Boris Smus

interaction engineering

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

Ted Chiang wrote a bunch of short stories that aren't published in book form. I really wish he would sell another anthology. He deserves more recognition, and I prefer reading physical books.

Here's one recommended by Alex, available online. The premise is that in the future, a tech giant comes up with a technology called Remem giving perfect audio-visual recall. You input text by sub-vocalizing, and see the output immediately in your retinas.

This work is a great example of trying to unpack a complex issue and telling a compelling story that is very focused on a particular set of technologies and ideas. Ted could have probably written a non-fiction article about the same subjects, but it would have been a much less appealing way of getting his ideas across.

The structure of the story is also interesting: it's written from two perspectives: one story about the journalist and his daughter, and one seemingly from left field, of an oral-only Asian people making first contact with European missionaries. It takes some time to relate the two stories together, but that's part of the process.

Ted is amazing at retelling how it might have felt to experience writing for the first time. I loved this gem comparing writing to nature:

“Where you or I would see nothing but some disturbed grass, he can see that a leopard had killed a cane rat at that spot and carried it off,” his father said. Gbegba was able to look at the ground and know what had happened even though he had not been present. This art of the Europeans must be similar: those who were skilled in interpreting the marks could hear a story even if they hadn’t been there when it was told.

And, justifying the need for spaces between words:

You could not find the places where words began and ended by listening. The sounds a person made while speaking were as smooth and unbroken as the hide of a goat’s leg, but the words were like the bones underneath the meat, and the space between them was the joint where you’d cut if you wanted to separate it into pieces.

Another core idea is whether or not perfect recall is desirable. Perfect recall can be a disability: "At times, he tried to deliberately forget things. He wrote down numbers he no longer wanted to remember on slips of paper and then burnt them". And in personal relationships, pursuit of truth may be misguided. Perhaps the ability to replay a painful conflict would prevent that wounds from ever healing?

It seemed to me that continuous video of my entire childhood would be full of facts but devoid of feeling, simply because cameras couldn’t capture the emotional dimension of events.

Another idea: something is lost in writing and in life capture through cameras and microphones. In the Asian missionary world, the student of writing laments "The paper version of the story was curiously disappointing.". Memory is fallible, and without externalizing it, every time it is remembered and retold, it changes. Oral history is alive, while written history is dead (with caveats).

Part of me wanted to stop this, to protect children’s ability to see the beginning of their lives filtered through gauze, to keep those origin stories from being replaced by cold, desaturated video. But maybe they will feel just as warmly about their lossless digital memories as I do of my imperfect, organic memories.

Interesting distinction between semantic memory (knowledge of facts), and episodic memory (recollection of personal experiences). The former is already solved today via Wikipedia etc. The latter is on its way to being solved. Maybe not practical yet because of battery life, but this will probably change in lifetime.

Quick idea: over-reliance on external memory leads to virtual amnesia in the absense of an extenral medium. This is already true for writing to some extent.

In the climax of the story, both the future-journalist and past-missionary arcs twist. When his wife and her mother left them, the journalist-protagonist recalls his daughter lashing out at him, “You’re the reason she left. You can leave too, for all I care. I sure as hell would be better off without you.” But as it turned out, Remem made it clear that he was the one who said those words to his daughter.

In the Asian missionary arc, the European colonizers force the indigenous tribes into dividing into seven arbitrary regions (for easier governance), and there is a tribal dispute over how to draw the lines. The decision came down to blood lines, and two tribes claimed to both be exclusive decendents of one lineage. Ultimately, the written record shows which tribe is right, and the tribal protagonist's tribe ends up losing the dispute.

So, is perfect episodic recall desirable? It's complicated. Ted is incredibly good at presenting both sides of the argument.

It would be easy for me to assert that literate cultures are better off than oral ones, but my bias should be obvious, since I’m writing these words rather than speaking them to you. Instead I will say that it’s easier for me to appreciate the benefits of literacy and harder to recognize everything it has cost us.

In the end, Ted's proxy character, the future-journalist, decides to apologize to his daughter.

And I think I’ve found the real benefit of digital memory. The point is not to prove you were right; the point is to admit you were wrong.

Lastly, why does the story have such a strange title?

Regarding the role of truth in autobiography, the critic Roy Pascal wrote, “On the one side are the truths of fact, on the other the truth of the writer’s feeling, and where the two coincide cannot be decided by any outside authority in advance.”

These two concepts are given indigenous terms:

“But that doesn’t mean he was lying.” Then Jijingi remembered something about the European language, and understood Moseby’s confusion. “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.”

Go read it.