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Digital is the medium which encompasses and subsumes all others —
but what is it for ?

What uses or applications of digital media can we create that will fully
exploit its potential in service of the deepest of human desires ?

    Sin of self-love possesseth all my soul

    And all my every part….

    Each mortal thing does one thing and the same —

    Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

    Crying what I do is me: for that I came….


And each has a story to tell, the story of the life it has made.

Digital Biography

In The City and the Stars, Arthur Clarke describes a world where
people live, die, are reborn, and continue in this cycle through billions of
years. In that world, the memories of an individual’s past lives are restored
to the reborn person after the twentieth year. When, tired of living, one
returns to the hall of creation to end the current life, the person reviews the
memories of past lives, including the latest one lived, and chooses what will
be saved for recall in the next reincarnation.

What Clarke imagined as a necessary part of that cycle of birth and death, we
can undertake today — in the sense of editing this life’s memories to reveal
and illuminate what has been most important to each of us as an individual.
Multi-media control, non-sequential text, simulation, animation, extensive
memory and quality video now permit individuals to begin to use the digital
medium in a non-trivial, essentially artistic, and deeply personal task —
recreating one’s own vision and experience of life.

Who would want to do so and why ?

Many and for various reasons.

Who would pay ?

The wealthy first, for themselves.

Then organizations, subcultures, even nations, wishing to honor their
most distinguished members.

Then the technically adept with access to more limited resources.

Eventually and more generally, those able to use tools such as which
will be created as the activity becomes popular.

Typically biographers make books, but they rarely do justice to people of
genius. For example, in a recent book “A Mind of her Own”, a biography of the
theorist of psychotherapy, Karen Horney, the author wrote a most engaging
story, but as a study her story was severely limited. She told her audience
about Karen, the person, but she left out Horney, the theorist.

Digital biographies, flexible enough to permit a reader to find the preferred
depth, with components capable of function as well as presentation, can better
do justice to the most remarkable among us.

What would be Done with such Digital Biographies ?

For the individual as participating subject, digital biography would be
an expressive act, an opportunity to render a vision of life and a sense of
experience. For a biographer, it would be an effort of intellectual/social
history. For society, one could think of such as archives for today and
resources for tomorrow. Understanding individuals as creators of ideas can
help in understanding the ideas themselves and their subsequent modifications.
To the extent that such resources can permit better access for students to the
original work of important thinkers and agents — even with later added
annotations for clarification and guidance — their availability may improve
students’ appreciation of the application as well as of the structure of ideas
in a community as it grows through time.

What would be Problems in Publishing Digital Biographies ?

Publication separates into two issues: “distribution” and “annotation”.
At any time, the limits on distribution would be technical (what hardware is
accessible through which general access could be had), economic (who profits),
and ethical (how does one deal with errors, misrepresentations, and distasteful
truths ?). The technical issues need not be confronted immediately — except
that one would want to define specifications for or design a language for
describing the relationships among the elements of the media in such a way that
it would be only marginally dependent (if at all) on specific media or systems
in which the biography would be instantiated. Economic questions would require
negotiation as ever.

The ethical questions would probably have to be dealt with on a case by case
basis at first until satisfactory norms evolve. This is so because the
willingness of some people to share their views will depend on keeping secrets
until their interests are invulnerable. On the other hand, if it is known that
the truth will out in the end, misrepresentations of various sorts would likely
be minimized except by the chronically deceitful. This is where annotation
comes to the fore, because it will permit a kind of secondary public dialogue
where the annotator will not have to invest years producing “a work” to
criticize mistaken points and argue against mistaken impressions.

Publication notes:

  • Written in 1989. Unpublished.
  • Subsumed in chapter 2 of Case Studies and Computing, Ablex, 1996.
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