While we may imagine memory as the collection and recall of facts, compared with technologies we create to help us remember facts, we are actually quite poor at factual recall. We forget far more than we remember and often what we remember and how we remember it is considered suspect. We have learned to create tools to shore up our weaknesses and augment our abilities, so we concoct devices and techniques (paper and pencil, cameras, computers) to help us collect and recall. We forget that those devices began with an act of imagination and, because they embody that act of imagination, are themselves an invitation to imagine.
Devices that help us collect and recall facts, especially in the context of today’s technology, invite us to imagine memory in a very narrow way. As acts of imagination, these technologies can become a lens through which we view ourselves and our memory is measured against their standard. When we imagine ourselves in this narrow way, we are impoverished. Freed from the trance of these technologies we can ask anew the question of how human memory works and begin to re-imagine the symbiosis of human and technological memory.
Hope as recall
Let’s start with how we remember our infancy. If we think of memory as the recall of facts, then the conclusion is that we don’t. Let’s take another look. In developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson’s, scheme, the first two years of life is about discovering whether we can trust others. As an infant is utterly dependent on his/her caregivers this is no small “question.” The “answer” to this emerges in overall patterns of care or neglect. Sufficiently consistent, adequate care yields a capacity not just for trust but for hope throughout life.
How do we remember hope? In the way we live our relationships, in our expectations for those who care for us, in the way we carry ourselves, in our expectations for the future. As evidenced, for example, in post traumatic stress cases, this sort of memory is not limited to early childhood. Trauma is remembered in part in “overreactions” to present situations.
From this we can glean that memory is (at least in part) carried as patterns of experience, perception and expectation. Memory shows in how we make sense of the unknown and in how carry ourselves, conduct our lives and relate to others. It shows in our emotional, bodily reactions. We begin to suspect that memory is in part bodily.
Memory as bodily
We remember our ancestors by more than facts or even stories. Ancestral memory is embodied in our ways of walking, talking, laughing, styles of humor, inclinations and aptitudes and even in genetic heritage like body type, facial features and tendencies toward health or disease. Psychosomatic symptom formation suggests that symptoms are a form of memory – a way of remembering what we have reflexively disowned and discarded but which cannot and must not be forgotten. Athletes talk about muscle memory, retention through neurological adaptations gained by repeated actions, which helps them react quickly and effectively in performance situations. In the heat of the moment their bodies remember what to do.
Carl Jung, noting numerous repeated motifs in stories, art, dreams, etc. across cultures, posited archetypes as an inherited collective repository of human experience. Archetypes are lived as a set of inborn potentialities for experience and behavior, much like instinct, that find individual and collective expression. They shape the way we imagine and live out relationships, the way we tell stories and the way we story our lives. They are a sort of collective memory painted in broad strokes.
A tapestry of meaning
In re-membering the story of memory as the collection and recall of facts (as told by our technologies of memory) we have begun to re-imagine memory. We started telling a different story. We are meaning-making creatures and it is by narrative that we create and weave the threads of memory into a relatively coherent tapestry.
Recall your earliest memory. Consider the ways in which that memory – that story is a paradigm for your life. Chances are you are still living that story. Early memories stick because they serve as your foundational narratives in the same way that nations are defined by their founding stories. Stories of origins define us here and now where we imagine the future. What we remember and how we remember it is bound up with how we make sense of the present and how we project the future. Stories of origins suggest that memory is also forward-looking. The same act of imagination that stories the past projects the future. The future makes sense in terms of what came before.
Memory as narration
We are meaning-making creatures and we create and organize meaning through narrative. Stories grab us because they fit the way our minds work. We remember best what is meaningful and what is meaning-full is what fits our adopted narratives and helps us live our stories. Conversion of heart, for example can be understood as a re-telling of our story, weaving through our past re-membering it according to new, liberating narratives that project a renewed future.
Odd indeed are the memory tests that challenge us to remember meaningless factoids in random sequence. Our only chance is to find ways to connect them into a sequential thread – a narrative of sorts. Memories come when we get our story straight.
A newfound freedom
In our newfound freedom gained by recognizing technologies as invitations to imagine, how do we retell the story of why we created technologies that help us collect and recall facts? What does a healthy working relationship between human memory and technologies of memory look like?
Let’s start with the example at hand. An extended meditation such as this would not be as fruitful or refined without some means of recording thoughts (like paper and pencil or word processing software) – to retain and remind so the thinker can return and refine and offer the ideas up to others. Memory technologies embody the life of ideas outside the mind of one. The ideas can stand on their own partly because of their incarnation. The artist paints, leaves and returns to see with fresh eyes, reacts and paints again. The painting quickly takes on a life of its own making demands and awakening the artist to budding truths. All this is impossible without the capacity of the paint to remember.
Self aware, we can imaginatively stand outside our thoughts and impulses observing while also being in them, experiencing them. This self-awareness manifests, in part, as inner dialogue. The spark that ignites the inner dialogue already has something of a life of its own – an “otherness” – hence the dialogue. When it is expressed (takes on relatively enduring material form) the dialogue is externalized and the “otherness” of the spark becomes more concrete, enriching the dialogue. Technologies of memory as incarnations of inner dialogue enrich that dialogue.
Or look at it this way. How do we “collect facts?” – by organizing them into narrative threads. Our technologies cannot by themselves create those organizing threads. They need our guidance. We do narrative. They do retention: they are good at that. We are not. They do facts, we do meaning. In our narrative re-membering we necessarily discard things that later may prove important when our beloved stories fail us. Effective stories can’t say everything at once. We are prone to losing track of facts and truths that our stories leave out. New facts or facts seen anew can spark renewal – a transformative retelling. Facts only have power when they help us tell story. Facts without meaning are powerless. This is the symbiosis of human memory and technologies of memory.