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

Part II

Chapter 6. LEARNING

When Deb Roy’s son was fifteen months old, a video camera in the hallway ceiling documented his first tentative steps.

As the boy starts to totter toward him, Deb asks, “Can you do it?”

The toddler staggers on. Amazed at this new, upright world, he whispers, “Wow.”

Deb watches in rapt attention. Then he, too, says softly, “Wow.”

The Roy family has this wonderful Total Recall moment thanks to their hallway camera, but family memories are really only a fringe benefit. For Deb, recording is all about learning—learning about the acquisition of language, in particular.

Deb Roy is the director of the Cognitive Machines group at the MIT Media Lab. In 2005, Roy and his wife, who is also a professor, had a son and decided to make all three of them into guinea pigs in a self-run experiment. They wired up their house so that virtually everything their son would hear and see from birth to age three would be recorded. Their equipment includes eleven omnidirectional, megapixel-resolution, color digital video cameras embedded in the ceilings of each room of the house—kitchen, dining room, living room, playroom, entrance, exercise room, three bedrooms, hallway, and bathroom. Fourteen ceiling-mounted microphones are placed for optimal coverage of CD-quality speech in all rooms. When there is no competing noise source, even whispered speech is clearly captured. A server sits in the basement storing all the recordings. They call it the Speechome.

The primary purpose was to get a complete record of their son’s language development—every cry, every coo, every “ga-gaga” and “da-da-da” ever uttered by the baby while at home, as well as every bit of language input to which the child is exposed. After three years they’ve collected 230,000 hours of raw data—a truly massive corpus. Compared to this corpus, previous studies are fragmentary at best. Who knows what key moments, previously unknown or overlooked, may be uncovered? The comprehensive nature of the Speechome record will enable observations that were completely impossible to make in the past. For the scientists studying language development, the Speechome approach expands their universe, just as the telescope has done for astronomers.

The size of the Speechome corpus will prove itself typical, if not indeed small, for future research projects. Total Recall will change how scientists learn. And each individual will come to have her own corpus of lifelong learning. Learning will change for all of us.

Technology is already changing what we take the time to learn. We no longer master the slide rule or even trust ourselves to evaluate a complex formula. Instead we turn to our calculators and spreadsheets, both of which we can get on cell phones these days. If you have children, you have probably heard the charge that spelling is an obsolete skill; who writes anything that matters without a spell checker? Even if those who vigorously defend spelling have to concede that it has become a less important skill—after all, as spelling and grammar checkers improve, the product of the poor speller has grown less and less distinct from that of the proficient speller.

Most of us are well along the path of outsourcing our brains to some form of e-memory. I no longer bother to learn telephone numbers; my cell phone remembers them for me. It knows eighteen hundred numbers, far more than I would ever hope to commit to memory, but quantity isn’t the issue; I can’t even be bothered to memorize the six numbers at my two homes and office. Likewise, there are many facts that need not be on the tip of the tongue as long as they are at your fingertip via your smartphone. The circumference of Earth, the speed of light, the year that Lincoln was assassinated, and Gauss’s electric flux law; each of these I once memorized in school. Now each takes about five seconds to look up on my smartphone. None seem quite so important to commit to memory anymore.

This is not to say you shouldn’t memorize facts or the correct spelling of words—it’s just that such memorization will never again be as important as it once was. And with Total Recall, the list of what is less important to memorize expands to cover everything you know.

Another way technology has already impacted learning is by changing the way we research things. When I was a student in the 1950s and had a paper to write, I’d walk to the library, hunt through the card catalogs and special abstract books, hike around the stacks grabbing items, and eventually sit in the library and make some notes in my notebook for the paper. The next generation had the luxury of photocopying articles, but following up a reference from a photocopied paper required another trip back to the library. All that hassle dampens one’s enthusiasm for extensive research.

Nowadays, I can look up anything I want to learn about in an instant. I visit the Web to find those extra references. The Internet allows me to drill down deeper than ever into any given subject. I don’t visit our library at Microsoft, and I never ask them for books. I just count on them to subscribe to the online collections that give me access to the professional journals and conference proceedings for my field. They also give me online access to market research, press clippings, and so forth. University Web pages are bursting with all kinds of intellectual treasure. Gone are the days of writing to other libraries to get material not found in my local library. I now call up the thesis of an obscure graduate student from the other side of the world as easily as I acquire a paper by a colleague down the hall. Out-of-print and out-of-copyright books are available by the thousand on sites like Project Gutenberg and Google Book Search. More and more books come straight to my Kindle e-book reader.

