Category Archives: information

the persistence of memory

(nostalgia)1.pngJorge Luis Borges tells the story of “Funes, the Memorious,” a man from Uruguay who, after an accident, finds himself blessed with perfect memory. Ireneo Funes remembers everything that he encounters; he can forget nothing that he’s seen or heard, no matter how minor. As one might expect, this blessing turns out to be a curse: overwhelmed by his impressions of the world, Funes can’t leave his darkened room. Worse, he can’t make sense of the vast volume of his impressions by classifying them. Funes’s world is made up entirely of hapax legomena. He has no general concepts:

“Not only was it difficult for him to see that the generic symbol ‘dog’ took in all the dissimilar individuals of all shapes and sizes, it irritated him that the ‘dog’ of three-fourteen in the afternoon, seen in profile, should be indicated by the same noun as the dog of three-fifteen, seen frontally. His own face in the mirror, his own hands, surprised him every time he saw them.”

(nostalgia)2.png(p. 136 in Andrew Hurley’s translation of Collected Fictions.) Funes dies prematurely, alone and unrecognized by the world; while we are told that he died of “pulmonary congestion,” it’s clear that Funes has drowned in his memories. While there are advantages to remembering everything, Borges’s narrator realizes his superiority to Funes:

“He had effortlessly learned English, French, Portuguese, Latin. I suspect, nevertheless, that he was not very good at thinking. To think is to ignore (or forget) differences, to generalize, to abstract. In the teeming world of Ireneo Funes there was nothing but particulars – and they were virtually immediate particulars.”

(nostalgia)3.png(p. 137) Borges’s story isn’t really about memory as much as it is about how we make sense of the world. It’s important to forget things, to ignore the minor differences between similar objects. We recognize that the dog the Funes sees at three-fourteen and the dog that he sees at three-fifteen are the same; Funes does not. Funes dies insane; we, hopefully, do not.
(nostalgia)4.pngI won’t pretend to be the first to see in the Internet parallels to the all-remembering mind of Funes; a book could be written, if it hasn’t already been, on how Borges invented the Internet. It’s interesting, however, to see that the problems of Funes are increasingly everyone’s problems. As humans, we forget by default; maybe it’s the greatest sign of the Internet’s inhumanity that it remembers. With time things become more obscure on the Internet; you might need to plumb the Wayback Machine at rather than Google to find a website from 1997. History becomes obscure, but it only very rarely disappears entirely on the Internet.
(nostalgia)5.pngA recent working paper by Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, recognizes the problems of the Internet’s elephantine memory. He suggests pre-emptively dealing with the issues that are sure to spring up in the future by actively building forgetting into the systems that comprise the network. Mayer-Schoenberger envisions that some of this forgetting would be legally enforced: commercial sites might be required to state how long they will keep customer’s information, for example.
(nostalgia)6.pngIt’s an interesting proposal, if firmly in the realm of the theoretical: it’s hard to imagine that the public will be proactive enough about this issue to push the government to take issue any time soon. Give it time, though: in a decade, there will be a generation dealing with embarrassing ten-year-old MySpace photos. Maybe we’ll no longer be embarrassed about our pasts; maybe we won’t trust anything on the Internet at that point; maybe we’ll demand mandatory forgetting so that we don’t all go crazy.

Images from Hollis Frampton’s film (nostalgia), 1971.

some thoughts on mapping


Map of scientific paradigms. by Kevin Boyack and Richard Klavans

Mapping is a useful abstraction for exploring ideas, and not just for navigation through the physical world. A recent exhibit, Places & Spaces: Mapping Science, (at the New York Public Library of Science, Industry, and Business), presented maps that render the invisible path of scientific progress using metaphors of cartography. The maps ranged in innovation: there were several that imitated traditional geographical and topographical maps, while others created maps based on nodal presenation—tree maps and hyperbolic radial maps. Nearly all relied on citation analysis for the data points. Two interesting projects: Brad Paley’s TextArc Visualization of “The History of Science”, which maps scientific progress as described in the book “The History of Science”; and Ingo Gunther’s Worldprocessor Globes, which are perfectly idiosyncratic in their focus.
But, to me, the exhibit highlighted a fundamental drawback of maps. Every map is an incomplete view of an place or a space. The cartographer makes choices about what information to include, but more significantly, what information to leave out. Each map is a reflection of the cartographer’s point of view on the world in question.
Maps serve to guide—whether from home to a vacation house in the next state, or from the origin of genetic manipulation through to the current replication practices stem-cell research. In physical space, physical objects circumscribe your movement through that space. In mental space, those constraints are missing. How much more important is it, then, to trust your guide, and understand the motivations behind your map? I found myself thinking that mapping as a discipline has the same lack of transparency as traditional publishing.
How do we, in the spirit of exploration, maintain the useful art of mapping, yet expand and extend mapping for the networked age? The network is good at bringing information to people, and collecting feedback. A networked map would have elements of both information sharing, and information collection, in a live, updateable interface. Jeff Jarvis has discussed this idea already in his post on networked mapping. Jarvis proposes mashing up Google maps (or open street map) with other software to create local maps, by and for the community.
This is an excellent start (and I hope we’ll see integration of mapping tools in the near future), but does this address the limitations of cartographic editing? What I’m thinking about is something less like a Google map, and more like an emergent terrain assembled from ground-level and satellite photos, walks, contributed histories, and personal memories. Like the Gates Memory Project we did last year, this space would be derived from the aggregate, built entirely without the structural impositions of a predetermined map. It would have a Borgesian flavor; this derived place does not have to be entirely based on reality. It could include fantasies or false memories of a place, descriptions that only exists in dreams. True, creating a single view of such a map would come up against the same problems as other cartographic projects. But a digital map has the ability to reveal itself in layers (like old acetate overlays did for elevation, roads, and buildings). Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what a collective dreamscape of New York looked like? And then to peel back the layers down to the individual contributions? Instead of finding meaning through abstraction, we find meaningful patterns by sifting through the pile of activity.
We may never be able to collect maps of this scale and depth, but we will be able to see what a weekend of collective psychogeography can produce at the Conflux Festival, which opened yesterday in locations around NYC. The Conflux Festival (formerly the Psychogeography Festival) is “the annual New York festival for contemporary psychogeography, the investigation of everyday urban life through emerging artistic, technological and social practice.” It challenges notions of public and private space, and seeks out areas of exploration within and at the edges of our built environment. It also challenges us, as citizens, to be creative and engaged with the space we inhabit. With events going on in the city simultaneously at various locations, and a team of students from Carleton college recording them, I hope we’ll end up with a map composed of narrative as much as place. Presented as audio- and video-rich interactions within specific contexts and locations in the city, I think it will give us another way to think about mapping.

google dystopia

Google as big brother: “Op-Art” by Randy Siegel from today’s NY Times.
google 2084.jpg