Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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The demotion of the human brain

May 4, 2010General

On a frigid summer afternoon in San Francisco, I talked last year with legendary computer researcher Gordon Bell about memory. For the previous decade, Bell had been recording just about every document, experience, encounter and heart-beat in his life. He and his co-author (and Microsoft Research colleague), Jim Gemmell, made the case in their book, Total Recall, that this so-called life-logging would add an external memory lobe to our brains. (Here's my BW story.)

I thought about Bell while reading Gary Wolf's, the Data Drive Life, in Sunday's New York Times. This measuring and recording trend, it seems to me, is relegating our own brains and memories to a lower status, perhaps somewhere between iPads and dogs.

The trouble--and Bell falls into this often--is the tendency to equate digital records with truth. In his view, it trumps the fallible human mind. Many of us agree. Our heads, so prone to delusions, middle-aged lapses, and distortions bred by fears, desires and egos, are about as reliable as Ouiji boards. We don't even trust what we see anymore. A whole nation of sports fans clamors for instant replays every time a referee makes a close call. We want proof. Machines provide it. Humans, it seems, cannot.

What does that mean for us? Our entire society functions upon truth, or what passes for it, as defined by humans. Our legal system, for example, is built upon the testimony of witnesses. Some lie, some forget. But if we start demanding digital records for confirmation, and assuming that human testimony is by its nature second rate, we demean ourselves.

What's worse is this: Once we assume that human perceptions and memories are unreliable, we start recording absolutely everything. Phone calls, meetings, even intimate stuff. ("You used to say that our sex was good!" "I never did!" "Here, look....")

I think we can agree that humans are fallible. But machines are too. They can't record everything, and they can easily miss a crucial angle. In fact, recording itself involves editorial judgment: all of our fallablities, blind spots and prejudices impose themselves on the records we choose to keep. What's more, as Jonah Lehrer notes, our interpretation of our own data is easily skewed by our expectations.

In other words, since people build the machines, steer the cameras, wire the mikes, and analyze the data, this fast-growing digital lobe of our brain embodies our human foibles. The danger doesn't come from using this data, but in believing that the machine always trumps the human brain, as if they were two independent systems. In fact, they're inseparable.

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