With the Web, our ability to research has been greatly amplified. Total Recall will take research productivity another notch higher. Your e-memories will provide quick access to the things you’ve already seen and the details of what you already know. You can step back from the vast world of information on the Web and focus on what you have found interesting in the past. You can collect and organize your own unique library.

As an individual matures and takes more responsibility for his or her learning, the benefits of Total Recall will multiply. Total Recall will change how we teach students. It will change how we do science, and how all forms of research and scholarship will be pursued. It will change how we learn, from the simple lessons we absorb in grade school to the wisdom we will distill in old age.


Education has been a topic of intense debate since Plato. Should it be broad and “liberal” or should it be focused on a technical skill to prepare you for a job? Should education make you a better citizen? Some institutions denounce memorizing and prefer problem-solving and team interaction. Some promote a classic education, learning Latin and reading an extensive list of old books. Some advertise their excellent lecturers, while others say lectures are passé and point to their hands-on labs. Small class size, notebook computers for all students, home school, exchange programs, internships, self-directed study … the list of approaches is endless. And while all kinds of techniques are being tried, all kinds of technology will be also applied. Textbooks will become e-textbooks, most lectures will become e-lectures, and many study groups will be online.

Nevertheless, disparate as the approaches may be, Total Recall will have a conspicuous impact on all of them because it provides an e-memory vessel to hold the knowledge content for lifetime reference, including all the standard documents of our educational systems such as articles, books, and class notes.

It will be a new world for the teacher, looking out at a classroom full of lifelogging students. Expectations will change for students who have e-memories of classes. The e-memories of the teachers themselves will also impact the way we educate.

Think of the impact on lectures alone. There will no longer be a question of whether a lecture was remembered; the e-memory of it will be available at any time. The student will be able to replay a particularly tricky explanation several times, and to pause at each step to struggle with comprehension; it means the lecture can happen at the student’s pace.

In fact, e-lectures are so compelling that students may well prefer them to live lectures. First, they support self-pacing. Additionally, a good lecturer is usually chosen for an e-lecture—you wouldn’t bother making it with a bad one—while the quality of instruction out in the world is hit-and-miss. Jim Gemmell has home-schooled his children on occasion, and purchased a set of recorded math lectures that showed an animated chalkboard as you heard the instructor’s voice. His children quickly took advantage of the self-pacing. When they later entered public school, they complained about the quality of the teachers, often claiming that they survived entirely on the strength of the previous year’s e-lectures.

So, while students may start out recording their teachers’ lectures, I suspect that the trend will be more and more toward viewing lectures of the truly great speakers rather than of whoever happens to be assigned to the subject in your local school. Furthermore, I expect the role of the lecture to gradually diminish. An MIT study compared students who prepared using Web-based materials and then heard a lecture with those who prepared using the same Web materials and who then applied a small portion of the material in small projects together with the faculty. The replacement of lectures with hands-on experience led to a 10.8 percent grade improvement.

Of course, whatever live interaction replaces lectures will also be recorded. Students in, say, a physics lab will record video of their pendulum experiment, take a picture of a diagram drawn by the teaching assistant, add some typed and spoken notes, and record the class discussion. The notes they take will also serve as time markers, allowing them to quickly jump to a desired point in the recording. For example, a student will select her note that says “Weight #2” to begin reviewing the part where she changed the weight on the pendulum.

Imagine you have just returned from a seventh-grade field trip. You had to take pictures of six different kinds of leaves/needles from trees and identify them. The teacher was giving out hints and information as the class walked through the forest. You recorded what you thought you were seeing as you took the pictures. This leaf is prickly. That one is smooth. This one smells like turpentine. You compared notes with your friends and figured out that a couple were wrong, so you added new audio recordings to the pictures, correctly identifying the trees. Back in class the teacher shows pictures the students have taken and the class has to guess the species. Audio is played back to indicate the correct answer. This memorable field trip sticks with you. Years later, when you are forty years old and find yourself telling your daughter about the scaly quality of a cedar, the sounds and sights from that old field trip are what come into your mind—and you bring them up to show your daughter.

