troubled thoughts on the train

A while back, vis-a-vis Borges, I wrote about lifelogging without knowing there was a name for it. Today I realize it was prescient — people have been experimenting with lifelogging, going around with audiovisual cameras slung around their necks like slack nooses, recording every minute of their lives. Apparently scientists have been talking about doing this for years.

Total documentation of a life; total recollection. The notion is so vast and so obtuse in my mind at the moment that I keep staring at the issue, blinking myopically at it, trying to see it in its true dimensions. Privacy and legal issues aside (a whole other can of worms)…on one hand it’s a perfectly logical progression from flickr, blogging, vblogging,, the endless meta-documentation that is happening in furious magnitude around us every day. On the other hand…what if the meta-documentation burgeons to the size of the documentation itself? What if e.g. my RSS feedreader aggregates the feeds from every single webpage on the internet and thus becomes the size of the internet itself — what would be the point?

So I’m a little fearful of lifelogging — I have an odd sense of eschatology, a cul de sac, the icy and terrible perfection of an endgame. When the map is exactly the same size as the mapped — when it will take us exactly as much time to ‘recall‘ our lives as it does to live them — when the sculpture is indistinguishable from the woman — which is real, which is valuable, which is true? With lifelogging, life is literally a stage upon which we are all actors — but without a backstage behind the curtains. Are we widening the division between self and representation, or are we obliterating it altogether? If we are precisely what we represent, is there anything left of ourselves; is there a self at all?

And, implications for history: how can it be written at all? — faced with an infinite archive, how does one organize the search and selection of documents? Indeed, as with the internet and an internet-sized RSS, what would be the point? Lifelogging would turn history’s heartbeat into a flatline — every moment democratically equal to the next; white noise as valuable as Beethoven, and the damnable problem of historical selection amplified thousandfold….

Odd disjointed thoughts, and really, in no way coherent. Perhaps more later. In the mean time, this is cross-posted at the other place.


10 responses to “troubled thoughts on the train

  • Eric

    I think your analogy of a map as large as the map is a little dated. (While something like Google Maps could theoretically one day have one-to-one precision, it’s the searchability of it that makes it valuable.) It might not be of great use to have the entirety of your life documented on its own, but this raw data combined with other bits (keywords, important dates, “tags” as they call them now) and the ability to jump to points in the tape based on those bits would prove of great value, at least historically. What were those secluded days like for Stalin when Operation Barbarossa was launched? What role, if any, did he play in North Korea’s initial major offensive against the South? The searchable raw data would provide more evidence, most probably, to justify a claim, but just enough that historical interpretation isn’t killed.

  • Kyle

    Suggesting that Borges’ map-the-size-of-the-world is dated in rAchel’s vicinity is asking for retaliation of a fearful sort.

    While a literal map as the large as the thing mapped may be dated, the idea is not. There is problematic trade-off between precision and ambiguity that implies a conflicting need to equalize and to valorize. Borges’ map and lifelogging equalize everything: this is rAchel’s historical flatline.

    Historiography, even biographical historiography, is about valorizing representative events to construct a coherent but not overwhelming narrative. The concept of lifelogging does not seem valuable to me: my perception of time and biography has always been marked by events of differing importance, a hierarchy that slowly fades. Lesser moments are forgotten; greater moments come to define how time is measured; all but the most superlative events are gradually superseded by others.

    This system Eric suggests makes me think of Even-Zohar’s polysystem theory (PDF download), in which different, overlapping systems valorize (read: hierarchize) the same event or object in different ways, and in which events and object from different systems can be connected, in the same way metadata increasingly connects information now. The problem with polysystems is that, while they are useful conceptual models, they are entirely impractical in the real world (imagine trying to write the history of even one insignificant event from all possible points of view).

  • flory

    Pertaining to this post, a story by Neil Gaiman.

    The Mapmaker

    One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless.

    The tale is the map which is the territory.

    You must remember this.

    There was an emperor of China almost two thousand years ago who became obsessed by the notion of mapping the land that he ruled. He had China re-created in miniature on an island which he had constructed at great expense and, incidentally, a certain amount of loss of life (for the waters were deep and cold) in a lake in the imperial estates. On this island each mountain was become a molehill, and each river the smallest rivulet. It took fully half an hour for the emperor to walk around the perimeter of his island.

    Every morning, in the pale light before dawn, a hundred men would wade and swim out to the island and would carefully repair and reconstruct any feature of the landscape which had been damaged by the weather or any wild birds, or taken by the lake; and they would remove and remodel any of the imperial lands that had been damaged in actuality by floods or earthquakes or landslides, to better reflect the world as it was.

    The emperor was contented by this, for the better part of a year, and then he noticed within himself a growing dissatisfaction with his island, and he began, in the time before he slept, to plan another map, fully one one-hundredth the size of his dominion. Every hut and house and hall, every tree and hill and beast would be reproduced at one one-hundredth of its height.

