7.0007 Memory Hard and Soft (1/101)

Mon, 17 May 1993 17:39:38 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 7, No. 0007. Monday, 17 May 1993.

Date: Wed, 12 May 93 10:13:28 EDT
Subject: Memory Hard and Soft

It strikes me that the dangers being discussed in our thread on
memory and technology might be seen as a conflict between "hard"
memory (literacy and photograpny being the two examples we have
so far used) and "soft" memory (mental images of sensory
information being the example we have so far used). Hard memory
has numerous advantages: relative stability, replicabilty,
transportability, and therefore, in some senses, trustworthiness.
Soft memory has numerous advantages: relative malleability,
recombinability, privacy, and therefore, in some senses,
uniqueness. Our post-romantic sense of the ego demands
uniqueness and so hard memory is an assault while our post-
industrial sense of the importance of information demands
trustworthiness and so soft memory is a weakness. It is our
culture that institutes these problems and our selves that
reinstitute them. Andy Lakritz is surely right to ask, "Is it
enough to say, I can go it alone, with or without my camera in
hand?" but one should also recognize that answering that question
consciously is part of how one changes one's self and if we ever
wish to change our culture, it is with our selves that we must

Andy Lakritz recalls a passage from Franklin in which a religious
sect is unwilling to *write* its books for fear it will
prematurely *close* its books. This is a particularly powerful
example of the problematic role of technology in memory, I think,
because revelation is not supposed to be provisional knowledge at
all. Once known, it is known. But if so, then the problem is
not so much closing the books on revelation--one can always issue
a supplement--as it is closing the books on interpretation. What
does any given revelation mean? We are back, I think, to Plato's
complaint that one cannot interrogate a text in the way one can a
speaker. And, although I love texts, I agree with Plato. And,
like Plato, I write anyway.

I am not sure if Andy Lakritz approves or disapproves of the sect
refusing to write its books, but I do understand the conclusion
reached: "The new technologies are threats to all of us, but only
if we fail to find ways of using them that do not establish a
healthy relation between the subject and the technology." The
problem, of course, is that "healthy" is no easy notion to
define. In *Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me!* (1972),
Edmund Carpenter talks about the impacts modern information
technologies have when introduced to various non-Western tribes.
Among his stories is one of the Kandagan of the Middle Sepik
River basin in New Guinea. These folks practice a lacerating,
painful rite of male passage that involves scarification,
bleeding, and so on at about puberty. This occurs in a special
hut forbidden to women. Carpenter and his fellows, however, were
given permission to record this initiation. Amazingly, the
Kandagan allowed Carpenter's female camera operator to enter the
hut. Now in those days there were no videocams, so Carpenter had
to send his film away for processing, a lengthy affair under the
circumstances. In the time that elapsed, the Kandagan, in full
expectation of having the capacity to reproduce their ceremony
cinematically, offered their ancient and sacred ritual implements
for sale. Their intention was never to actually undergo painful
initiation again. Carpenter tells, however, that the film did
not arrive in a timely way, and so the Kandagan did not sell
their objects and instead continued their established customs.
One senses in the reading that Carpenter had arranged for the
delay to become indefinite because he saw the centrality of the
initiation experience in the maintenance of the culture and as a
modern anthropologist he did not wish to destroy, what, these
marvelous people? his object of study? The question is: would it
be "healthy" to maintain a culture even at the cost of great
personal pain (after all, the famous introduction of steel axes
to the Yir Yoront of Australia broke their trading relationships
and their culture ended in suicide and dissolution) or would it
be "healthy" to allow the sanitary substitution of vicarious
experience for the dangerous continuation of personal experience
(after all, the move in America from sports participation to
sports spectation clearly correlates with our historically rising
rate of heart and circulatory disease)? In other words, while
Andy Lakritz is right to say that new technologies are a problem
"but only" if we fail to find "healthy" ways of using them,
finding such ways is often far from easy and may, in some
instances, remain forever unclear.

One of the muddying matters is the very distinction between
"hard" and "soft" memory. Our immune systems are just as unique
records of our experience as any imagistic memory yet they are as
readable as any videotape. Our mental memories may well be of a
sunset but they may also be of words spoken...or read. Andy
Lakritz speaks of being a "sensualist" who can remember virtually
ever meal for a lifetime. I don't know whether to see that as a
blessing or, with Borges' "Funes the Memorious," as a curse. I
do know, however, that I cannot remember all my meals and most
people with whom I speak have memory lapses all the time.
Certainly my students can't all remember all the names of all the
characters in the books we have just read together. In short,
some sort of "hard" memory seems indispensable for modern life:
apppointment calendars, phone books, the whole array of
expository materials. But should we let the means overtake the
end? In an information society, what is the means and what is
the end? Now we are back to a chicken-and-egg situation. And as
Richard Dawkins so famously pointed out in *The Selfish Gene*,
the question is irrelevant from the viewpoint of the strands of
genetic information.

In choosing to travel without a camera, I was using my own
viewpoint. I do not urge it on anyone else.