Sunday, June 19, 2011

Don't You Forget About Me: Super Autobiographical Memories, Funes the Memorious, and the Internet

Just caught a portion of 60 Minutes where they were doing a story on people with "super autobiographical memory," a new scientific phenomenon where people can literally remember everything about their lives in stupefying detail. For example, they asked people what they were doing on random dates—"what did you do on July 7, 1990?"—and they could answer with little to no hesitation, including citing what day of the week it was! "That was a Saturday. I had a music recital in the morning, and then I went to dinner at this restaurant. I had the salmon." This triggered the thought, for me, of one of my favorite short stories, "Funes the Memorious," by Jorge Luis Borges.

In Funes, Borges encounters a boy that was thrown from a horse and subsequently could remember every detail of his life and his environment in excruciating detail. He can recall specific cloud formations from any minute of any walk he took, his exact emotional state and degree of thermal comfort (thanks for teaching me that term, Sara!) from every minute of every day. In fact, he goes so far as to reconstruct every second of a previous day in the current day, which obviously takes the entire day, as it happens in real time. He devises alternate counting systems of arbitrary symbols up to around the number 24,000, and remembers every symbol. The amount of information he absorbs eventually leads to horrible bouts of insomnia (he can’t stop cataloging things), and he mysteriously dies at the end of the story at around 19 years old.

I would often use Funes in my classes as a metaphor for the Internet. It was a cool juxtaposition of literature, technology, futurism, and humanism (not to mention constructivism). We would talk about the story during our discussions of the permanence of information on the Internet. The Internet, much like Funes, stores everything, from the most trivial bits of information ("me-formation," such as what your facebook friends had for lunch today) through our most crucial data. It never forgets; it just absorbs more information. And as search technologies improve, it can recall more of it more quickly and easily than ever before. It can lead to fond reminiscence or be the “cruel historian” it’s been called in the past.

No comments: