Fast Company

Letter From the Editor

The persistence of memory.

The subject of this month's cover story, Gordon Bell, has embarked on a little experiment with huge implications: He's recording and preserving essentially everything that happens to him--every phone call, every email, every conversation, every document that comes his way. It's scrapbooking on silicon steroids. Bell accumulates 1 gigabyte of information a month, and, because he has been at it for seven years, he has a heck of a lot of data (though he describes his trove in saltier language). All that information would be useless without new ways to store, categorize, search, and manipulate it. And that's why Bell's artificial brain is, in turn, sparking a frenzy of game-changing innovation by researchers and developers at his employer, Microsoft, and elsewhere.

It's an astonishing story. Bell is a compelling character whose work will have profound implications for businesses ranging from search to software to artificial intelligence. And it will make you think in new ways about what it means to be human.

What it made me think is this: Gordon Bell is a brave man, because he's willingly depriving himself of one of the mind's two greatest safety valves--the ability to forget. (The other release, of course, is sleep, a temporary form of forgetting.) Sure, I can see the advantages, because I'm a bit better at forgetting than I'd like to be. My memory for names and certain kinds of facts, never particularly sharp, seems to have grown worse with age, increasing busyness, and mounting preoccupation. So a little assist from a hard drive might make me more efficient, and might keep some things from slipping by me.

But I'm also awfully grateful that time has dimmed my recall of some things, like the grueling details of my parents' final illnesses. And who wouldn't want the power of selective forgetting? I'd love to be able to erase the memories that still make me cringe with embarrassment, or regret, decades after the fact.

So I'm not sure that I'd want to live the way Bell does. Problem is, the world is moving his way, as contributing writer Clive Thompson's story makes clear. From security cameras to blogs, credit reports to MySpace pages, we're increasingly leaving traces wherever we go, willingly or otherwise. "Go Google yourself" is not a rude suggestion. It's an invitation to discover your permanent public record, the memories of you that will never be forgotten.

And successful technologies have a funny way of creating their own justification. As methods like the ones Bell is exploring spread, the social and business pressures to employ them will mount. In an age of computer-assisted human memory, it may one day be as unacceptable to claim you've forgotten something as it is, in our time of pervasive cell phones and BlackBerrys, to say you're unreachable. It'll be a world that will take some getting used to.

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2 Comments

  • Gf Bhp

    "And who wouldn't want the power of selective forgetting? I'd love to be able to erase the memories that still make me cringe with embarrassment, or regret, decades after the fact.

    So I'm not sure that I'd want to live the way Bell does."

    Am I missing something, or are these two abilities not at all mutually exclusive (the ability to have the computer remember and the ability to erase) -- in fact, why are they not in support of each other?

  • Gf Bhp

    Here's a question. With all the skeptics of computer-assisted memory who are worried about us suddenly never being able to forget anything, why are they ignoring the possibility that you'd be able to delete memories (and therefore forget them)? Especially with your now supposedly super-powered memory of everything else, even if you still remember the deleted moment in your own head, the fact that it's no longer on the record would make it seem weaker by comparison. So wouldn't this make your forgetting ability even more powerful?