I have often been struck by the amount of time students spend comparing notes—not about the class material, but about exactly what the assignments are. I know of one class where assignments were sometimes posted on a class Web site, other times were handed out on paper, and on occasion were even modified verbally. I would call this poor communication and management, but the teacher actually believed it was important for students to struggle through this inconsistency. I don’t suppose we will ever be entirely freed of such teachers (or their counterparts in businesses, religious communities, sports teams, and so on). So e-memories will be a big help in tracking what the plan is. Students will be replaying the end of the class to get the new due date for their term paper.

Today, a student may already be creating an education portfolio, that is, a collection of her work chosen to represent her interests and accomplishments. A portfolio may include essays, reports, presentations, videos, or any other sample of the student’s work. Hailed for aiding student self-awareness and motivation, in addition to tracking student development, portfolios have been receiving a lot of attention from educators, and e-portfolio offerings have multiplied.

Total Recall will uncover the nuances of each individual’s learning style. Some students are visual learners; they don’t really get it until they see a drawing. Others are auditory learners who need to hear things. When you record your every move, you can look at what you are doing to better understand what is effective and what is not. Does cramming all night improve your grade, or would you be better off with a good night’s sleep? How much exercise, rest, and background music are best for you? What habits make you a more successful learner?

A complete e-memory will allow a much more detailed analysis of a student. Every single answer in assignments and tests can be considered looking for strengths, weaknesses, and trends. The exact time editing an essay down to the history of changes made to each individual sentence can be known.

Teachers will be able to know each student’s learning style, and to quickly look up the details of areas that need help. The kind of in-depth insight into a student that might have taken significant one-on-one time to discover will be made automatic, allowing the teacher to go straight to remedial tutoring or to the introduction of an advanced topic. If e-lectures are embraced, and e-memories automatically evaluate the status of students, we could see a radical change in how teachers apportion their time. Instead of spending it dealing with the entire class, teaching to a common denominator and unable to address the needs of both the brightest and the slowest, teachers will be able to concentrate most of their time one-on-one or in dealing with small groups of students who are roughly at the same level. The instruction will be much more targeted to individual needs.

By pooling data about students’ learning styles, study habits, and the results they obtain, we can advance our knowledge about learning itself. Anonymous learning data can be shared to give us a detailed picture over thousands, even millions, of students. The number of students studied and the level of detail examined will be unprecedented. A poor chapter in a standard textbook won’t last long, nor will a teaching method that falls down in a certain subject or with a certain kind of student.

Teachers will acquire as much self-knowledge about their teaching as students will about their learning. It will be easier for teachers to repeat their successful moments and to compare notes with one another about the most effective techniques. Suppose you are teaching grade-six science, and you notice that your students did poorly on a certain topic in Chapter 3. You can ask to view a colleague explaining the concepts to her students to see if there is a better way. Or, you may review the relevant assignments and find she has used some supplementary material rather than the textbook. You may recall that a certain unit of history went really well last year, and look back in your e-memories to refresh your memory of just how you taught it.


Even more certain than the move to e-lectures is the transition to e-textbooks. I remember my Microsoft colleague Chuck Thacker holding up his tablet PC in one of our conference rooms a few years ago.

“Now, if I drop it like this …” said Chuck—and then let the tablet crash to the floor.

“You can see I’ve dropped it on that edge a number of times and the case is cracking.”

Chuck was clearly enjoying his job that day. How often do you get paid to drop your PC? As he explained to the group around the conference table, the PC was still running just fine, but he wasn’t pleased that the case was cracking. He started explaining the difference in g-forces involved in a landing on carpet versus concrete, and how a little bit of shock absorption protected the normally delicate hard drive. Chuck is interested in dropping tablet PCs because he wants them in the hands of children, and of course, everyone’s second question (after the price) will be: What about when they drop them?

