The memory of crowds

Photosynth At some point in grade school we all had an epiphany.  It went straight onto the "This book belongs to" section of our notebook: 

"My name is Jimmy Smith, I live on Cable street, in the city of Burtonville, in county of Burton County, in the state of Nebraska, in the country of the U.S.A, on the continent of North America, on the planet earth, in the Solar system in the Milky Way."

For an 8 year old, it was a magnificent act of scaling.  But that was usually the end of it.  Elementary school was not there to encourage kids to climb (or rappell) hierarchies of knowledge.  The world, after all, was flat.

Hierarchical mobility was restored, a few years ago, by Google maps.  Now we could go from a view of North America to our house in one fluid motion.   But once we had scaled up and down a couple of times, the thrill was gone. We were by this time self policing.  (Education, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.)   

Enter a new Microsoft program called Photosynth.  This allows us to navigate multi-scale media in new ways.  At TED this year, Blaise Aguera y Arcas gave a breathtaking demonstration.  (I wasn’t there to see it in person.  Thanks to The Very Short List, I found the TED video today.  See below.)

Blaise Aguera y Arcas showed the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.  It was build up out of many hundreds of photos taken with every kind of camera, capturing every aspect of Notre Dame large and small.  Photosynth had put them all together again and made them navigable. 

For social networking purposes, the most interesting thing about Photosynth is that it allows photo tags to migrate.  If someone has named the figures on the Notre Dame cathedral, this information is available in my photos, too.  This means that my photos of Notre Dame just got smarter, and the memories they evoke just got richer.  To the extent that these photos are my memory, my past is now more substantial in ways it wasn’t before.  Everything ends up being co-locational not just in space but between people. 

In effect, tags and texts end up giving me perspectival information as, or more, interesting than the photos themselves.  They become an opportunity to build collective memories as good or better than the memories we construct for ourselves.  And this suggests an internet that contains collective emotional and intellectual resources.   

More and more of our internal operations are being off loaded into cyberspace.  That memory should be one of them feels wrong, because memory is perhaps the most personal and authenticating of our internal faculties.  But it is not difficult to imagine a time when the the "memory of crowds" might be the best memory of all. 


Blaise Aguera y Arcas.  2007.  Photosynth demo.  Ted: Ideas worth spreading.  Filmed March.  Posted May. here.


Thanks to VSL (Very Short List) for the head’s up.  Go here to sign up for this excellent service.   

3 thoughts on “The memory of crowds

  1. Peter

    Interesting post, Grant.

    You may also be interested in the recent work of Donald Mackenzie, professor of sociology at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, who has been studying the sociology of hedge fund operations. One of his findings is that the locus of decision-making in these funds is not a single, clever trader inside a company, or even a group of clever traders inside a company, but a dispersed network of clever traders, spread across different companies (who may even be competitors), together with their computer simulation tools. This leakage of mental capabilities from solipistic brains to networked communities is perhaps a defining theme of our (western) time. See:

    He has also studied the performative nature of economic theory — the ability of economists to create the very reality they purport to describe.

  2. Mike Arauz

    Great post.

    And it’s not just the realization of a Collective Memory; I think this is one piece of the realization of a functional Collective Conscious. The concept that when one of us records an idea or experience, it can immediately be accessed everyone else.

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