Friday, March 26, 2010

Humans and Their 8-Track Minds

by Drew Martin

It has been said that ancient orators and scholars had stellar minds, capable of reciting epic poems and religious tomes. A picture has been painted that as civilization progresses with newer and more powerful technologies, our memory skills decrease and we are moving slowly towards a global dementia.

I think it is important to note that the very existence of the multitude of languages and dialects is simply the outcome of the shoddy memory of everyone who walked the Earth before us. As tribes split and went their own ways, so did the accuracy of what they communicated. The word laska , i.e., for Czechs means love , but for their kissing cousins in Poland it means cane ... close enough.

In the March 9 New York Times, there were two fascinating articles about Alzheimer's. One, Infection Defense May Spur Alzheimer's by Gina Kolata (an easy name to remember - PiƱa Colada). Her article reported findings of a protein that piles up into nerve-signal-destroying plaques may be part of the brain's defense mechanisms against invading bacteria.

The other article, and the one most relevant to my string of thoughts, was A Little Black Box to Jog Failing Memory by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee (a name I will never remember). The article was about Sensecam, which is basically a digital camera worn around the neck that automatically takes a lot of pictures in a short period, to assist in recalling the day's events for Alzheimer's patients, when the images are later viewed. The device was developed in Cambridge, England at a research lab for Microsoft (a company known its bad memory). The article also mentions an interest to market the camera to teens for Facebook and other social network sites to further advance self-documentation and voyeurism. Although the Sensecam's pictures need to be downloaded, the idea of a roving personal webcam is not unimaginable and would eliminate the time and effort of selecting and uploading pictures to one's chosen web application, such as Twitter; if such a device would do so without human intervention.

As an aside: it is ironic to note that the feared 1984 Big Brother media control has been drowned in the sea of annoying Little Brother media trying everything possible to grab our attention.

We often discuss the memory capacity of media. No one can deny the amazing advances in the ability to store information and the ease to access it, which is utterly baffling. This is, in fact, the reoccurring theme of media; how the new means outperforms what came before it, whether it is papyrus, paper or a chip. If the clay tablet did not extend and improve upon our own mental ability, we would not have media today, there would be no need for it. We also have given much collective thought to media as memories or, at least, the memories which media jostle, whether it is of an event we experienced but forgot about or what we remember from a moment a media message interrupted our lives. It is not really a question of where you were when JFK was shot so much as where you were when you heard/saw the after-the-fact news (unless, as with any event as tragic as 911, you were actually there and witnessed it, unmediated). The former point, about jostling memories, is probably a good way to explain how the person with dementia interacts with his or her daily pictures from the Sensecam. When we look at old photographs memories are revived. The difference is the amount of time it takes to forget something. What may fade over years to someone with all his or her wits may vanish in seconds for the deteriorating mind.

What interests me even more than discussing media as memory is considering our minds and memory as media. The brain is a medium, which expresses itself with thoughts and triggers communicative gestures throughout the body. The relationship of the brain and its thoughts is similar to that of the Internet (those physical bundles of systems) and the World Wide Web, that swirl information. Perhaps the way to compare our own memory with computer memory is to compare an 8-track cassette with an iPod...our gray-matter storage capacity is simply becoming obsolete. Although one could argue that the parts of our brains that manage information are becoming more advanced.

To make matters worse (or better - depending on how you look at it) our recollection of events is less important than the actual event as recorded by ubiquitous cell phone cameras and other devices. Of course our interpretation of an event is important to how we experience life but it is just as important to realize we really only experience a fragment of every moment and only from one advantage point, which is probably more accurate to call a disadvantage point. There is too much happening at every second to take it all in, which is why the instant replay is such a great tool in sports for deciding the outcome of an event as well as for appreciating an act of skill and athleticism. The instant replay would be ideal for other situations, such as trying to understand how an argument started, but not in a way to prove a point, simply to be able to step back and see what fueled it.

Having such tools available changes how we admit to our own actions. Think about the college student who drinks too much at a party and wakes up god-knows-where in some sorry state. He or she does not even have to bother any more to try to recall the bacchanalian events of the night prior or even call his or her best and more sober friend for a recap: someone certainly captured it all on digital video and most likely posted it before sunrise. The person in question can simply log on to YouTube or worse, depending on how naked he or she was and what he or she did in public. The actual advantage to this is pure accuracy, as opposed to a dodgy recall or trying to rewrite the event, whether it is to cover something or simply to fill in the blanks. It is no longer "Rumor has it..." so much as it is " has it."

In a March 16 Wall Street Journal article Can You Alter Your Memory? writer Shirley Wang makes two references to memory as media (albeit for the sake of a tangible analogy):

Scientists used to believe memories are like snapshots on which the details are fixed once they are recorded. Now, many experts accept the view that memories are stored like individual files on a shelf; each time they are pulled down for viewing, they can be altered before being put back into storage. Altering a memory during the time it is off the shelf can create an updated memory that can be saved in place of the old one, scientists believe.

Wang indirectly references paper (of the printed photograph and of the files) even though most snapshots now are digital and arguably the most altered and edited medium around. Wang states earlier in the article:

The goal of the research isn't to erase memory outright, as depicted in popular movies over the years. That would raise ethical issues and questions of what would happen to associated memories, scientists say. Instead, "reducing or eliminating the fear accompanying the memory...that would be the ideal scenario," says Roger Pitman, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School who has done extensive work in this area.

It is interesting to note the opposite directions the NYT's articles and the WSJ's article take. While the former is about detailing memory, the latter is about smudging it a bit. Certainly one should not be imprisoned by a bad past but the WSJ article is really talking about revisionism and forgetting from our mistakes, which is a quite dangerous path to follow.