Textbooks should be replaced by tablets, notebooks, PDAs, or even cell phones. Rather than lugging a backpack full of textbooks—sometimes so heavy that children have had their backs damaged, leading to some regulations to limit the load—a single notebook computer could hold numerous texts. An e-textbook can be superior in a number of ways. When a student wants to look up a certain passage from his history textbook, he can search for some keywords, rather than flipping through pages. What’s the definition of an acute angle? He can find it in a moment. It can include videos of historical events and animations of scientific processes. When he is learning a language, the e-textbook can allow the student to hear the words spoken, in addition to his reading them. Likewise, the computer can listen to the student speaking and comment on his pronunciation. An e-textbook will come preloaded with links. For example, whenever the student is working on a math problem, there will always be a link back to the section explaining the technique. If that section relies on previous material, there will be a further link back to it. E-textbooks will help visual learners develop crib sheets, while auditory learners can create voice prompts for their studying.

While e-books in general have struggled to assure authors that their copyrights will not be violated by pirating, there is no fear that schools will pirate textbooks. We can expect improvement in screens to make reading a better experience, and improved cases that can withstand more abuse, but present technology is already workable.

The switch to e-textbooks is important to Total Recall for two key reasons. First, it means the student will have a recording device with her. E-textbook devices should be capable of note taking, highlighting, picture taking, and audio/video recording. Many, like the tablet, will support handwriting, sketching, and diagram drawing. They will be able to record the student doing her assignments and will capture all the details of how she works. They will know exactly what parts of the text the student has looked at and for how long. Second, the same device that holds the e-textbooks will allow the student to consult her educational e-memories; they will replay class discussions, retrieve notes, or jump to the last point she was reading at.

The ability to consult your learning e-memories is critically different from being able to access textbook or reference material electronically. The vastness of our electronic resources is a wonderful thing, but it is a barrier to refinding, that is, finding something you found before. You may have performed a number of searches and followed several hyperlinks to get to a Web page the first time. An attempt to find the same reference again can be difficult: If you start with slightly different keywords, if you misremember what the top of the page looked like, if you encounter something that looks similar; any of these can prevent you from refinding the page. In contrast, the pages you have looked at form a much smaller pool to search in. The list of pages that you spent more than ten seconds looking at is even shorter (I have found that to be a very useful filter in MyLifeBits searches—it effectively culls all of the “no, that’s not what I’m after” pages). Likewise, a memory of e-textbook use pays off. Few courses cover an entire textbook; sections and even entire chapters are commonly left out of a course. Searching only what you have read before or quickly calling up just highlighted passages makes you much more efficient.

The tablet PC in the hands of the student of the future will be more than just a container of e-textbooks; really, it will be Vannevar Bush’s memex. Bush intended memex for scientists, but students need memex just as much. They are collecting material, making notes, needing to look things up quickly, and wanting links to the context quotes are taken from. A student memex is a combination of e-textbooks and e-memory.

A student’s memex will be accessible from his tablet PC and their cell phone; it will be with him in class, and everywhere he goes. Classes, lectures, and labs are recorded. When he studies with his friends and is grappling with just how to factor a certain kind of equation, he can bring up the recorded class lecture on his tablet PC and watch the teacher explain at the board again. He is able to quickly review Algebra I in the summer before proceeding to Algebra II in the fall. He can copy and paste from his text and lecture notes to make a crib sheet to study from. He can add his own links, within the text or to other texts. His notes will contain links back into the text. He can highlight and scribble notes over his e-textbooks—and then will be able to quickly find pages based on the amount that has been written over them. Imagine a view of thumbnail pages, only showing those with markup, with the text slightly faded to make the markup more visible. Now the student can quickly scan the pages for familiar markings, which are often more memorable than the actual context of the text—unique doodles and color patterns are encouraged as memory aids. He can also sort the pages being studied by the time spent on each, allowing him to refind a key passage as well as indentifying sections that have been neglected.

Textbooks commonly contain exercises and problem sets, of course, and e-textbooks will too. But the difference is: E-textbooks will be able to record your answers to your e-memory and check if they are right. Adding the e-memory is crucial. Think of a ninth-grade math student. Her assignments should combine older material with the latest lesson, to ensure retention of earlier skills. But which older material? Conventional textbooks make a best guess. An e-textbook with an e-memory knows what older material needs more work. It knows how long since the student last did such a problem. It can drill enough to distinguish between sloppy mistakes and true struggles. Areas of difficulty can be given more emphasis. It may be noted that while completing a certain type of math problem correctly, the student takes a long time, and the student may be referred to techniques that may help, or quizzed on more foundational skills that are suspected to be lacking. Topics that were mastered can be set aside, and only brought back after enough time has elapsed for retention to be a concern. Each assignment is completely customized to the student based on her learning record.