    It was a grand plan, which would have taxed the imperial treasury to its limits to accomplish. It would have needed more men than the mind can encompass, men to map and men to measure, surveyors, census-takers, painters; it would have taken model-makers, potters, builders, and craftsmen. Six hundred professional dreamers would have been needed to reveal the nature of things hidden beneath the roots of trees, and in the deepest mountain caverns, and in the depths of the sea, for the map, to be worth anything, needed to contain both the visible empire and the invisible.

    This was the emperor’s plan.

    His minister of the right hand remonstrated with him one night, as they walked in the palace gardens, under a huge, golden moon.

    “You must know, Imperial Majesty,” said the minister of the right hand, “that what you intend is … ”

    And then, courage failing him, he paused. A pale carp broke the surface of the water, shattering the reflection of the golden moon into a hundred dancing fragments, each a tiny moon in its own right, and then the moons coalesced into one unbroken circle of reflected light, hanging golden in water the colour of the night sky, which was so rich a purple that it could never have been mistaken for black.

    “Impossible?” asked the emperor mildly. It is when emperors and kings are at their mildest that they are at their most dangerous.

    “Nothing that the emperor wishes could ever conceivably be impossible,” said the minister of the right hand. “It will, however, be costly. You will drain the imperial treasury to produce this map. You will empty cities and farms to make the land to place your map upon. You will leave behind you a country that your heirs will be too poor to govern. As your advisor, i would be failing in my duties if I did not advise you of this.”

    “Perhaps you are right,” said the emperor. “Perhaps. But if I were to listen to you and to forget my map world, to leave it unconsummated, it would haunt my world and my mind, and it would spoil the taste of the food on my tongue and of the wine in my mouth.”

    And then he paused. Far away in the gardens they could hear the sound of a nightingale. “But this map land,” confided the emperor, “is still only the beginning. For even as it is being constructed, I shall already be pining for and planning my masterpiece.”

    “And what would that be?” asked the minister of the right hand, mildly.

    “A map,” said the emperor, “of the Imperial Dominions, in which each house shall be represented by a life-sized house, every mountain shall be depicted by a mountain, every tree by a tree of the same size and type, every river by a river, and every man by a man.”

    The minister of the right hand bowed low in the moonlight, and he walked back to the Imperial Palace several respectful paces behind the emperor, deep in thought.

    It is recorded that the emperor died in his sleep, and that is true, as far as it goes – although it could be remarked that his death was not entirely unassisted; and his oldest son, who became emperor in his turn, had little interest in maps or mapmaking.

    The island in the lake became a haven for wild birds and all kinds of waterfowl, with no man to drive them away. They pecked down the tiny mud mountains to build their nests, and the lake eroded the shore of the island, and in time it was forgotten entirely, and only the lake remained.

    The map was gone, and the mapmaker; but the land lived on.

  • rAchel

    awaited retaliation of fearful sort: BORGES IS TIMELESS & UNIVERSAL GRRR


    eric, you raise a pertinent point about tagging & the ability to jump to useful points in the tape, but my point about RSS was precisely that the task of meta-documentation of an infinite archive — by which I mean tagging, flagging up important bits, historical selection — threatens to become the size of the archive itself, i.e. infinite…

    in some ways I guess I am bounded by my understanding of what it’s technologically possible to do at the moment. until it’s possible to algorithmically break and strip down images, video and audio in the same way as we have done with text, I find it difficult to see how anything might be done with such vast amount of raw data. let me point to this guy, Gordon Bell, who has been an avid lifelogger for seven years [full report here] —

    MyLifeBits is now so big that it faces a classic problem of information management: It’s hellishly difficult to search, and Bell often finds himself lost in the forest. He hunts for an email but can’t lay his hands on it. He gropes for a document, but it eludes him. While eating lunch in San Francisco, he tells me about a Paul Krugman column he liked, so I ask him to show it to me. But it’s like pulling teeth: A MyLifeBits search for “Paul Krugman” produces scores of columns, and Bell can’t quite filter out the right one. When I ask him to locate a phone call from one of his colleagues, he hits a bug: He can locate the name of the file, but when he clicks on it the data are AWOL. “Where the hell is this friggin’ phone call?” he mutters to himself, pecking at the keyboard. “I either get nothing or I get too much!”

    translation: the information management is becoming the size of the information itself.

    the report also brings up another point I was trying to articulate to myself on the train —

    Bell suspects MyLifeBits might be slowly degrading his real, carbon-based brain’s ability to remember clearly. When you have an outboard mind doing the scut work, you tend to get out of practice. “It’s like doing arithmetic,” he says. “Who does it anymore? You’ve got pocket calculators for that. I know I can do long division. But I haven’t done it for a long time.”

    it’s a relegation of responsibility. and arithmetic is one thing, but relegating the responsibility of memory — the constitution, I would argue, of selfhood? I think it’s this that makes me the most fearful.

  • rAchel

    @ flory: thank you for the story 🙂 neil gaiman has clearly been partaking of the borges [proof].