To give a simple example of this, I could say that my fear of dogs started when a relative's dog bit me on the face. To go through some kind of treatment to relearn the event or dissociate fear from that moment is a distortion. I think I would be much better off reviewing a home movie of the occasion (if it existed) to see that the dog was in fact quite cute, merely barked at me and only did so after I squeezed its nose. I would probably even find the situation funny. The hard truth and the acceptance of that is what would hopefully lead to a more just society and a greater personal liberation.

Consider the number of continuing feuds that affect generation upon generation and wars upon wars, which are simply about how (differently) two sides remember one event. The exceptions are the ones well documented. The holocaust of WWII is so well recorded that denying it is considered ludicrous. Anyone who contributed to the victimization of the Jews, gypsies, dissidents and others who lost their lives is silenced by the evident horror. It screams "You did this!" and "This happened to me!" without shadowy interpretations.

The WSJ article offers the possible fate of the rape victim, who cannot escape her strong, violent memory, as someone who would benefit from the treatment they discuss. This is such a sensitive situation that I cannot begin to discuss it here. Certainly most victims would not bear to see the act if it were recorded, even if reviewing the scene would be liberating. From this example, it is hard not to also think about the situation where such a horrible act is fabricated and used to falsely against someone, in which documentation is needed to establish the truth.

A fictitious but very poignant example of this is the story of the legal case in To Kill a Mockingbird. Tom Robinson, a black southerner, is accused of rape and put on trial while an angry mob threatens him. The case is incited by Mayella Ewell and her father, Bob, both white southerners, who claim Tom raped Mayella. The truth is Mayella propositioned Tom but was caught by her father, and then accused Tom of the crime to cover her shame and guilt. The tragedy is that despite his obvious innocence, Tom is found guilty by the all-white jury. He later tries to escape from prison and is shot to death. It is an extreme example but had the proposition been recorded and reviewed, there would have been no opportunity for the lie to dominate.

A lie of the past is the forced alteration of a memory. It is done consciously but, over time, may even become the actual memory of its abuser. If the recording is the substitute for memory, then maybe the expectation of the recording is the new conscientiousness.

This is an interesting shift, moving from an internal check of what is right and wrong to an external monitoring of what will be judged as legal and illegal, moral and corrupt. In the absence of an all-knowing, all-seeing god, we are recreating this judgmental omnipresence with 24/7 voluntary and involuntary surveillance. Coming out of our pre-electronics cave, the knee-jerk reaction is actually to fear this media presence and to anticipate punishment and restriction but the reality is in fact a kind of enlightenment. Some things that were once secret and in darkness are now accessible, searchable and continuously viewable and their very exposure to "daylight" allows for us to properly view these things from all angles.

What was once at the mercy of how a network or the mainstream film industry regurgitated to the public is now in the hands of the public. For this first time, media can properly express how a minority ethnic group or, i.e., a gay couple live, love and laugh with their own voices.

We think we are quite familiar and advanced with our grasp of media but the truth is we are still fighting the surf to get out into its vastness. Media is limited by us and we have a lot to learn from what it can offer.

If the point of this posting is discuss our memory as media, what can we learn from the existing phenomena of social websites about how our memory functions? For one thing, the idea of remembering someone since the last time you saw him or her, perhaps ten years ago, is quite a strange fix, if he or she is living. The reason for not updating your mental profile of that person is most likely because you have not received any additional it is really because of a lack of information. This is a bit of an absurd way to go through is like reading an encyclopedia from 1945 for information about a European country you plan to visit next year without looking at any other information.

The problem is not that you are just remembering a person at a moment in time but are holding on to that idea of the person, when he or she may be incredibly different, beyond your recognition and appreciation. People change and you cannot hold them to be like what they once were. That being said, if you really got to know a person in an intimate and soulful way in the past and that person has been true to his or her core self, then the effects of time and aging do not matter and ten years apart may only feel like a brief moment. In the world of Facebook the mental profiles are continuously updated because everyone on it is refreshing his or her online profiles. Sometimes I even feel like it is a personal duty to update information...not because I think people actually care so much about me as it is to simply make the information available and possibly freshen up those stale memories.

Perhaps what happened is that writing, photography, film making, etc. came along and after the initial wowed abstraction was hurdled, media seemed to mirror our thinking, seeing and even being. Media became too human and analogous to the point where we are discussing memory and our minds as media. Traditional media was always a recording and meant for later retrieval. Even most forms of media today are about preservation. The way films and music are made is all about capturing a presence (a controlled past for the future) then being able to distribute it and profit from with financial rewards and human acceptance. Most arts and musicians live for the moment but it is also very important for them to be remembered.

Being remembered is a very powerful force. When photographers wanted to photograph the stoic Native Americans, their biggest selling point was that the Natives recognized the power and magic of photography to capture part of them. Even the suicide bombers, in their final hours, get a little media crazed and record their farewells.

An interesting situation is live television and live radio, although these too are typically recorded and made available for podcasts and are archived. While records and movies were recordings by default, live radio is not, yet computers can store every moment. It is important to note that our memory is not documentation and it is not time travel. It is a reading of an impression that was made, which sometimes appears like a flashing neon sign but can also seem like a badly weathered tombstone. If media was established to assist our minds with remembrance, and we have now seen media surpass our wildest dreams, then what would it mean for our minds to imitate new media and computers?

We can certainly shuffle and sort and make relational connections but maybe next time we are in a pointless argument, we really need to go to this instant replay in our minds and view what happened from every angle, objectively. And maybe we need to post our most private thoughts and mental obstacles which inhibit us, knowing that there are others who need this out there as well.