Like the scientists sharing their findings, students can benefit from sharing also. We all recall poorly worded questions or description in textbooks from our schooldays, and needing to pool our knowledge with other students to decipher what was meant. Students will share notes and crib sheets. Group projects will be able to build up a collaborative collection of links and notes from individual e-memories that all can tap into to produce the final result.

Additionally, a student’s memex will easily integrate his task list, tracking what assignments are completed and which are due next. It can help manage the student’s study habits, for example, pointing out that Johnny spent two hours studying for a history exam worth just 5 percent of the final grade while only spending a half hour on the geography midterm, which is worth 20 percent of the final grade.


It is illuminating to contrast the scientist’s memex envisioned by Vannevar Bush with what is realized by the World Wide Web. Bush expected that

Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified… . There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.

Bush didn’t foresee the Internet, so he never would have anticipated hyperlinked encyclopedias, such as Wikipedia, Questia, or Encarta, that are used without copying their entire contents into one’s personal e-memory. Trailblazers do exist, but in the form of those who publish pages of useful links. I know trailblazing is important, because when my team at Microsoft Research was working on networking, our “trailblazer” page of links to relevant research received far more traffic than any of our other pages for a time.

On the whole, the Web seems more convenient than what Bush imagined, but we do face broken links as pages move, and we can’t create links to specific passages on a page unless an HTML “ bookmark ” is already defined there by the author. Furthermore, copyright concerns come into play if I want to show someone else’s page with my markup added. These technical and copyright issues have, so far, prevented the widespread sharing of pages marked up with highlighting and marginal notes. By creating one’s own copy, one can prevent broken links and add bookmarks as desired—and share a private copy without announcing a copyright violation to the world. Thus Bush will probably be proved right in predicting that a scientist “sets a reproducer in action, photographs the whole trail out, and passes it to his friend for insertion in his own memex,” or, in modern parlance, he e-mails a copy to a friend. (I’ll leave it to others to argue the legality of such copies; I merely predict it will happen.)

According to Vannevar Bush, “the inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.” What he failed to see is just how elaborate this scaffolding might be.

To date, it is common for a published paper with a few tables and charts to be the only long-term survivor of a research project that once had volumes of data, “metadata” that describes how the data was gathered, copious notes, and conversations among the researchers. Vannevar Bush saw that more notes and background material might be shared. Jim Gray led the charge in proposing that everything could be shared. Think of the amazing detail and enormous volume of data that Deb Roy is collecting. His Speechome corpus need not be reduced to a few publications; the whole data set can be passed on.

Science began with a paradigm of observation and experimentation. Later came a paradigm of theory, and, more recently, a paradigm of computer simulation. The fourth paradigm of science, or the Gray paradigm, as I believe it should be called, is a paradigm of data-intensive science. Gray and his colleagues elaborate:

Traditionally scientists have had good excuses for not saving and documenting everything forever, it was uneconomic or infeasible. So, we have followed the style set by Tycho Brahe and Galileo—maintain careful notebooks and make them available; but, the source data is either not recorded at all, or is discarded after it is reduced. In some cases it is even considered private, especially when done in corporate laboratories!

It is now feasible, even economical, to store everything from most experiments. If you can afford to store some digital information for a year, you can afford to buy a digital cemetery plot that will store it forever. In the future, some fields will no doubt require public storage and access of experimental data. Astronomy is an example of a community that is in transition to this new kind of science and may no doubt be at the forefront because it is traditionally collaborative and minimally funded. Sharing observations is critical and the norm.

Researchers from all fields, not just science, will be able to preserve and share all of their material and notes to the benefit of others. There can be enormous value in a marginal entry indicating that a historical assertion is refuted elsewhere, or a note that the thermometer was slightly moved in 1978, accounting for increased temperature readings, or an explanation of why a certain approach was abandoned. Someone may want to apply a fresh approach to the old data. Shared systems will allow many researchers to pool their material together, so that for some given data, say, an economic report for 2002, you can see comments by many individuals, links to related reports, and metadata describing how the report collected its data and tabulated its results.

