March 15, 2004
(Patrice Lumumba) Moore's Law

Somehow, with all the small print that collects around me like plankton, I missed the really important story of Patrice Lumumba Moore (guess what year he was born in.) Moore is the modern day Collyer brother, the packrat recuperating "from dehydration and paper cuts he suffered while pinned for two days under hundreds of pounds of books, magazines and debris."

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The New Yorker points out that the Collyer brothers outdid Mr. Moore, but they had more time and twice as many hands. When Collyer was discovered dead, there were 184 tons of "car parts, musical instruments, newspapers, and orange peels." I seem to recall reading that they had three pianos stacked atop one another.

Those of you who know me will know why Mr. Moore provoked a shudder and a rubberneck curiosity. I feel like I talk about object constancy and object permanence all the time, at least as often as I talk about the qualities of human memory. It's so easy for me to understand how Moore could associate each of those books with experiences, or days, or people. Book technology is good like that, books are dense in a way that floppy disks aren't, which is to say you don't have to open them to know what's inside. Or within, which is to say, the memories, and not just the text.

Because really, I trust things to remember the world much more than I trust myself to recall anything at all. Perhaps all this will shift when genuine memory augmentation comes into effect, but I think to some degree it's shifted already.

Staying up here in the Bronx and reflecting on my own paper empire, I realize it has steadily lost velocity over the years. Where I used to keep everything, now I just keep more than I should. But that's only if you go by cubic feet. Because I'm filling up hard drives, digital music players, I'm filling up credenzas with miles of videotape. Like large intestines, I got videotape. CDs. PDA memory cards. Servers filled with blur.

The point being that Moore's law has an analogue related to the compression of what I'll call object-experience indices. Where I used to have to save the newspapers, because the newspapers remembered the day, now I need only save a few digital photos, or AP shots off the web. The objects I'm collecting have multiplied, but they've flattened.

To put it in Moore's general terms, it's that every year I'm collecting twice as much stuff in half as much space, although really, the space is microns thick no matter how you cut it. I have a hard drive with every CD I've ever listened to, every photo I've taken from the last two years, every news story that's important to me, compressed into local .mht files. I got a TiVo filled with movies and an XBox filled with saved games. And I've got saturation.

Maybe my collection of answering machine messages from 1993-1999 are a good example of the transitional period, in which the experiences of the world could be compressed, though still requiring a breadbox worth of space in their 1/4" audiotape format. Now, the hard drive containing all my email from 1999-2004 is about 1/10th the size of one of those tapes.

What I am wondering is if the disorders of object permanence will become cultural rather than individual. Whether the world at large will edge toward Collyer and Moore, if their object-world is flat and cheap. Whether, like ADD, a once-rare disorder will acheive mass density not because of new diagnostic tools but because of new cultural conditions.

The new flat object-memory world has already spawned entirely new malfunctions: interpassivity is Zizek's term (broadly) for when having the thing supplants experiencing it. This simply wasn't possible when compression technology was still thick with newspaper, book, grand piano and auto parts. But now we can TiVo the thing not in order to watch it, but to replace watching it. This is the inversion of traditional object disorders, which are about collecting the thing to not lose the experience of having watched it.

So I think it's possible that these kinds of relationships to objects will become more pervasive, as those objects become easier to collect. But at least no one's ever been killed by a hard drive, or trapped under their collection of digital photos. It's only one metric, but I'll have to call this progress.

Posted by kevin slavin at March 15, 2004 03:15 AM
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