- Everything:Totality and Self-Representation, from Past to Present1
Desire, at a given stage of your life […], for a book that you’ll put Everything in: the Whole of your life, your sufferings, your joys, and therefore, of course, the whole of your world and perhaps the whole of the world.—Roland Barthes, “The Sum-Total Book,” The Preparation of the Novel 184
This paper explores the autobiographical desire for a complete, comprehensive recording of a life. As long ago as 1762, Diderot wrote in a letter to his love, Sophie Volland:
How is it, I asked myself, that […] nobody has the courage to keep for us an exact register of all the thoughts running through his mind, all the movements of his heart, all his sorrows, all his pleasures, and countless centuries will pass without us knowing whether life is a good or bad thing […].(237, my translation)
Centuries have passed. Total Recall (2009), a book by high-tech guru Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell, with a forward by Bill Gates, portrays a world where everything you see, hear, experience or encounter is digitalized and stored. Documents will be scanned, cameras about your body will automatically take pictures and videos of what you see, sounds will be recorded, and bodily signs sensed. GPS sensors will constantly record your whereabouts. All this “data” will remain accessible and searchable by you, and would even outlive you: the digitalized “memory” of your life would constitute the basis for an avatar that would be able, when you are gone, to answer questions the way you would have, to learn, and develop. Technology then would be able to “record” experience. Our life would become data.
Similar visions abound today. Thus the well-known scientist Stephen Wolfram published in his blog a post entitled “The Personal Analytics of my Life,” in which various detailed actions from his everyday life over recent years are recorded and graphically displayed, from every keystroke he made to the times his emails were sent. Nicolas Feltron, designer and developer of Facebook Timeline, publishes his “personal annual reports” every year, visualizing the masses of data he collects and records about himself. Data artists like Laurie Frick or Hasan Elahi record and visualize [End Page 150] masses of oftentimes insignificant data about themselves (Urist). Data gathering and self-tracking have also become an everyday reality for many, either more systematically, for those who take part in the activity of the “Quantified Self” (QS) movement, or more sporadically, as in counting steps or measuring biometric data.
The most prophetic enthusiastic endorsement of such directions is in Total Recall. The book extends the practice of self-tracking with a more traditional notion of autobiographical representation, namely the recording and storing of experience, in the attempt to create a comprehensive digital version of our memory, offering a vision of a brave new world (some would say nightmare) where life will be digitalized and documented to the full.
To defend the feasibility of their vision of comprehensive life-recording, Bell and Gemmell insist (7–8) that by 2009, smartphones and other gadgets are in practice already performing much of what they envision (and this is much more so today). Data storage, we are assured at the very beginning, has ceased to be a problem, now that high-capacity memory chips are inexpensive (8–9). Totality is possible. But reality is still very far from where Bell and Gemmell claim it is, and in some respects, the distance from the present to their vision is, I hope to show, insurmountable. Total Recall is already nearly our present. My paper is on this nearly.
While Total Recall is a popular science book characterized by descriptive prose and practical thinking, devoid of literary ambitions, the vision it develops is one of self-representation, a technological present-day autobiography of sorts.
Much attention has been given in recent years to digital autobiographical representations such as social network activity, blogs or digital diaries (Arthur; Garde-Hansen; Herbrechter; Kitzmann; Reading; Smith). Total Recall presents a form of self-representation that is less a direct, intentional expression of subjectivity or performance of identity, but resembles autobiographical efforts...