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Memory : The End of Death?
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The End of Death?
Banality seeks immortality through personal digital archiving
by Tom Keenan

The undeserved popularity of blog-writing speaks to a very human need to be more than we are - or at least let the world think so. Ubiquitous Internet service, available from the coffee shop to the airport lounge to the bathroom stall, means that we're never far from the tools needed to document every minute of our daily experience. Free blog sites like blogger.com allow Jane and Joe Public to share far too much information about their everyday physical and mental existence - without needing to know much about HTML or proxy servers.

Most of what people commit to these electronic diaries is about as exciting as watching noses being picked. Their dutiful musings somehow manage to reek simultaneously of narcissism, desperation, and despair. But, mainly, blogs are like Seinfeld episodes - about nothing, that is. Throw in access to a Web cam and a GPS unit, and you can learn exactly which nostril was cleaned out, and upon what street corner the picking took place.

Still, the idea of archiving your life is, in a twisted way, both noble and very human. And it's about to become subject to an adrenaline rush of new technology. A trendy bar in Spain is already regularly injecting special RFID chips into the firm young bodies of its best clients. The size of a grain of rice, the gizmo permits VIP club access, and also acts as an electronic wallet. This is apparently very important, since the young lovelies of both genders are wearing virtually nothing, and don't want to be so crass as to carry Club Med-style "drink beads". That's so old. Sure, these beautiful people are leaving behind a traceable digital trail of their comings, goings, and patterns of consumption - but perhaps that's the point.

Enter, stage left, the artificial life team at British Telecom with their Soul Catcher project. [www.parascope.com/articles/slips/soul.htm] Enter also, very much stage right, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) with its Lifelog project. [www.wired.com/news/business/0,1367,58909,00.html] Both aim to effortlessly capture and record everything you see, hear, write, speak, smell, and feel using new technologies and implants - Soul Catcher with a data recording microchip inserted behind the human eye, and Lifelog with an array of personal surveillance technologies including GPS tracking, audiovisual sensors, and biomedical monitors. Both should be taken seriously - I mean, British Telecom is British Telecom, after all, and DARPA are the not-always-so-friendly folks who gave us the Internet, kind of by accident.

As it turns out, the original pioneers in this little exhibitionist mission have already staked out some turf. University of Toronto professor Steve Mann [http://wearcam.org/index.html] has been known to wear a video camera more or less constantly, uploading everything that falls into his field of vision onto the Net. And on a more tawdry note, college girls and guys have been earning extra spending money for years with infamous "dorm-cams" like the famous JenniCam.

David Jefferson, presently of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, [www.llnl.gov] also made a habit for quite some time of recording everything he wrote, read, heard, and said. It cost him about US 50 cents a day to do it using commonly available technology. Of course, digitally archiving your life in such a way is not all roses. Jefferson said the experience made him somewhat lazy and inattentive - he knew he could always go back and reread a book or replay a conversation, so he didn't always focus on the present moment as effectively as he did when the world was ephemeral. But he found the experience fascinating nonetheless.

In general, this kind of behaviour isn't terribly different from what most people do already day to day - it's really just a matter of degree. Hardly anyone throws away things they've written, even if it's just a nasty fax to the utility company. We usually store it somewhere on one of those cheap multi-gigabyte disks, or on a cd or dvd. Blue Disks, with astronomically more storage capability, are just around the corner. So, while you're at it, why not start saving every Web page you look at, just in case it gets changed or taken down? Google's new desktop search engine means that you would actually have a fighting chance of finding that kind of needle-in-a-haystack on your hard drive the next time you went looking for it.

The implications of having everyone document their lives in such a way are staggering. Imagine having a database in your head that recorded your every visual experience, conversation, email or Internet session, romantic tryst, and so on. Personal archives could provide authorities with a wide range of information, from indisputable evidence about who failed to stop at a stop sign, to the truth about what an Air Force pilot saw just before unleashing "friendly fire". There are even postmortem implications: Your archived exploits (perhaps minus the racier episodes) could be donated to social science, just as your body can be donated today to medical science. Your estate might get a tax receipt: the more interesting your life, the higher the value. Now there's an incentive to run naked through the woods.

But wait, there's more! Processors are getting cheap, and software is getting smart. So, what if these archived lives were empowered via the tools of AI and then started to network? In some future world we could have the Dalai Lamas (all of them) conversing with Mother Teresa and Albert Einstein (if only they had been downloaded to disk). It would represent a kind of Cybernetic Immorality, and it would be infinitely more interesting to watch than anything on television. Perhaps the United Nations, which is currently making funny noises about wanting to "govern" the Internet, could use some of these online sages from the past to tackle the really deep issues of the present.

Sadly, Alan Turing, James Joyce, and Mahatma Gandhi have already been erased in the digital memory sense. So, I guess we'll have to start from scratch with the great minds of our time. Which raises a really interesting question: If you could only afford to save, say, the digital lives of ten people who are living today, then who would you choose? Most tellingly, would you make your own Top Ten list?

If you answered "yes", then there's currently a blog site operator standing by, eager to accept your input. If you said "no", then maybe it's time to start doing the kinds of things that will qualify you for your own Top Ten!

Dr. Thomas P. Keenan (I.S.P., CISSP.) is an award winning professor, broadcaster, and science journalist at the University of Calgary's Faculty of Continuing Education. He is also an Adjunct Professor in the U of C's Department of Computer Science, and affiliated with the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok. Visit his Web site [www.ucalgary.ca/~keenan] to read more of his writings.

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