dates in History very well, but the data has been mostly lost through unuse. And I blame my mobile phone with its reminders and contact-list for disabling my memory even further. But you are right, we need to use our brains to keep them rust-free.

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  7. I agree, Suranga, memories have a fragrance as well- as you have so aptly put it.

    What place will human emotions have, I wonder, in a completely computerized world?

  8. Crazy idea of recording events ! Why do ppl come with such crazy ideas..I hope he doesn't have a digital heart as a substitute !

  9. Often times i wonder about all those things that we do in the name of the progress and technology.

    often times i wonder if all of this will take us forward to the future.

    Often times i wonder if they will now implant some hard disk on to your palm or something !

    Often times, i thank God, that i dont have to remember those tables !


  10. I am sure storing of data has its own advantages! Or is it just a perceived advantage. Google Desktop Search helps me find my documents in seconds. Where as my colleagues would know where it is. Of course she comes from a non-computerised era and a secretarial background. She seems to remember everything about anything that has happened in the organization, by dates, by category, by person! And my god the cross linking and the analysis of all the data. amazing!

    If tomorrow all the computers were to gone, she would be as productive as ever. Not sure about the searcher-of-your-own-data-types!

  11. Memorizing is an important part of education which often gets blamed because of our spoon feeding method in India. A child actually learns his/her first lesson by memorizing things around. From then on maximum use of brain only helps us to remember more.

    I believe just like how we have almost lost our letter writing skills to e-mails and handwriting/grammar to documents/spell checks, we are losing our memory because of using less brain power.

  12. I don't know if I'd want all of my memories captured on the computer, be it where I have gone or receipts from the grocery store. As you said, if it's a use for those with memory problems, then Remembering it's available is still an issue. And "use it or lose it" is very true, especially with the ability to remember things. If it's all saved somewhere else, we lose the ability to USE that part of the brain.

    I blog for the purpose of saving a memory, I suppose. It's an online journal for me and to share with friends/family at the same time. But to replace my memory? Seems a cold way of doing so. I enjoyed this post. A lot of truth in it.

  13. I remember in school I had one teacher that made us memorize a poem every single day and recite it. At the time I hated doing this but now realize how helpful it has been to me. My son and one of my twins have fantastic memories and can remember stuff like the dialogue from a movie or recite complete excerts from books. My grandson has heard his alphabet so many times he can recite it at 2, knows his numbers and colors. I think the human memory is a beautiful and wonderful thing. I hope I keep mine for a while yet.
    I can see how the politicians would hate having it all computerized. I think computers make a lot of things more complicated. When I worked my job was much simpler before computers. The paper work did not decrease but increased.
    Thanks for the birthday wishes. This was a great post and really made us think.

  14. Folks, thank you for your insightful comments....