Facebook, a computing pioneer, a secret government program, and a strange coincidence

This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.

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Facebook’s origin story has been told again and again  — 20 years ago a group of ambitious Harvard sophomores created the site from their dorm room that would soon go on to change the world. 

But in certain corners of the internet, there is a different take on how it all started. 

One that riffs on the timing of the company’s launch date, February 4, 2004, and the shutdown of a secretive, now-defunct, government program.

Central to this story is the research of Chester Gordon Bell, one of the architects of the modern internet. 

“I’ll say I’m one of the computing pioneers,” Bell said, summing up his decades-long career in the field. 

It all started back in 1997, when a former colleague from Carnegie Mellon University asked Bell if he could scan all of his books and documents into an archive about computer science history. 

The request gave Bell an idea. Why stop there?

“He said, ‘Why don’t I see what it’s like if you scanned everything in your life and put it online.’” 

Bell wanted to capture the type of data that would have previously been impossible to collect without the kind of emerging technology finally at his disposal. 

He brought the idea to Microsoft and hired an assistant.

“And we started scanning, scanning everything,” Bell said. 

Emails, work notes, his online browsing history.       

Bell eventually started wearing a camera around his neck that regularly snapped photos on a timer, an altimeter, and a GPS receiver that tracked his location. 

The idea was to create a “surrogate memory” — a trove of stored data to supplement the flawed recall of his human mind.

“It’s really how I can go back and pinpoint something,” Bell said.

  • January 29, 2024
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