Chasing rainbows

Soul Catcher. Ah, there are two words to conjure with. And when the press picked up on one of BT’s research ideas a few years ago, conjure they did. To be fair, Soul Catcher did give a lot of scope for banner headlines. After all, at the time the newspapers, radio, TV and even Thought for The Day would have had you believe that by 2025, we’d all have a bit of silicon implanted behind our retina. This would record not only everything we saw, but all the outputs of our brain too. A life in a chip, to be replayed and – literally – relived at will. Experiences that didn’t have to die when we did. Immortality, of a sort.

As with most futurological experiments though, it was no more than an idea. In this case, a Suffolk pub conversation along the lines of ‘well, y’know, if chips keep on getting smaller at the rate they’re doing nowadays, then in thirty years time we might just be able to…’ snowballed into blanket newspaper coverage. And, after a set of rather interesting boardroom conversations, BT were (reasonably) quick to admit that they weren’t actually investing millions of pounds of bill payers’ money in chasing that rainbow.

If the Soul Catcher experience taught us anything apart from how researchers shouldn’t speak to journalists, it’s that scientists find the idea of capturing and storing human existence utterly compelling. What else can explain Microsoft researchers’ fascination with a project called MyLifeBits, which aims to capture all your life’s vital information – the CDs you listen to, the letters you read and write, your memos, photos, phone calls – and store them all on a hard disc.

Technologically, it’s certainly possible. Hard discs are getting exponentially bigger and cheaper, and already a reasonably cheap model can contain far more information than I’d know what to do with. The barriers to anything like this ever taking off, though, are higher than technological. I can see the possible advantage of being able to perform a search on all the photos I’ve ever taken and find the one of Auntie Ethel on holiday in Cleethorpes in 1985 – you know, the one where she was wearing a red hat and it blew into the sea and then we all had ice cream and went home – but it would take a lot of persuading to make me scan in all the pictures I want to keep and then entrust their contents to a third party. Particularly if that third party is (yes, I know, paranoia) a multinational corporation.

And I can’t help thinking that initiatives like Soul Catcher, MyLifeBits, and even this, uh, ambitious project to synthesise every human thought miss the point in a big way. It’s true that a part of my life can be summarised by the things I see, the things to which I listen, the things that I read and the conversations that I have, but any attempt to capture my life by a third party – whether that’s a hard disc somewhere in California, a piece of silicon behind my retina or a statistical map of my neurons firing – seems doomed to failure simply because it’s nothing more than my life seen through another’s eyes.

C.S. Lewis put it well when he said that there is a fundamental difference between watching someone else experience something and experiencing it yourself. If you click on no other link here, try this extract from ‘Meditation in a Toolshed’ – it’s well worth a read.

Maybe the most useful thing that BT and Microsoft can teach us in their endeavours is that there is something special about being human. Something that transcends any attempt to reduce it into a sequence of brainwaves, a series of books read or a set of snapshots. We’re all unique beings, with unique experiences, and all created in the image of God.

And that, no computer can ever capture.

One thought on “Chasing rainbows

  1. I theorise that a hard drive (no matter how big it is) will always become at least 70% full during some point of it's lifetime. Whether the last 30% is used up depends upon whether the user actively prevents it from happening.

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