Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Who Needs a Digital Life?

One day I rescued from the throw-out pile outside another professor's office a book entitled simply Computer Engineering, by C. Gordon Bell and two co-authors, all employees of the Digital Equipment Corporation. Published in 1978, it is a time capsule of the state of the computer art according to DEC, which around then was giving IBM a run for its money by coming out with the VAX series of minicomputers. This was just before the personal computer era changed everything.

This month I ran across the name Gordon Bell again, this time in the pages of Scientific American. By now, Bell is a vigorous-looking nearly bald guy with a strange idea that Microsoft, his current employer, has given him the resources to try out. After struggling to digitize his thirty years' career worth of documents, notes, papers, and books (including, no doubt, Computer Engineering), he decided in 2001 to not only go paperless, but to experiment with recording his life—digitally. The goal is to record and make available for future access everything Bell reads, hears, and sees (taste, touch, and smell weren't addressed, but I'm sure they're working on those too). The article shows Bell with a little digital camera slung around his neck. The camera senses heat from another body's presence or changes in light intensity, and snaps a picture along with time, GPS location, and wind speed and direction too, for all I know. So far this project has accumulated about 150 gigabytes in 300,000 records.

Two things are surprising about this. Well, more than two things, but two immediately come to mind. One is that 150 gigabytes isn't that much anymore. The computer I'm typing this on has a 75-gigabyte hard drive, and somehow or other I've managed to use 50 or so gigabytes already. Most of it is a single video project, and Bell admits most of his space is used by video. With new compression technologies video won't take up so much room in the future.

The second surprising thing is, why would anybody want to do this? Yes, it is becoming technologically feasible in the last few years, but only head-in-the-sand nerds automatically assert that because we can do a technical thing, we must do it. I hope Mr. Bell is beyond that stage, but one wonders. One of Bell's main motivations was simply to be able to remember things he would otherwise forget. Things like, "Oh, what was the name of that old boy I worked on the VAX with in 1975?" If it was anywhere in his scanned-in paper archives, I guess he can find out now. But at what cost?

Cost for Bell is not that much of an obstacle, seeing as how Microsoft is behind the project, and in any case, if technology keeps heading in the same general direction, costs for this sort of thing will plummet and everybody down to kindergarteners will be able to carry around their digital lives in their cellphones, or cellphone earring, or whatever form it will take. But since this blog is about ethical implications of technology, let's look at just two for the moment: dependence and deception.

Nobody knows what will happen to a person who grows up never having to memorize anything. I mean, where do you stop? I don't need to remember my phone number, my digital assistant does that. I don't need to know the capital of South Dakota, my digital assistant knows that. I don't need to know the letters of the alphabet, my digital . . . and so on. At the very least, if we go far enough with digital-life technology, it will create a peculiar kind of mental dependence that up to now has been experienced only by people on iron lungs. When a technology becomes a necessity, and something happens to the necessity, you can be in deep trouble. So far the project doesn't seem to have done Gordon Bell any harm, except to have absorbed much of his time and energy for the last several years. But if this sort of thing becomes as commonplace as electric lighting (which did in fact revolutionize our lives in ways that are both good and bad), it would work changes in culture and human relationships that at the very least, deserve a lot more thought and consideration than they have received up to now.

The second implication concerns deception. For practical purposes, there is no such thing as a networked computer system that is absolutely immune to jimmying of some kind: viruses, worms, falsification of data, and identity theft. Bell and Gemmell admit as much toward the end of the article when they talk about questions of privacy. You think someone stealing your Social Security number is bad, wait till somebody steals that photo your digital assistant took of your "escort" on Saturday night in Las Vegas during that convention. Their proposed solution, as is typical with true believers of this kind, is more technology: intelligent systems to "advise" us when sharing information would be stupid. But what technology will keep us from being stupid anyway? And their solution to the storage of what they call "sensitive information that might put someone in legal jeopardy" is to have an "offshore data storage account . . . to place it beyond the reach of U. S. courts." It's so thoughtful for Scientific American to place in the hands of its readers such convenient advice about how to evade the law. This advice betrays an attitude that is increasingly common among certain groups who feel strongly that the digital community trumps all other human institutions, including legal and governmental ones.

Well, I'm glad Mr. Bell is still exploring the wonderful world of computers, even if his interests in the wider ranges of human experience appear not to have changed since his early days on the VAX project. Despite the tone of technological determinism in his article, I assert that the way digital lives will develop and be used is far from predictable, and it is even far from certain that it will happen at all. If the technology does become popular, I hope others will think more deeply than Bell and Gemmell have about the possible dangers and downsides.

Sources: "A Digital Life" by C. Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell appeared in the March 2007 edition of Scientific American (pp. 58-65, vol. 296, no. 3).

1 comment:

  1. In addition to dependence and deception, a third ethical problem related to continuous recording emerges: permanence, and the associated weight of the past.

    When one records his/her life, he/she becomes bound to the stored data. Fumbles, mistakes, and other embarrassing situations can usually be forgotten within days or weeks. Human memory is well done in that way; the ability to forget is a blessing. However, with current technologies and trends, machines may be expected to keep all data and provide it years later to answer standard queries.

    Of course, one could just sweep the event-related data from his/her hard disk. However this would leave a visible gap in the data flow. Besides, if the system becomes mainstream, bystanders will have stored similar data about the event, beyond the reach of the concerned person.

    DUVAL Sébastien
    国立情報学研究所 (National Institute of Informatics)
    東京 (Tokyo, Japan)