Total Recall – The Quest for Perfect Memory

Back in January I mentioned using Evernote to keep track of notes and information I want to remember. So far I’m continuing to add more data and it’s working as a great way to keep track of all kinds of digital information. On a related note, I was recently recommended the book Total Recall, which instantly reminded me of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie based on the Phillip K. Dick story, “We can Remember it for you Wholesale.” Fortunately, I dug deeper and realized the book is co-authored by one of the world’s great computer scientists, C. Gordon Bell. Total Recall is a culmination of Bell and Jim Gemmell’s research into the ability to capture and recall the details of every event from your life as part of their MyLifeBits project.

Imagine never forgetting the names of people. Say goodbye to innacurately recalling details of a conversation. Instantly zip to the photo archive from any time period of your life. This is the future Gemmell and Bell live in now.

I’m willing to accept there are times when being able to recall people more quickly might come in handy. For instance, as I sat at the bar in Suzie Wong’s in Beijing, China in the Fall of 2006, I noticed the guy seated across from me looked incredibly familiar. As I sipped my drink, it slowly came to me that this was a guy I’d gone to college with at Iowa State University in 1991. In the intervening 15 years, he’d lost all his hair, which might have been what slowed down my memory. Eventually, I recalled that this guy lived on the same floor as one of my high school friends. We attended classes together in the engineering program. And I had failed a programming assignment because I forgot to delete my work off a shared computer and he used it (The real grade for the assignment wasn’t that great because I was lousy at programming in Fortran).

Aside from that incident, I liked the guy in college. We ended up sharing a drink and he introduced me to a bunch of people he knew in Beijing. My point in telling this story is if I’d had access to facial recognition software to scan people I’d previously met, I might have come up with his name more quickly (as well as the details from college).

I’m not convinced capturing every detail of every moment of your life is a great idea. Some things are worth forgetting (or at least editing out of our personal memories). Having a video record of my daughter Geneva learning to walk will be awesome when it happens, but I’m not sure we’d want to keep a video record of all the times she tries to walk and falls (especially if the result is tears). A highlight reel of the best stuff seems like a better record of most of life’s events.

On the other hand, there are some details of life I wish I could capture in greater detail because they might save my life someday. Having more accurate health records, all stored in one place, would make it far more likely I will receive the absolute best care from a physician when I need it. Considering how infrequently I visit the doctor, an automated system for detecting health anomalies would certainly help narrow down whether things like daily fluctuations in body temperature, caloric intake and output, and levels of white blood cells over a period of years were out of the ordinary or just a normal part of my biologic make up. Right now, logging most health information daily is a hassle, which means most of us don’t track daily biofeedback.

One key point raised in Total Recall is, like it or not, we will have all data about us captured at some point. Probably even within my lifetime. What’s less clear is how it will be captured and who will have control of the information. This is being brought to bear in an interesting way with the issues around Toyota cars happening right now. Data about many Toyota vehicles is being recorded by the cars, but the owner of the car doesn’t have any way to retrieve the information even though it directly relates to their personal driving history.

Some of the benefits of all the early stage digital recording technology are what motivate me to help you solve computer and consumer electronic issues. I love being able to easily share photos and video and want to make it as easy as possible for anyone else who wants to do the same thing. The availability of easy online sharing through sites like YouTube and Flickr means we can easily store and revisit memories over and over, while simultaneously adding them to the collective knowledge base of everyone online. Sharing doesn’t have to mean with the world, it could simply mean making your digital files available to other members of your family. It also means, assuming the services we choose to share through don’t go out of business, future generations will have a far better understanding of who we are now.

How about you? Do you have any great tools you’re using to store information about your life? Are you sharing photos, videos, gps coordinates or any other data from your life in creative ways? I’d love to hear about.


  1. Interesting piece again Jake – thanks. I didn’t realise that there was a book by Bell – I’ll have to read it.
    Like you, I’m in 2 minds about recalling everything. Some things definately not – the sound of my ankle breaking 11 years ago, and the sensation of cutting my finger deeply last weekend. Those I could live without. Holding my wife’s hand as she died – well, I’m less certain about that. It’s one of those memories that you should never loose, but I’d need to tone down the intensity somewhat.
    When face recognition gets better it would certainly be useful, and being able to store and recall a few details of people you meet would change how you relate to the world. Can you imagine the copyright issues if you get to store all the films, books and music you’ve every experienced? Man, that would be exciting (read “terrible”).
    When everyone has a perfect memory, exams become pointless in their current form. You’d have to test for understanding rather than memory.
    Live performance would become more valuable – they’d be a little different every time.
    Take care,

  2. Find the movie “Final Cut”. It stars Robin Williams and he is a “life” editor. People can have their entire life of memories presented as a video montage when they die. He picks out the highlights and presents it, although he deals with the problems of seeing things that are not so great. I thought of this movie as you were pondering memory recall, as it’s premise is just as you suggested.

  3. Jake,
    I just read your March 21 post and wanted to respond. I’ve got a terrible memory and, if it had been me in Bejing, I never would have remembered the guy. Because I’ve got such a bad memory, I use lots of aids to assist me.
    I used to use a Treo smart phone synched with my Outlook calendar to remind me of meetings and to-dos. I had lots of apps in the Treo like cookbooks (I could call up a recipe, stop at the market and get the ingredients on the way home from work), medical files using HealthFile Plus from WakefieldSoft and a number of others.
    My most valueable app in this arena is SplashID from SplashID, Inc. It holds all my passswords, weblogins, bank acct numbers, safe combinations, and a complete inventory of model and SN for my property. If I every have a fire, I dump that file for my insurance agent.
    In short, I dump everything into my smartphone.
    I recently tried Snapfish for photo sharing. I like the security around what is shared with whom. I’ve also tried to use OneNote recently but, I can’t seem to get off the ground with it. Perhaps I’m not using it properly or not organizing correctly.
    I think the ideal thing would be something about the size of a Kindle that did all the smart phone apps I have plus, act as a tablet of paper. I guess I’m just thinking of a really shrunk down tablet PC. I have a tablet PC now, but, it is too bulky for what I have in mind.
    Another technology I got into recently is Google Earth and a Garmin GPS. They’ve helped a lot for me to get around in my new consulting assignment in Riyadh Saudi Arabia. I would like to figure out a way to share GPS coordinates back and forth between the two.
    Thanks, Jake for a great newsletter. I look forward to it and enjoy it each and every time.
    Brian Turner

  4. Hiya Jake ,
    I’d like to compliment you on this journalistic piece … Not one speeling ( deliberate ) mistake … or misplaced grammatical point … Considering the horrific decline in such issues I note in many of the articles I see on the the ‘net … yours was a welcome relief … I also enjoyed that you went beyond reporting simple technology , into areas of a more philosophic nature .
    Cheers ,
    Evan Kendon.

  5. A more appropriate film would be “Final Cut” with Robin Williams. If you haven’t seen it, it involves the implantation of a memory chip into people soon after birth which recorded every single waking moment of their lives.

  6. Hi, Jake –
    I’ve been working at a company called MediaMerx, and we’re developing an application called “Recreate My Night” ( What it does is take an event– like a party, a wedding, or a concert– and aggregate all the photos, Facebook updates, Flickr photos, tweets, etc. from you and all your connected friends onto one page, so that everyone can share the media from that event. It’s in the final stages of development as I write this and the full feature-set should be available soon.

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