According to Luis Rodriguez Rosello, Director of the EU's future
technologies R&D program, the next generation of computers will
be found in our clothes, perhaps even on our skin, and in just about
every component of every product that moves around the globe. PC
skeptics on the other hand argue that computers have a peculiar
mental effect that needs to be taken into account now. Apart from
being omnipresent, there is also their gradual encroachment on the
human capacity to remember and with it the capacity to develop
creative and imaginative lives. Memory is a driving force in human
creativity and for a special reason. Commemoration, the act of
memorizing or memorializing important achievements and events, makes
memory a public act and one that shapes human purpose. Without joint
acts of memory our sense of common purpose declines and with it our
ability to agree on priorities.
These facets of behavior are of course central to the
mobilization of teams. Surveys in countries with high computer use
show a consistent drop in adult and child memory capabilities. For
example, in the United States, where even two year olds are now
using computers, the majority of people can't remember the name of
the President who ordered the dropping of the atomic bomb on
Hiroshima. The majority of British people don't remember the name of
their constitutional document-the Magna Carta.
On the face of it a decline in this type of knowledge might best
be attributed to poor teaching methods or changing priorities in the
school curriculum. Not so say educators like Professor Stephen
Bertman, author of Cultural Amnesia, a treatise on the
dangers of forgetting. He describes memory as a social activity in
which the failings of individuals reflect a decline of collective
values. Bertman says we no longer have "luxury to contemplate" nor
do we prize contemplative activities or the sensibilities that go
with them. We are using computers as surrogates for the brain and
inevitably when the brain, particularly the memory, doesn't have to
work, it atrophies; the wires rust, certain parts grind to a halt.
But more than that, the power of imagination declines.
Without active memories people have inactive imaginations. The
two go hand in glove, neuron and synapse. Memory operates like a
series of transactions in the brain. We deal with new information,
the stuff we need to remember, in an area called the hippocampus.
The hippocampus allocates facts to different parts of our long-term
memory. Accurate recall then depends on finding the right stimulus
to remind the hippocampus where exactly the information we need now
is stored. To recall accurately we each need to understand what will
stimulate the hippocampus to retrieve the right information. We can
only fine tune the retrieval process through practice.
Why bother? Because, argues Bertman, "social values and memory
are intimately linked, the two together are essential to civility
and cultural progress." Memory is integral to cultural production
like art, literature, poetry, sculpture and filmmaking. Art makes
life larger than reality and hence makes it memorable. The late
historian Frances Yates in her book The Art of Memory pointed out
that artistic imagination began historically with the distinct human
need to remember. Like Bertman, Yates was a classicist who read
widely in ancient Greek philosophy to understand the origins of
modern ways of thinking. She traced the link between artistic
imagination and memory to the Greek poet Simonides. Simonides
developed a system of memory and recall based specifically on the
architectural structures of buildings. Like artists in many
primitive cultures he externalized the workings of the memory. What
went on inside, he found, could be best understood by finding
external equivalents or symbols.
The rooms and partitions of
Simonides' buildings acted as categories for information. For
example a bedroom might be the surrogate for information about
warfare. This link would then be made memorable by a number of
extreme images that Simonides would associate with it- perhaps a
grotesque beheading (imagery relevant to today). Simonides'
structures and images acted as, literally, the building blocks of
human memory, and as the first categorization systems- the
equivalent of today's Yahoo! Through them memory, imagination and
art became intertwined.
Yates speculated also that Shakespeare's Globe Theatre was
designed in part to reflect the techniques of visualization taught
by Simonides. The Shakespearean actor, treading the boards, had in
front of him the architectural associations that Simonides said were
essential to memory. Shakespeare is known to have associated with
memory experts and his puns and jokes are typical of the memory
devices in use before writing was widespread-techniques reprised by
Joyce in Ulysses.
In other words, in literature as well as in visual art, the
external world of images and words are ways of helping us to make
life memorable. In using the computer as a memory surrogate, the
question arises are we killing off artistic sensibility and with it
the ability to decide common objectives that we are content to
memorialize? Imaginative memory has been a highly prized human
faculty since antiquity. Not so now though.
A.D.) wrote. "I come to the fields and spacious places of memory,
where are the treasures of innumerable images, brought into it from
things of all sorts perceived by the senses". Cicero believed memory
to be divine.
Today we don't need active memories because the computer can
organize and retrieve information for us. The question that hasn't
yet been seriously asked is whether by being able to remember
everything we lose the ability to prioritize; without the
imagination to construct works of artistic sensibility around our
common objectives we struggle to find those larger than life moments
that make our achievements worthy of endeavor.
The answer lies in a greater commitment to the imagination in all
aspects of our work- a greater commitment that might start by
placing artistic sensibility at the center of our endeavors, and
nearer the head of our list of priorities. A renewed emphasis on
enduring creations or designs that are memorable because they
elevate our shared activities or that render life larger and more
memorable, should be a duty of care in any organization.
Haydn Shaughnessy recently developed the film "After
the War," broadcast on BBC exploring how the victors of WWII set
about transforming a society and mentality. Haydn's articles are
published in the Irish Times and syndicated worldwide, and he
consults to organizations interested in understanding the nature and
impact of digital culture and digital communications.