The Apodictic Autobiography

In last year's film, The Final Cut, writer/director Omar Naim posits a near future in which unborn children can receive an implanted audio/visual transmitter that will allow the recording of every moment of their lives, as seen through their eyes and heard with their ears. Thus, for the average life, there will be some 630,000 hours of material recorded. Robin Williams plays a man who edits this stuff (we're not told quite how) down to a 90- minute DVD after the subject's death. Descendants are then provided with a record of selected scenes from the subject's life, filtered through his or her own senses.

Though the implant aspect remains conjectural, and there is as yet no way to deal with smell, taste and touch, modern technology has nevertheless given us the means to capture and store a lifetime of experiences--moment by moment, as they were lived--should we wish to do so. Thus we approach ever more closely the apodictic autobiography, which is to say, one that partakes of absolute truth.

We don't know whether, in conceiving and executing The Final Cut, Omar Naim consulted with Steve Mann, the Toronto computer engineer we mentioned last week in connection with his sousveillance work. But if not, he probably should have--because Mann's pet project bears an eerie real-life relation to this "science fiction" film.

Mann is probably as close as we have yet gotten to a cyborg (originally a contraction of "cybernetic organisms," the term is now generally used to denote a creature that is part man, part machine).

For the past 25 years, since he was a teenager, Mann has been tinkering with the possibilities inherent in a mating of audiovisual miniaturization with wearable computers (he was a pioneer in their development). Mann believes that the wearable computer will transform our lives even more profoundly than the desktop model has.

It is, he has written, "subsumed into the personal space of the user, controlled by the user, and has both operational and interactional constancy... it is a device that is always with the user, and into which the user can always enter commands and execute a set of such entered commands, and in which the user can do so while walking around or doing other activities."

How far his conviction, or obsession, really goes, becomes clear in a 2004 interview with anonequity.org in which Mann asserts that "I find it offensive to think of humans and computers as separate. Humanistic intelligences is a system that is inextricably intertwined with a human. The computer is not separate from the person, but part of the person--like clothing, perhaps. A computer is an extension of one's self and I prefer not to probe the boundary between machine and person as though they were separate entities."

The purported advantages of wearing a computer on one's body: instant and perfect recall of information, when and wherever needed; sharing consciousness and immediate experiences with another person; multi-tasking with others while still doing one's own primary work; enhanced personal safety (everything that happens to you can be recorded); mobility through freedom from wires, outlets and modems; and synergy--the creation of a space in which the computer functions as a true extension of the mind and body.

Dr. Mann serves as his own guinea pig. After experimenting with various apparatuses that have become increasingly less clunky over the years, he finally developed the EyeTap, his own personal device for "mediating reality." The EyeTap is black plastic, and looks like half of a pair of glasses. Its eyepiece, which sits in front of his right eye, has a tiny monitor on its backside, connected to the backpack computer Mann wears under his sweater. The system is (for now) controlled by a handheld key device-- eventually he hopes to remove his hands from the process and move the cursor on the screen with brain waves alone.

Mann wears the EyeTap during most of his waking hours, meaning that his life experience is a continuous melding of hard and soft reality, the physical and the electronic. This has some disorienting consequences. When he goes without it, he feels nauseous and unsteady, and as mentally naked and vulnerable as if caught without his clothes in the middle of a shopping mall.

In his 2000 book, Cyborg: Digital Destiny and Human Possibility in the Age of the Wearable Computer, Mann wrote that wiring himself up in this fashion "allows me to explore my humanity, alter my consciousness, shift my perspectives so that I can choose--at any given time--to see the world in very different, often quite liberating ways."

The on-body computer can be programmed to do things that are limited only by the imagination of the wearer. Some of these are obvious, such as reading email while standing in line at the bank. Others are less so. For example, Mann can display what is going on behind him, or alter the colors of his surroundings. He's also developed software that, in a stunning restructuring of "reality," transforms billboards and other rectangular shapes into virtual boxes that display personal messages rather than their actual content.

But the potential value of the EyeTap doesn't end there. Because in addition to housing a display screen, it also features a built-in micro-camera. Thus, whatever Steve Mann sees and hears can be recorded on a hard drive, or relayed to remote locations over the Internet, in real time. Minus the implants, we have arrived in the fictional world proposed by The Final Cut.

Large numbers of people may someday choose to be transformed into Steve Mann-style cyborgs, making audiovisual logs of their everyday transactions. With the ease of retrievability these records will feature, our lives will be altered in revolutionary ways: More crimes will come under surveillance. Authorities such as law enforcement officers will be deterred from overstepping their bounds. Promises will be made less lightly. "He said, she said" disputes will be instantly resolvable. And much, much more.

Borrowing from the popular blogger phenomenon, Mann has even come up with a term for the stored audiovisuals he can now post on the Net to share with friends (or strangers, for that matter). He calls them "glogs," shorthand for "cyborg blogs."

Mann is a proselytizer for what he sees as an inevitable technological progression. Someday, he believes, everyone will want to be wired up the same way he is. In addition to providing a portable workstation, enhancing memory, and altering the immediate environment, his system will also allow for a far less sedentary lifestyle, as well as contribute to an increased connectivity between people, especially those at a significant physical remove from one another.

It's the wearable that makes this all happen, giving the user complete freedom of movement instead of what we have now, "me all hunched over a box" as Mann puts it.

Whether Mann will prove to be a prophet, or just a wild-eyed fantasist, remains to be seen. That his vision may well be of interest to certain groups is confirmed by a 2003 Associated Press story about a Pentagon project to develop a "digital super-diary." The project, called LifeLog, was commissioned by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and "aims to capture and analyze a multimedia record of everywhere a subject goes and everything he or she sees, hears, reads, says and touches."

DARPA said the goal was "to create breakthrough software that helps analyze behavior, habits, and routines," enhancing the memory of military commanders and improve computerized military training by chronicling how users learn and then develop tailor-made training methods.

According to AP, Steve Mann refused to bid on the project.

[Readers wishing to pursue this subject in greater depth should visit Steve Mann's websites: www.eyetap.org and www.wearcam.org]

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Posted 06-14-2005 2:23 PM by Doug Casey
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