Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything - C. Gordon Bell, Jim Gemmell (2009)



Instant, easy access to information has always been one of the most important and exciting promises of the Digital Age. I first spoke about “information at your fingertips” in a speech in 1990. Back then, I described information at your fingertips this way:

Someone can sit down at their PC and see the information that’s important for them. If they want more detail, they ought to just point and click and that detail should come up on the screen for them … all the information that someone might be interested in, including information they can’t even get today.

It’s amazing how far we have come since then. With the Internet, with computers and devices that have orders of magnitude more processing power and storage than we had in 1990, and with search engines and other software for finding and manipulating data and content, our access to information is really quite remarkable. Now we take almost completely for granted the ability to open a Web browser and link to a seemingly limitless number of sources for information on virtually any topic—which is how I was able to find, in just a few seconds, a quote from a speech that I gave almost twenty years ago.

Most people think about this idea of information at your fingers as an improved version of a trip to the library. Of course, it’s really a massive global network of linked libraries that contains not just books, journals, reports, newspapers, and magazines, but also information about companies, organizations, products, and services, as well as contributions on any subject you can imagine from experts and nonexperts through blogs and other forms of social communications.

As impressive as this list is, there’s something important that’s not usually included—personal information and personal experiences.

Every day, we are exposed to astonishing volumes of words, data, and media at work, school, home, in stores, via the Web, on TV—everywhere we go. We interact with many people, some familiar, many we may not see again for a long time, if ever. We have a continuous flow of experiences. There are financial transactions, medical data, school transcripts, family photos—the list goes on and on.

What happens to all of this stuff? We store a small percentage in our brains and file some of it away in paper or electronic form. But the truth is we forget much of it and throw away most of the rest.

It’s a lot of stuff to leave behind.

What would happen if we could instantly access all the information we were exposed to throughout our lives? If there were a way to recall everything you once knew about someone you are going to see again for the first time in twenty years? If you could tell your doctor everything you had eaten in the week before you broke out in hives, both yesterday and six months ago?

I can’t think of anyone better to begin to find the answers than Gordon Bell. For the last decade, he and Jim Gemmell have been working on a project called MyLifeBits that touches on these very questions.

Now, we’ve reached the point where these are more than just abstract questions. The capacity is available to store hundreds of hours of video, tens of thousands of photographs, and hundreds of thousands of documents in digital form at a very affordable price. Within a decade, we’ll be able to store more than a hundred times this amount of information for even less than it costs now.

Even more important, we’re getting closer and closer to having software that will enable you to organize and sort all that information so that it is easy to find what you need, even if you aren’t sure what you are looking for.

The MyLifeBits project began as an effort to digitize the books Gordon has written, and it has turned into a pioneering endeavor to record and preserve in digital form everything he sees, hears, learns, and experiences.

The implications of this work are profound and exciting. As Gordon and Jim explain in this important book, the results could very well change the way we think about memory; how we manage our health; the way we share experiences with other people, even other generations; and much more.

It’s no surprise to me that Gordon is breaking this new ground. He is one of the true pioneers in computing and it would be almost impossible to overstate the importance of his contributions to progress in this industry, whether it was through his role building the first minicomputers at DEC 1960s and 1970s; his involvement as head of the National Science Foundation’s information-superhighway initiative; or the work he has done at Microsoft since 1995 on telepresence and telecomputing.

He is also one of the industry’s most important original thinkers, not only about how to advance the state of the art of digital technology, but also about the role that technology plays in society and in people’s lives. I have so much admiration and respect for the depth of Gordon’s thinking and the quality of his work.

I think I’ve known Gordon for about twenty-five years. But I’m not quite sure. As I was getting ready to write this foreword, I checked with Gordon to see if he could remember when we first met. I recalled a lobster dinner that Gordon hosted in September of 1983 in Marlboro, Massachusetts, when I first got involved with the Computer History Museum that he founded. He thinks it’s possible that we met a few months earlier when he flew to Seattle to discuss licensing DOS for DEC’s Rainbow line of computers. Gordon also checked with a friend who was a colleague at DEC at the time, who says it was probably in 1982, when discussions about the Rainbow-DOS deal first got under way.

I wish we could pinpoint our first meeting with a little more certainty. As Total Recall advances, this kind of information will be available to us as a matter of course. I know we’ll welcome this change.