The demotion of the human brain

May 4, 2010

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.