A while back, while vacationing at my grandparents’ house in British Columbia, I came upon a vintage reel-to-reel magnetic tape recorder. I don’t remember enough about the machine or the tape to be able to say what make or model it was, but I remember it being more of a home-use kind of recorder than a professional recording device. It had a limited number of controls, a tethered handheld mic, and didn’t lend itself to more than straightforward recording and playback operation.

Vintage Tape Recorder — it wasn't this one, but it looked a lot like it. (Rendering by Terry Adams, used with his kind permission)

Along with the machine were a couple of magnetic tapes. I threaded them into the player, hit play, and was amazed to hear my uncle as a young boy, speaking into the handheld mic. What’s more, there were background noises from around the house, and even some up-close recordings of authentic 1960’s television shows and commercials. I had stumbled upon a veritable time capsule.

At my own house, I have my own stacks of audio cassettes and VHS tapes, most of which I’ll never revisit. I also have countless small caches of 3½” floppy disks, discarded hard drives, CDs and DVDs lying around. The chances are great that whatever was on there will eventually be discarded in a trash heap somewhere. My old TV shows and computer programs don’t stand a very big chance of being resurrected, I’m afraid.

And yet, I can’t help thinking that these are my own time capsules. This, or any data that once had cultural or personal significance should not be discarded hastily, if at all. Not because it’s useful, but because it has relevance, and because it paints part of a portrait of what your tastes were like back then, what you used to hold dear, and more revealingly, who you are now.

Suppose you were given a huge plastic bin, with a mish-mash of all sorts of “data” (in one form or another) that you once found relevant or important, even if only to you and for only a brief moment — albums you had listened to, shopping lists on scrap paper, receipts you’d doodled on, shows you’d taped off the TV, etc…

Now suppose that instead of that bin, you were given a hard drive, with all of the same stuff, converted to digital form. Every notebook you had in school was perfectly scanned-in, showing every detail down to the creases in the paper. Likewise, when you played the MP3 version of that mixtape you made in grade 6, you would even hear the scratchy false-start of that cheap cassette tape recorder you used to own.

Here, memory, as a human faculty, has been committed to memory, of the digital variety. And when you view it / play it / read it, the exchange swings the other way; computer memory becomes human memory.

Memory, in any sense and as a concept, needs to play a much bigger role in our conception of the natural ecology that surrounds us, and which we are a part of. What I mean by that is that if memory is defined as the physical (chemical, magnetic, etc…) record of a temporary flow of energy (neuro-chemical, electrical, etc…), then it is instrumental in the way we understand our material world. A rock “remembers” rolling down a hill, because it has been ever-so-lightly chipped and weakened by the fall. A person remembers every single footstep, because it leaves a barely-perceptible mark on the psyche, as well as the foot. The sights, sounds, tastes, touches and smells that we experience leave a permanent physical imprint somewhere in our bodies, though where exactly is not well-understood:

A psychologist called James McConnell generated some evidence that memory is stored throughout the body with a series of experiments he conducted using worms. In one experiment, he taught worms to turn right in a T maze. When the worms regenerated after he cut them in half, he found that the new worms took significantly less time to learn to go right in the T maze than the regenerated halves of untrained worms. In an even more dramatic experiment, he ground up trained worms, fed them to untrained worms, and found that those cannibal worms took less time to learn to go right in a T maze than worms which had been fed on untrained worms. The information must thus be retained at a chemical level, since that is all that survives being minced and eaten.

With footnote: This produced a rash of rude suggestions about what to do with retired professors who had lost their faculties.

From A History of Media, by Dr. W. Lambert Gardiner (Trafford, 2002)

It’s wrong to reduce the concept of “energy” down to “mere” chemical reactions or electricity, however. These are manifestations of energy, but only in a narrow physics sense. The world as we know it wasn’t made by a lone lightning strike, it was built through all kinds of higher-level human energy: creativity, passion, conflict, and so on. There’s definitely an underlying physical basis to human activity (that could be rationalized in terms of “mere” chemistry), but there are unmistakably times when emotional energies swell and storm between two people, a group or even an entire society. Revolutions and social movements, for better or for worse, wouldn’t occur if such complex patterns of energy transfer didn’t exist beyond simple cause-and-effect chemical or electrical reactions.

My point is this: if energy transfers can take place on the smallest physical scale, or the largest one, and if energy exists in more complex forms such as human emotion, then memory (data) is a contextual record of energy’s effects on the physical world at all scales, sizes and complexities; the human world has a memory, the natural world has a memory, entire civilizations have memories, individuals have memories, and so on.

Ferromagnetic,

A once zero becomes one;

what has happened since?

— Haiku by me

We’re building, in the Internet, a super-library of virtually limitless capacity. Distributed into almost every country in the world, it is by far the largest-scale technological endeavour that humankind has ever undertaken. For the first time, humanity has the ability to document and catalogue the human experience and the natural world, with a level of granularity that might’ve at one time been unimaginable.

If I were to hand you a hard drive with every single piece of “data” that has at one time been relevant to you, sorted chronologically, you would have a breathtakingly accurate portrait of your life until now. You would have, in front of you, a timeline of memory presented through art and artefact, as if seen through the eyes of a collector (or an obsessed stalker). It wouldn’t be complete, by any means, because the most relevant moments in your life may be irreducible to digital format, but it would be an astoundingly close approximation.

The challenges we face building this kind of record don’t lie in capacity, since computer storage technology is amply sophisticated at the moment. The challenge doesn’t either lie in the collection of data, because increasingly, notes, shopping lists, mixtapes, (and one day soon, I hope, sales receipts), are being refashioned in digital form, precisely for this kind of storage and archival.

The biggest challenge we face is contextualizing the data. Without context, data lacks relevance, and this, I believe, is a problem that we’ve been neglecting to solve. Without context, looking at data is like trying to understand the world by looking at it through a pinhole. Metadata is a method of hinting at the context in which data exists, but it is not the context itself. Picking up from the example in my Folders vs. Tags post, adding a tag such as “Abuja” to a document may help to indicate what kind of information is inside, but does not link that information to any relevant information about Nigeria’s capital city of Abuja. Tags make searching easy, sure, but they do not provide context by themselves. The context of the data is the luxurious, modern, non-digital, real-life city of Abuja, where people eat, sleep, live and die; the tag itself is merely a piece of text that reads “Abuja”.

La Trahison des Images — René Magritte said it best: "Ceci n'est pas une pipe". This is not a pipe, this is a picture of a pipe. Metadata (tags) are not context, they are only representations of a context.

If we want data to be both useful and relevant, we have to radically rethink how we keep it. In this line of thought, I am proposing a new conception of data which is embedded in and inseparable from its context. This will necessitate drastically different ways of navigating information, while allowing limitless new relevancies to emerge from existing and new data.

I have been working on this problem for a few years now, and I believe I am closing in on a solution. I’m building a prototype of my idea to present, and hope to have it ready within the next year. As I do, I will also continue to write about some of the philosophical and technical ideas surrounding this project.

Now, if I could only remember which damned diskette I left my notes on…