Historians ought to jump on the fourth paradigm, and insist on original source material being made readily available. Too many works have relied on secondary sources in the past. And the scope of original sources is about to explode as lifelogging increases. We shall have to see how society evolves to deal with the legacy of e-memories, but I presume that eventually many lifelogs will be opened to a trusted historian to excerpt, if not entirely released to the public.

Suppose someone were to release even a quarter of their lifelog posthumously: It would still confront the historians with a corpus vastly larger than they have ever experienced before. As more people lifelog, historians will also have to delve into the e-memories of other related figures as part of their study.

Earlier, I pointed out that it was a fallacy to worry about having enough time to watch your whole life. An individual would never want to watch his whole life, and knows what he may want to look for in his e-memories. But for the historian it truly is a challenge, because a historian doesn’t know what to search for or what can safely be ignored, having not lived the life in question. Thus, historians will become more and more adept at using data mining and pattern recognition, and will come to demand the latest in tools for comparing videos, performing handwriting recognition, converting speech to text, classifying background noise, and much more. They will rely on computing power to help summarize, classify, and identify anomalies, so that they can safely pass over their subject’s typical commute to work but not miss the one where she made an unusual stop. Many hours of the subject’s life may be classified as “reading,” during which time the title of what she reads should usually suffice.

However good automatic analysis may ever be, the most potent historical figures will be, as they are now, studied by many historians. Some will specialize in different periods or different aspects of the figure’s life. The subject’s e-memories, like the scientific data discussed above, will be in a common repository and the historians’ notes and links will be available to one another. Thus, they will not rely just on machine intelligence, but will look to other humans to point out events of significance, to classify material, and to identify trends.

This marked-up repository will also form a new way of delivering history to casual consumers. While only a few experts or motivated amateurs will want to delve into the full data set behind a scientific paper, the appeal of history—of historical stories—is very broad. Many people would be interested in seeing a little more context behind some point of interest, perhaps watching an entire baseball game that includes their favorite major league player as a twelve-year-old, or observing how a politician acted in a press conference early in his career, or listening to the recording of a famous concert mentioned in a musician’s biography.

I believe the electronic history exhibits will become more and more faithful to Bush’s trails. History presentations will stitch together media into a narrative, truly creating a trail from one artifact to the next, with attached comments. For instance, imagine you are following a trail that I created about the history of computer design. You might start with a chart showing the evolution of computers in the twentieth century, and hearing my voice explain them. Next in the trail is a page describing a computer architecture called SNAP, and you hear me explain Jim Gray’s contribution.

But here you grow curious—who was Jim Gray? How did Gordon Bell become involved with him? You see that this page is part of another trail, authored by a fellow named Tom Barclay, called “The Life of Jim Gray,” and divert into that trail to learn more about him. Presentations such as these bring Bush’s trails together with the World Wide Web to form trail webs, and ultimately a World Wide Web of trails.

Trail webs will have such advantages that traditional museums and science centers will have a hard time competing—what they will do is follow the trend already begun of complementing the museum with computer kiosks, handheld units, and other devices so that the real-space experience can be supplemented by the e-experience. The real-space experience will offer that “wow, I am standing in front of the real thing” feeling, but only the electronic one will let you virtually take apart the priceless artifact and inspect the inside, or see simulations of how it was created. If you have a tour guide at a physical museum you will get only their viewpoint—their trail—through the artifacts. With trail webs, you can listen to the inventor or artist who created the artifact. Many notable experts, each with his or her own unique background and point of view, can take you on a trail through the artifacts.

I have created several e-tours of the Computer Museum’s artifacts that are my own interpretation of computing history. Others use the Computer Museum’s artifacts as background for their own interpreted e-tours. If you want to see a great demonstration of a web of trails today, try out the World Wide Telescope, where you can take tours of a starry sky, zooming and panning to different areas, reading and hearing commentary at each stop, and, once again, discovering trail intersections that may entice you into entertaining side paths.


Writing this book while using MyLifeBits gives a foretaste of the future of learning. Jim Gemmell recalls reading a paper from MIT comparing lectures with experience, and searches for “MIT lecture web.” Too many results come back, so he adds the word “students.” Still too many, but now he remembers it was nicely formatted, and narrows down to just PDFs—there it is. He retrieves the paper and rereads the abstract to get his facts straight. In just a couple of minutes the information is included, complete with a full citation and the detail that grades improve by 10.8 percent. His learning about education is leveraged to understand Total Recall.

