Notes from a talk by Michael Curry

Tonight's talk at the EPFL Urban department seminar was "Digital individual: place, memory and the anxiety of reference" by Michael Curry (UCLA). My notes are a bit rough, taken in real time and reshaped in the train... Curry's talk was about the redrawing of the boundaries between the forgotten and the remembered caused by technologies. He went through 4 projects to show the trend towards "the multiple problems of forgetting and anxiety for references": 1) Vannevar Bush's Memex ("intimate supplement of memory", "networked Memex: sneaker network") 2) Ted Nelson's Xanadu, mirrorworlds. 3) Mirror Worlds by David Gelernter (1992): "put the universe in a shoe box": a software model of a piece of reality. You can see the mirror world through the computer screen: an annotated version of the world: a notion of a world where everything has a location, space as a framework focus on density, condition, status, a bit like google mash-ups 20 years later! 4) this is even more epitomized by Gordon Bell's MyLifeBits: a portable memory... putting one's life online, electronic bits in one's local cyberspace (texts, photographs, owns...). Everything can be monitored for the person's point of view (through wearable monitors). But, it should more accurately be termed "bits of my life" because it involves selection and censorship remains (because of legal issues + people still sleep and dream). What is different here is that inmylifebits, it's "the world as I see it, private and personal": it operates on a cartographic model, see the world from above, different from the curiosity cabinets.

To him, there is here a reminescence of curiosity cabinets like musei wormiani historia (worm, 1655). At that time, there were seen as a representation of the world: knowledge was not categorized as in natural sciences here but as a synthesis only based on a visual correspondence + aestetical resonance. A cabinet was a world full of objects that lack order... and then a structure was derived with the assumption that the world needed to ordered. There was a strong visual component given that they were meant for information retrieval through patterns of association (the cabinet as a mnemonic function, a mean of information storage). Still, it was knowledge was contemplation... the knowledge acquired was in a service of the state.

Nevertheless, neither of these piece capture the experience of necessity and uncertainty that we need in our everyday life: the ethics of forgetting is blurred. They can be uses as sources of information for others (and generally use the same categories and variables that can be used to look for terrorists). This way to see the world has taken considerable currency.

What would be missing in these system: judgements and not facts, we make statements like this all the time, we narrativizing/re-caterorizing the past all the time. What would happen when rewinding the past in mylifebits? that's what we do everytime, we revisit things we partly remember and partly forgot. Besides, there are interindividual difference about memory (a large majority of people need order to remember things and do it personally), about how people remember and forget stuff. This also does not take into account the process of re-enactment of events: people return to places where they don't feel lost, they establishment of routines of doing things. Mylifebit misses all of this. They less allow for uncertainty.

What happens is what Curry calls "anxiety of reference", a new sort of anxiety: "oh my god I will forgot what I've done when I was a kid, I'm better off recording everything from now on": this anxiety appear today in a networked worlds, a common glue on the new cabinet of curiosity: the www... which turns to be a Bentham's panopticon. And there is more to worry about: this is a real marketplace!

About that topic, see also: Collective remembering and the importance of forgetting: a critical design challenge by Anne Galloway (2006) Places to read anonymously: The ecology on attention and forgetting by Michael R. Curry and Leah A. Lievrouw (2004)