The Digital Funes the Memorious

Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentine writer of the 20th century, wrote of the Uruguayan Funes the Memorious, whose perception and memory became infallible after falling from a horse in the mid 1880s:

We, in a glance, perceive three wine glasses on the table; Funes saw all the shoots, clusters, and grapes of the vine. He remembered the shapes of the clouds in the south at dawn on the 30th of April of 1882, and he could compare them in his recollection with the marbled grain in the design of a leather-bound book which he had seen only once, and with the lines in the spray which an oar raised in the Rio Negro on the eve of the battle of the Quebracho. These recollections were not simple; each visual image was linked to muscular sensations, thermal sensations, etc. He could reconstruct all his dreams, all his fancies. Two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day.

And thus Ireneo Funes lived like no other before or since, remembering all that had happened to him. And remembering that he remembered. This vicious cycle led not to the incalculable awakening of genius that one might expect. Instead, it led to the opposite: a painful sagacity of everything he wished to forget.

Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentine writer of the 20th century, wrote of the Uruguayan Funes the Memorious, whose perception and memory became infallible after falling from a horse in the mid 1880s:

We, in a glance, perceive three wine glasses on the table; Funes saw all the shoots, clusters, and grapes of the vine. He remembered the shapes of the clouds in the south at dawn on the 30th of April of 1882, and he could compare them in his recollection with the marbled grain in the design of a leather-bound book which he had seen only once, and with the lines in the spray which an oar raised in the Rio Negro on the eve of the battle of the Quebracho. These recollections were not simple; each visual image was linked to muscular sensations, thermal sensations, etc. He could reconstruct all his dreams, all his fancies. Two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day.

And thus Ireneo Funes lived like no other before or since, remembering all that had happened to him. And remembering that he remembered. This vicious cycle led not to the incalculable awakening of genius that one might expect. Instead, it led to the opposite: a painful sagacity of everything he wished to forget.

Funes was a century before his time. He succeeded in becoming a memory machine the likes of which we have only begun to fathom in the early 21st century.

On March 2nd, 2006 Google held their annual Analyst Day. Thanks to the investigative work of Greg Linden, we are privy to the scope of what the Googlers are building. In many ways, what they are building is a digital Funes the Memorious.

Just like Funes, the words of the Google executives do not convey the richness or depth of their ideas. In notes that have since been removed, the Googlers suggest that their work is inspired by the idea of “a world with infinite storage, bandwidth, and CPU power.”

While we can hear these words just as easily as we hear the words “rain”, “wind”, and “sun”, we do not know what they really mean. What is it to have a world of infinite storage, bandwidth, and CPU power? We as humans are not built with such things, and therefore cannot comprehend their reality.

But that reality will come one day soon. The enormous databases that companies use to record each and every transaction with us is but a hint of the behemoths they will become. The sensors attached to every appliance we buy will soon transmit information about us to large databases of information about our usage: extent, time-of-day, patterns. And our location is now all too easily known through our communication devices like a cellphone or EVDO card. Each day more and more information is being stored about us by a gigantic database that we may never see.

All of this is in the name of better business. Better, faster, and easier access to goods and services that we apparently desire. Who could say we don’t? We willingly give up our information and whereabouts to get improved services. Is this not something we’ve asked for?

Just like Funes could reconstruct his past in every minute detail, so can digital databases reconstruct a large portion of our activities. We don’t need to remember passwords anymore, as browsers or toolbars do that for us. We don’t need to remember the memory-friendly domain names anymore, we simply stick them into Del.icio.us. We don’t need to remember what we shopped for at Amazon, we can simply look at the “page we made”. Our need to recall things is being replaced by digital counterparts. Piece by piece. Memory by memory.

Funes dealt with the problem of remembering details by wishing that each could be reduced to a single word or symbol. Borges describes this frustration beautifully:

“(Funes was discontented) with the fact that “thirty-three Uruguayans” required two symbols and three words, rather than a single word and a single symbol. Later he applied his extravagant principle to the other numbers. In place of seven thousand thirteen, he would say (for example) Máximo Perez; in place of seven thousand fourteen, The Train; other numbers were Luis Melián Lafinur, Olimar, Brimstone, Clubs, The Whale, Gas, The Cauldron, Napoleon, Agustín de Vedia. In lieu of five hundred, he would say nine.”

Similarly, a web page I created last week: http://bokardo.com/archives/the-evolution-of-information-grazing/ is represented in Del.icio.us by the symbol http://del.icio.us/url/3f69399375f85456a4ac77532898b864.

And thus the minute details of our world can be represented by a hash function.

To Funes, the only one of us who could fathom this, it all makes sense. Remember everything, everywhere, everyone. It is what digital computers are built for. In the name of money, better services, communication, whatever. It doesn’t matter. It is happening. As inexorably as the setting Sun tries to forget today a digital computer will remember it.

And what of Funes? (He was mortal, after all) Ireneo Funes died in 1889 and with him went his burden of memories. But before he died, Borges captured the essence of humanity that Funes had escaped.

“He was, let us not forget, almost incapable of general, platonic ideas. It was not only difficult for him to understand that the generic term dog embraced so many unlike specimens of differing sizes and different forms; he was disturbed by the fact that a dog at three-fourteen (seen in profile) should have the same name as the dog at three-fifteen (seen from the front). His own face in the mirror, his own hands, surprised him on every occasion.”

Published: March 10th, 2006

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