I imagine a high school senior who has a final exam in biology coming up. To prepare, she looks back to her midterm exams and finds all the problems that she got wrong. She searches her e-memory based on the text in the questions and finds the associated sections in the textbook, as well as the lectures that covered the material. Most were just things she needed to memorize better, so she adds those textbook sections to her “review for final” collection. But there is one problem that she just doesn’t understand, so she listens to the critical part of the lecture again, several times in fact, and consults the section in the text as well as looking up material on the Internet. She cuts and pastes key facts to memorize out of her “review for final” collection to create a fill-in-the-blanks study sheet, which she uses to cram for the final.

A graduate student in history has a paper to write on the French Revolution. Her grandfather is a professor of history, and when he did his Ph.D., it was a lot of work to pull together even ten citations for a midterm paper. For the student, every paper and book she has ever read on the French Revolution is instantly available in her e-memory. Besides the main text and four papers she is using in class, she pulls up another twenty-three references that she has encountered over the years. She is able to refresh her memory on a few points and use several quotes from the old papers. What would have taken her grandfather a full day at the library takes her just an hour. Not only is her paper stronger, but her memory of the subject has been reinforced, and her big-picture understanding is broader.

But it is not just students who will supercharge their learning using Total Recall. It is a given today that we all need to be lifelong learners. In fact, many educators insist that just cramming a student’s head full of knowledge is not the point; that the goal should be to educate the students to be better learners, brainstormers, and better collaborators. I know that in my own field of computer science, unless one is constantly learning, one’s knowledge will quickly become obsolete. Learning may well be the key to the greatest economic rewards of this new technological era.

Imagine Dan, a blueberry farmer. The summer has been very wet, and he consults his e-memories to recall how he dealt with a similar wet season eight years ago. His farm has its own e-memory, which Dan data-mines to understand which varieties of blueberry have been most profitable. Dan is interested in organic farming and has built up his own e-library of Internet articles, recordings of farm visits by a government consultant, and a few talks at the local university. He loves to sit down with his e-memories and a cup of tea to contemplate how he might make his farm better.

Ken is a volunteer hockey coach. He has several e-books on coaching, Internet articles, and notes and recordings from a number of coaching clinics he has attended. He often watches other teams practice and picks the brains of other coaches to discover new drills and approaches. Ken’s view of the game borrows from many sources but is unique to him. He loves to mull over his notes and diagrams, to look at video clip examples of certain plays, and then present his insights to his players in a multimedia “chalk talk.” Ken loves learning the game and will never stop comparing approaches, connecting dots, and gathering examples.

I could go on multiplying such examples: the mother of a dyslexic child, ever learning about how to better prepare him for the world, the layperson with a deep religious interest, and the countless jobs that deal with rapidly changing information, from lawyers tracking evolving case law to contractors dealing with building codes. Lifelong learning is both a necessity and a joy.

What I find fascinating is that once our learning is self-directed, without any education system telling us what to do, we all act like little professors, just like the scientist that Bush had in mind. We gather material, arrange it, create links, add notes, and generally make sense of it all. We call up bits of it to help put together our next idea.

Arranging one’s material is very important. A Total Recall system ought to let you organize, classify, or taxonomize the material you are taking in. I believe there is a very strong case to be made that you don’t really have a grasp of your material until you have built a mental model, a structure, such as a taxonomy or mind-map, under which you classify the information being absorbed. A good e-memory will help you arrange material this way for retrieval by classification, and will help you visualize your classification and modify it as your understanding evolves.

A good e-memory lets you step back from information hunting, out in the wilds of the Web, to do some understanding farming back on your home turf. If the Web gets us through the research phase more quickly, if e-memories help us refind and organize our knowledge more quickly, then what do we have more time for? Reflection. Anyone wanting to learn and understand will be doing more pondering, more reflecting, more searching for clues and connections to understanding. Vannevar Bush’s imagined memex scientist “ponders over his notes in the evening.” So will farmer Dan, coach Ken, and countless others.

Just as the World Wide Web enabled an era of increased research, Total Recall will enable an era of increased reflection.