The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling, by Ted Chiang

I became a fan of Ted Chiang after reading The Lifecycle of Software Objects [full text], one of the best science fictional explorations of artificial intelligence, winner of the 2011 Locus Award for Best Novella and the Hugo Award for Best Novella. Now, Chiang’s new novella The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling [full text] explores memory and its technological augmentations, from writing to total recall. [found via io9]

The new technology Remem is a Google for your personal memories. Powered by shared social lifelogging video, a 24/7 Instagram that captures most moments of most people’s lives, Remem shows you detailed video recordings of any scene of your life that you try to recall. If you just think of the first time you met your wife, Remem will show you detailed videos recorded by yourself, your wife, or others, in a window superimposed to your normal vision.

The main character, a journalist researching Remem, tries Remem for himself:

I subvocalized, “The time Vince told me about his trip to Palau.”
“My retinal projector displayed a window in the lower left corner of my field of vision: I’m having lunch with my friends Vincent and Jeremy. Vincent didn’t maintain a lifelog either, so the footage was from Jeremy’s point of view. I listened to Vincent rave about scuba diving for a minute.”

In an interleaved story set many decades in the past, the Tiv (an ethno-linguistic group or nation in West Africa) also encounter a new technology. Young Jijingi is among the first to learn the new technology, writing, introduced by the Europeans. Writing permits keeping detailed and permanent records, used by the Europeans to establish truth.

But what is truth? Jijingi says:

“Our language has two words for what in your language is called ‘true.’ There is what’s right, mimi, and what’s precise, vough. In a dispute the principals say what they consider right; they speak mimi. The witnesses, however, are sworn to say precisely what happened; they speak vough. When Sabe has heard what happened can he decide what action is mimi for everyone. But it’s not lying if the principals don’t speak vough, as long as they speak mimi.”

For the Tiv, value is often more important than factual accuracy.

Back to the main story, Remem can “authenticate” personal memories. No more bitter disputes over who said what, now that everyone can immediately and effortlessly enter total recall mode and access detailed video records with Remem. Isn’t that great?

But a startling and disturbing revelation is waiting for the journalist on the other side of total recall.

Our memories are not detailed records of facts, but work in progress, changing at every act of recall. We edit and re-write our memories all the time, adding and taking away to support our personal narratives, which are also work in progress. So we don’t really have direct memories, but memories of memories (of memories) mixed with myths, wishes, and fears. Chiang is hardly the first to recognize the fluid, “mimi” nature of memory, but this story is a great study of the implications for upcoming prosthetic memory technologies, which will soon reach and exceed the power of Remem.