Saturday, 28 January 2012

Where were you in '95? - Finite capacities and data retrieval in physical media formats.

Recently I rewatched two films which I had fond memories of watching as a teenager, by dint of them both having been aired on one of the late night television slots - Johnny Mnemonic (based off a story by William Gibson), and Strange Days (screenplay written by James Cameron). Both were made in 1995 and somehow bore some similarities to each other in terms of topic matter and their representation of what they perceived to be the future of cyberspace. Here are some of my thoughts on them both:

Johnny Mnemonic (A Summary):

In 2021, the world is completely connected to the internet. Many are suffering from Nerve Attenuation Syndrome, which people develop from overexposure to electromagnetic radiation from electronic devices. Human "software" can be modified or enhanced; brains can be modified to become data storage, at the expense of deleting some of your organic memories. A data courier, Johnny Mnemonic, who has wiped out part of his childhood memory in order to store more data gets trapped in a deal gone wrong, and is forced to download some mysterious data, which turns out to be the medical cure for NAS that has been hidden from the world by PharmaKom, the big pharma company, in order to profit from selling people expensive drugs for NAS that do not cure it but prolong its symptoms. Johnny Mnemonic is forced to go on the run as he is being pursued by the Yakuza and other hitmen (including a crazed pseudo street preacher "without a single natural bone in his body"), who want to destroy the information forever. He finally finds himself in Lotek HQ, the anti-technology and anti-establishment guerilla resistance (which regularly jams media channels to send out its pirate broadcasts), where they use the help of a dolphin to hack the data encryption in Johnny's brain so they can transmit the cure to NAS and make it public data...

Johnny Mnemonic's (In)finite Capacity Hard Drive

For long time I wondered why Johnny Mnemonic's brain was able to take more data than specified on its label. In the film, the entire drama starts because Johnny's brain is overloaded with more data it can take and this data is said to have been uploaded at the cost of wiping out more and more memories from his childhood. But, why was the electronic side of his brain able to affect all of his organic memories in the first place? How much data is "too much data"? Why was there even this so-called threshold anyway of brain disk space anyway? Convienient plot device to draw comparisons between Johnny's humanity (his natural memories), and his business as a data courier (the world's data and memories)?

After thinking about it for some time, the only reason I can come up with to explain this, is the fact that the mind technically never actually runs out of space, unlike hard drives which are built with finite capacities. We continue thinking thoughts all the time and all these thoughts would, conceivably take up more and more "space" in our brains, but yet we never ever run out of space, because this is not any normal kind of "space" that we can describe or define with any kind of boundaries or normal sense of physicality. So the supposed finite capacity of Johnny Mnemonic's cyberbrain should be false because this is merely the assumption we tend to have of normal harddrives. Ignoring those preconceptions, I suppose it could be possible to "overload" Johnny Mnemonic's brain infinitely.

Strange Days (A Summary):

In 1999, the city of LA is in complete anarchy and chaos; there are racial tensions and clashes against the police state. Some years ago, the police developed a method of recording people's memories and experiences straight from the cerebal cortex, allowing them to be played back over your reality with "wet-wiring" hardware, also known as "Squid" (Super-conducting Quantum Interference Device). The equipment was no longer being used by the cops but now had a thriving blackmarket. An ex-cop, Lenny Nero, who has fallen on hard times has become a dealer in these "experiences" or "memories", especially illegal or slightly immoral activities which one would feel morally obligated to not participate in, despite having the desire to do so. However, someone seems to be targeting Lenny and sending him "blackjack" or "snuff movie" tapes, which horrifies Lenny. Not only does it involve rape and murder but the perpetrator also forces the victim to wear the wet-wire and see and feel what their attacker is experiencing at the same time. One of the tapes also involves the murder of a high-profile african american rights activist and rapper. Unable to trust the police, he decides to send the tape to the one good police commissioner he still knows, and he confronts the people whom he thinks have been sending him the tapes.

Physical Formats and Libraries of Memories

This film is simplier and in some ways, pitched slightly more "low-tech" than Johnny Mnemonic, but it keeps it true to how things are even today. The issue I have with this concept of a big black market for "recordings of lived experiences" is that in the film it was conceived of being a trade of physical media copies (a rather limiting world view), rather than something conducted via a network. The image of a man sitting in his bedroom with a shoebox full of memories that he plays back for nostalgia's sake is a classic one, and I imagine that physical data formats will continue to be the main way in which we choose to store our most important memories even as more and more things exist only in a virtual or digital form - I upload everything to the cloud but I still continue to keep special data in physical formats in a shoebox as well.

I don't see it possible that it would be a trade involving scattered peddlars, but something of this level would have been the domain of organised crime (if made illegal). And also, the possibilities of such a technology could be extended to dreaming. Why didn't anyone try to put it on to a sleeping person to record their experience? Why couldn't you put it on someone else to playback other experiences over their dreams to see what would happen to the dream? But speculation aside, the issue of physical media is that it is prone to deterioriation over time. So a world in which memories are consigned to physical formats is still finite in its survival. You would not be able to retrieve the memory after the physical format of this media is destroyed or disintegrates; this is similar to how memories will be lost if the person is dead, and this is also similar to how we are not the same as a network (although we do things that try to approximate it (see things like "Quantified Self") - our "abstracted" data - how do we make sense of this? Can we analyse it and make it meaningful information?

One thing I didn't see in the movie was a library of memories. I would imagine that if such technology exists, then people would start amassing warehouses and catalogues of memories to accompany this black market trade of memories. To be able to record, also means being able to document. To inventorise, and to However, this also brings me back to the idea that it should be depicted in the context of a distribution and storage network. Digital formats are great because things like CDs and MDs and external harddrives can take up very little space in the real world so our compulsive hoarding of data does not actually crowd us out of our homes. Can it be true that a saleman of memories only has his small "special shoebox" of memories, rather than a massive library of it? The point is that anything with a physical format is still taking up physical space so the reality is that some storage is still involved, unlike the "purity" of it being all somehow "online", which would also mean that if its storage was "digitised" then it could also be conceivably be sorted and searched by computers. The whole point of digitising information is also that we can sort it, and use the computer to help us analyse it and find meaningful connections within the data itself.

From Philip K Dick's VALIS: "We appear to be memory coils (DNA carriers capable of experience) in a computer-like thinking system which, although we have correctly recorded and stored thousands of years of experiential information, and each of us possesses somewhat different deposits from all the other life forms, there is a malfunction - a failure - of memory retrieval."

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