  • Gavin Robinson

    I think the selection of documents and research topics has always been arbitrary, even if not every historian will admit it. For earlier periods a lot of the arbitrary choice is made for us because we’re only left with what’s survived, but that arguably allows historians to avoid the responsibility for the arbitrary decisions they have to make and maintain the fiction that their research is neutral and objective. The size of the problem of arbitrary selection is increasing very rapidly, but I don’t think the nature of the problem is changing that much. Maybe a beneficial side effect of this kind of overload is that it will become harder to avoid admitting that selecting sources and dividing history into topics is arbitrary. On the other hand it might just lead to incommensurable disagreements because it will be easy to select examples to support any point of view but very difficult to quantify how significant those examples are, or to prove the complete absence of counter-examples. While any historians who are still clinging to naive myths of objectivity and neutrality need to abandon them, we also need historians to act in good faith (striving to attain the unattainable truth) and try to agree some common standards otherwise debate will become impossible.

    Shannon’s communication theory, and the information theory derived from it, could be relevant to information overload and Borges’ map. It’s important to remember that all information is physical – whatever it might represent, it has to be represented in a physical form (that form might be neurons in the brain, transistors and capacitors in a computer, ink on a page, beads on an abacus etc). Changing the information requires energy transfers to change the state of the matter (so information causes entropy and therefore, in a way, by trying to record everything you’re also contributing to its destruction!). You can never have complete information. In order to represent the whole universe exactly as it is (for the purposes of this argument I’m using realist premises which you don’t necessarily have to accept) you would need all of the matter and energy in the universe. So let’s scale it down to representing just one object (again assuming that there are mind independent objects – you don’t have to accept that if you don’t want to). The problem we have here is that information can only represent some arbitrary aspects of the object. Perfect information is enough information to reconstruct the original message exactly as it was. That’s doable if the message is a sequence of letters from the alphabet, but if we want to reconstruct an entire physical object then we need to know about it right down to sub-atomic level, where we run into Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. So we have to retreat from perfect information and accept that what we choose to represent with the information is arbitrary and incomplete: it depends on what you want to use the information for or who the target audience is.

    This even goes for text: once you move beyond the simple information in the sequence of characters (note that Shannon separates information from meaning, so can fit in with structuralism or post-structuralism if that’s your thing) you end up having to make arbitrary subjective decisions about which aspects of the text to represent and how to represent them (I think every historian should try digitizing text, because it really makes you think – see the Digital History Projects category in my blog for an example).

    So I think what I’m saying is that the map the size of the world couldn’t be made and wouldn’t be any use anyway, and that I completely go along with the idea that the map is never the same as the thing itself. All representations are arbitrary selections, and in order for them to be useful you have to consider who wants to use them and what for. There are no basic units of anything and nothing is inherently important or unimportant. Historians have to confront the need for arbitrary decisions, whether you consider that to be liberating postmodern play or staring into a terrifying abyss.

    The really troubling thing is how do we justify the decisions we’ve made when we know that they’re arbitrary? I still don’t feel that “because we want to” is a good enough reason, especially if we’re using someone else’s money. But that raises the question of how much influence the people funding research should have over that research, and ties into what you were saying elsewhere about paradigms (which I might comment on if I have time).

  • rAchel

    thank you for your wonderful and incisive comment! I don’t entirely accept all your realist premises, but I do agree that we are quite far from historical eschatology & total mapping, and that a map must be something different from the thing itself, although my point was more that a map that seeks total representation — on any level of realism — would be pointless (information management nightmare), or detrimental (historical flatline).

    but what you say about the arbitrariness of selection and decision is an old haunt of mine. as a terminally detached historian I find it extremely difficult to make judgments on the past without constantly second-guessing myself, and the problem of selection amplifies this; I am never sure that I’m playing with the full deck, and this bothers me. I suppose from this you’ll understand better my latest post on Arthur Schlesinger :~)

    thanks for dropping by. I found your website via a link someone left in my comments, and have been following it since 🙂 I have only recently heard of digital history, but from what I know, I think I would get along quite well with it.

  • Gavin Robinson

    Having thought about it a bit more (which I maybe should have done before posting!) the crucial point of a map is that as you say it isn’t supposed to tell you everything, it’s only there to tell you what you want/need to know. Then the question is: what is it that you actually want the map to tell you? Only you can decide. I’d suggest that all history is a flatline if you can’t face making that arbitrary decision.

    On the other hand, the vast and increasing size of the internet could mean that even if you’ve made a decision that you’re happy with you might find that it’s still not possible to get an adequate map. Maybe technology will eventually help us out of the mess that it’s created or maybe it won’t. (It’s quite worrying that computers are so efficient at creating and storing information and yet so inefficient at understanding it!) Or maybe we’ll have to accept that the focus of research projects will have to keep getting narrower. Or maybe project teams will have to be bigger and more diverse, but that opens up difficult problems about methodology, standards of proof, and whether cumulative knowledge is possible in the humanities.

  • John

    I really enjoyed that post, I am a little puzzled, and have a small question. Can I send you an email?

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