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Memory

Posted by Keen Observer on November 12, 2012

Memory:  personal memory, institutional memory, corporate memory, cultural memory, tribal memory.  These are the types of memories that living beings tend to be aware of, even if perhaps not all the time or in a consistent way.  But they are there.  I hope I don’t need to go into details on them, so I won’t.

Most of these—if not all—were consistently shared between individuals and generations in a largely oral tradition in times earlier than this.  Histories and fables, facts and survival/prosperity tips, and other such similar things were handed down to the general knowledge base or to specific, “worthy”, recipients.  Because of the way memory works, sometimes knowledge was lost, and sometimes less-valuable knowledge was discarded if favour of something better or more important.  This is evolution of a sort.

However, the advent of modern technology changed that somewhat.  It started gradually, but it eventually became the way that technology displaced the mostly-oral tradition, and it was thought to be progress or “better”.  One could argue that this change started with writing and tablets, before moving on to scrolls, but even in those cultures where these things arose, there would have been a significant majority of any population for whom this technology was out of reach, and thus would have had to rely on continuing the oral tradition.  These simple forms of technology were all there were for centuries, although as time went on, larger (though still very minor) percentages of the various populations would have acquired the use of these technologies.  It could even be argued that in some societies, the populace were deliberately kept ignorant to keep them under the control of their overlords.  I’m looking largely at feudal Europe, here, especially the iron control of the Church.  Countries like China and India and Japan had better literacy rates at the same time, I believe, even if there were entrenched class systems.

A seriously-significant piece of technology changed Europe (and the world) permanently in the middle of the last millennium:  movable type and the Gutenberg press.  In addition to aiding in the relatively rapid dissemination of knowledge to all and sundry, it had an additional effect on the human use of memory.  It started to become less necessary for people to remember things themselves, or similarly for the various groups of people outlined above to retain and pass along acquired or historical knowledge.

Jump ahead a couple hundred years to the present day, and that trend has almost reached its conclusion:  few  people or organisations remember any more than they absolutely have to to get by in life or business/whatever.  The word “memory” is not used as it was in the past, except in rare instances.  In fact, it is almost ubiquitous in its usage as a technological construct in the form of computer memory (RAM) or less correctly as storage (hard drives, thumb drives, optical media, and the like).  If you asked a random person on the street, “How’s your memory?”, you’re about as likely to get the answer in gigabytes as you are to hear that he’s been having a harder time remembering names lately.  We rely insanely heavily on other things to do our remembering for us:  books, journals, computers, disks, libraries, corporate manuals, legal codes, and so on.  And because other things do the heavy lifting for us, we no longer have to do it ourselves.  It’s almost become that a person with a good memory is considered freakish, it’s so bad.

Our memory “muscles” atrophy from disuse, and it becomes harder and harder to remember things.  When I  was younger, I prided myself on my memory.   It wasn’t eidetic (to my chagrin), but it was pretty good.  There were times when I felt I was just a hair’s breadth away from being able to visualise perfectly a page which I had read, to be able to pull out of that page the specific phrase I was attempting to recall.  Frustrating.  But since I started to rely on other things to remember that which I needed to remember, the less my memory itself was used, a gradual trend over the past couple of decades.  And on top of that, the older I get, the harder I have to work to remember things I should still know, and it becomes harder to retain new information that I am learning or need to know.   And this annoys the crap out of me at many levels.

I see this trend away from using one’s own memory as something occurring society-wide, on a fundamental basis, and I don’t think this is a good thing.  I also think I see that the pace of it is increasing, with increasing amounts of technology being used in the classroom as though it’s a good thing.  Children are being encouraged and taught to rely on machines to remember stuff for them.  Smartphones (e.g., with their memo and calendar functions) and thumb drives are ubiquitous.  Even diaries have a state of impermanence, being stored on media that can easily be destroyed in ways that written hardcopy cannot.  I think—and this is just my opinion—that continuing on this path is not only detrimental to people and society, but it is actively contributing to society’s downfall.  People that don’t remember things on their own will not be able to react to problems quickly; they will not be able to adapt and overcome, if they must continually stop to check something on their phones or look something up on the Internet.  This is a sort of recipe for disaster, if you’ll pardon the hyperbole, because we must as a society be smarter than those who would wish to destroy us, if we wish to survive.  It also has the effect of reducing the candidate pool for highly-technical (or other) jobs that require that sort of mental flexibility and awareness.  This does not leave me exactly hopeful for the continued survival of our society.

Just some thoughts about memory.  And right on a thousand words, too.

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