May 19, 2006

Search Me Not

In this month's The Scientist I take up the question of developing technologies to allow "users" to search their brains. It's a response to Jack Woodall's article Google Your Brain, which seems like a bad idea to me, just on philosophical grounds:
... remembering is everything in the New World. Everything you have ever written can be stored: every E-mail, grant, paper, Power Point presentation, syllabus, recommendation letter, list of plans, and perhaps even your bad poetry and divorce decree. And if it can be stored, it can be accessed, filtered, and searched.

John Dewey, the philosopher most responsible for the development of the social sciences, wrote a large amount - by one estimation more than 13,000 pages of manuscript and perhaps a gigabyte of searchable correspondence. Historians of science in 20 years will find that even 'B-list' scholars of 2006 produce ten times that volume of information in the course of a decade, not including the vault of other people's data we store in case we need it.

My most disorganized friends, or at least the smart ones, are steadily working their way toward scanning all the paper in their offices onto hard drives, turning piles of nomenclature and unfinished projects into a different kind of pile. Desks get cleaned, computers get filled. But the clutter is still there, it's just hidden more effectively. Those who scan their worlds without clearing out the junk and learning to sort information just make their messes more intimate. I don't need to remember a lot of what is stored around my office or in the corners of my mind.

There is something to be said for forgetting. Nietzsche argued that those who cannot forget are quickly driven to madness. The ultimate stoic, Epictetus, implored Roman soldiers to kiss everyone in their lives goodbye every time they walked out the door, pointing to the importance of focusing on the present. Beta-blockers such as Inderal can literally disconnect memories from their emotional impact; predictably, many victims of trauma are eager to kill the pain that data stored in the brain can cause.

[Read the rest of the essay here]

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