Thursday, February 28, 2013

The here and now and then

This morning I was trying to remember a song. I pulled an image, a feeling and half a line out of the dark recesses of my still-waking brain and tried to put myself back where I was lo, those many years ago to try and get a handle on what I needed to remember. Then I just went to the internet and asked it to remember it for me, and it did.

We outsource our intellect via technology, but this is not new. We are willing to trade some advantages for others and this has been part of the progression of humankind for a while now (the tension between trading freedom for safety is an echo of this...we let others guarantee our safety but to do so, give up some of our unfettered liberty) and I am not going to wish to undo hundreds and thousands of years of evolution and progress so late in the game.

Instead, I will do what comes naturally to me -- I will point out that what we are doing NOW is somehow different, unprecedented and qualitatively worse and more evil so I can complain about it without sounding like I am complaining about everything. So, yeah, we introduced printing, which relieved us of the pressure to remember everything; we introduced radio and TV which eliminated the invocation of imagination from story telling; we introduced calculators so we no longer have to (or often, are able to) perform basic math functions alone. VHS, DVD and DVRs mean we no longer need to schedule our lives or carve uninterrupted time from our routine to be entertained. But the internet has gone one step further.

I remember reading something years ago which said "we are at the end of history." That phrase has almost 2 billion hits on google but I don't think that most of them are pointing to what I heard it to mean (and I admit, I have only read the first billion entries so I might be wrong here). On one hand, we are developing hindsight substantially faster. We don't wait for the past to be past before we train our cynical sights on it and revise its meaning. We allow ourselves to become nostalgic for yesterday instead of for 100 years ago. Warhol's notion of 15 minutes of fame is broken into

15 seconds of fame
15 seconds of notoriety
1.5 minutes of irritating persistence
5 minutes of absence
1 minute of rejuvenation
2 minutes of notoriety
3 minutes of absence
2 minutes of retro status
1 minute as a guest star on a reality show

With the advent of memes we have seen fame arrive, flash and return to the depths of anonymity before most people over the age of 26* even knows it existed.

On the other hand, though, if we have learned one lesson from the internet, and I'm not sure we have, it is that nothing ever disappears. We have no more history not because we turn everything into history immediately, but because nothing ever becomes history. Everything is always here and available. A PBS tv show from 1978? You can find it online. The weather for all the January 26's over the past 10 years? We have that. Now you might think that this persistence of memory is fabulous, but the thing is, all it means is that we don't feel the need to remember anything any more. This goes beyond abandoning the bardic rhyming couplets when we were finally able to, for a price, print up our odes -- at least then we needed to have money and the ability to read. Now, we can use the cloud to save our memories and never have to learn to compartmentalize our brains to prioritize what needs space and what can be forgotten. There are now contests for memory as if remembering things is a freak-show skill to be paraded down whatever that street is that is, you know, over there by store...hold on, let me get mapquest. We can take pictures of the "right now" and not wait for them to be developed -- but that time, that distance was crucial to appreciating them (and choosing which picture to take because of a limit on film was also important in developing a discerning eye and an awareness of money) and creating memory. We cannot yearn for a past that we never, even for a time, let go of.

Our children will carry their brains in their pockets. Might this free them up for more creative thinking? We all would like to think so. By not having to focus on the basics, we can work on the more advanced concepts. Isn't that great? Since no one has to learn the multiplication tables, we can have 8 year-olds learning calculus, right? Since no one has to remember anything because the past is always with us, can we assume constant knowledge of everything so we can focus on more advanced thinking skills? Or maybe, the process of deciding what to hold on to, and the ability to hold on to memory and recall it is a necessary prerequisite for advanced thinking and we are dumbing ourselves down by relying on the electronic and virtual brains to do our thinking for us.

There is value to knowing things and remembering (or not remembering! I believe that we gain a lot by searching and develop an emotional depth by feeling a sense of loss for the missing past) in a traditional sense. Writing things long-hand, doing math with a pencil and paper, dreaming, and sitting with others and recalling a shared experience by struggling to fill in the blanks in fragmented memories of the past are all essential moments in brain development.

I'm not a Luddite. Well, I might be. I don't know what a Luddite is. But if I wanted to know, I could just look it up. I love technology and rely on it. But I also know that there have been some serious sacrifices that we have made on the altar of progress and that just because stuff is not cutting edge doesn't make it useless.

* ages have been changed to protect the innocent.

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