The arrival of a new piece of short fiction by Ted Chiang is always cause for celebration and parades and wild dancing. Especially his latest story, "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling," which recently went up at Subterranean Magazine. It feels almost like an episode of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror.
In "The Truth of Fact," Chiang examines the development of assistive-memory technologies, which make your memories of your life fully searchable — thanks to the pervasive use of "lifelogs" to record every minute of your existence. How will it change us as people, to be able to have instant perfect recall of every event from our lives, the moment we even start wondering about it? Will we be unable to construct memories organically? Will we be able to forgive each other for our mistakes, given that we can review the footage of them over and over?
Against the backdrop of a journalist exploring the new technology of "Remem," Chiang also explores a mostly fictional account of a culture that relies on the oral tradition encountering European-style writing for the first time. How does the ability to write down words precisely change people? How does just the mere fact of reproducing the written word make us cyborgs?
Just when you think you know where Chiang is going with all this, he flips everything on its head, in a brilliant twist that makes you rethink the whole business. By the end of the story, you may just be rethinking how you remember your own life and your relationships, not to mention your relationship with technology.
Here's how it begins:
When my daughter Nicole was an infant, I read an essay suggesting that it might no longer be necessary to teach children how to read or write, because speech recognition and synthesis would soon render those abilities superfluous. My wife and I were horrified by the idea, and we resolved that, no matter how sophisticated technology became, our daughter’s skills would always rest on the bedrock of traditional literacy.
It turned out that we and the essayist were both half correct: now that she’s an adult, Nicole can read as well as I can. But there is a sense in which she has lost the ability to write. She doesn’t dictate her messages and ask a virtual secretary to read back to her what she last said, the way that essayist predicted; Nicole subvocalizes, her retinal projector displays the words in her field of vision, and she makes revisions using a combination of gestures and eye movements. For all practical purposes, she can write. But take away the assistive software and give her nothing but a keyboard like the one I remain faithful to, and she’d have difficulty spelling out many of the words in this very sentence. Under those specific circumstances, English becomes a bit like a second language to her, one that she can speak fluently but can only barely write.
It may sound like I’m disappointed in Nicole’s intellectual achievements, but that’s absolutely not the case. She’s smart and dedicated to her job at an art museum when she could be earning more money elsewhere, and I’ve always been proud of her accomplishments. But there is still the past me who would have been appalled to see his daughter lose her ability to spell, and I can’t deny that I am continuous with him.
It’s been more than twenty years since I read that essay, and in that period our lives have undergone countless changes that I couldn’t have predicted. The most catastrophic one was when Nicole’s mother Angela declared that she deserved a more interesting life than the one we were giving her, and spent the next decade criss-crossing the globe. But the changes leading to Nicole’s current form of literacy were more ordinary and gradual: a succession of software gadgets that not only promised but in fact delivered utility and convenience, and I didn’t object to any of them at the times of their introduction.
So it hasn’t been my habit to engage in doomsaying whenever a new product is announced; I’ve welcomed new technology as much as anyone. But when Whetstone released its new search tool Remem, it raised concerns for me in a way none of its predecessors did.
Millions of people, some my age but most younger, have been keeping lifelogs for years, wearing personal cams that capture continuous video of their entire lives. People consult their lifelogs for a variety of reasons—everything from reliving favorite moments to tracking down the cause of allergic reactions—but only intermittently; no one wants to spend all their time formulating queries and sifting through the results. Lifelogs are the most complete photo album imaginable, but like most photo albums, they lie dormant except on special occasions. Now Whetstone aims to change all of that; they claim Remem’s algorithms can search the entire haystack by the time you’ve finished saying “needle.”
Remem monitors your conversation for references to past events, and then displays video of that event in the lower left corner of your field of vision. If you say “remember dancing the conga at that wedding?”, Remem will bring up the video. If the person you’re talking to says “the last time we were at the beach,” Remem will bring up the video. And it’s not only for use when speaking with someone else; Remem also monitors your subvocalizations. If you read the words “the first Szechuan restaurant you ate at,” your vocal cords will move as if you’re reading aloud, and Remem will bring up the relevant video.
There’s no denying the usefulness of software that can actually answer the question “where did I put my keys?” But Whetstone is positioning Remem as more than a handy virtual assistant: they want it to take the place of your natural memory.
Read the rest over at Subterranean Magazine. [Thanks, Joseph!]