Friday, May 4, 2007

Mnemnosyne: Gordon Bell and technology

Hugh Kretschmer, “A Head for Detail,” Fast Company, 110 (November 2006), 72-.

The article addresses several issues: how Bell’s memory works, through a SenseCam, a digital audio recorder, and a copy of all of the webpages that he visits; the problems that he has sorting through the incredible amount of information that he/it collects; the effects of this inability to recall on human memory; the promise of this technology for those who are afflicted with memory pathologies; the possibility of idea generation through the organization and associations drawn between different sorts of information.

Writing is an artificial memory. It creates a record of things that we have thought, but without all of the connections and realizations that accompany it during the moments when we think it. Thus, Plato calls this artificial memory dead, and suggests that it induces forgetting, but does not really increase our capacity for remembering.

The problems that Gordon Bell has in finding things from his past that make him think or this or that seem to illustrate Plato’s point. However, there are suggestions that technology is already being developed to find meaningful and effective ways of addressing this problem. When I was reading the article I was thinking about some kind of bioreading that would record affective reactions to ideas and experiences and would catalog experiences in this fashion. The article then claims that we organize memories according to time and people, associatively. Therefore, if everything is indexed in terms of lived events and experience, rather than merely a temporal marker insensitive to human experience, such a cataloging might be very effective.

What is most interesting is the suggestion that ideas can be generated through the associative chains and mappings that occur within the mind. Of course, this seems without possibility of dispute. In order for us to be able to have an idea, we must make a movement from something known to another way of looking at something, in such a way that an element hitherto concealed or unrecognized appears.

When I think of what a genius is, I wonder if this is distinguished from some prodigious memory. I think of Gadamer, who purportedly memorized a poem everyday, and of Bill Clinton, who, according to an article I recently read by Stephen Greenblatt in the
New York Review of Books, apparently could repeat lines from Macbeth having been asked to memorize as a youth. The examinations for the SAT and GRE and perhaps IQ testing then seem less atrocious once our liberal tendencies accept that certain cultural knowledge must be a sign of intelligence. But it is not only remembering these ideas, but also the ability to comprehend those ideas in a way that relates them to others. Comprehension is the thorough working over of events or ideas or images in a way that demonstrates numerous ways of explaining them.

I also thought, that perhaps the problems cataloging this information can be resolved once we make it our own. That is, if this act of writing is itself the creation of a memory. It’s not writing which is to blame, but reading. Those reading are the ones potentially suffering from memory loss. In reading, it is easy not to “make it our own” but rather to skim through information in a way that presents a superficial, one-dimensional representation.