September 2005



Memories are Made of These (Haydn Shaugnessy)
Technology and communications writer Haydn Shaugnessy reflects on the subtle but profound changes transforming our modern society as personal memories and commemorative art give way to computer records.


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By: Haydn Shaughnessy

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.
Augustine (354-430 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.


FORUM 2006!

The Forum planners of the In2:InThinking Network are proud to announce Forum 2006...

Discovering Opportunities
March 30 - April 2, 2006
Los Angeles, CA

About Forum 2006's Theme
"Daring to Explore" means recognizing that now more than ever, managing our toughest challenges requires embracing an explorer's sense of courage and relentless curiosity. Getting over the futile chase for "the best" answer to our current questions frees us for the search for new questions that will open opportunities that propel our companies, institutions, and societies into the future.

Join us March 30 - April 2 in Los Angeles for a unique four day experience of speakers, workshops, and an opportunity to network with colleagues from around the world.

Speakers and programming information will be published in the special November edition of the Newsletter.

In anticipation of the announcements, there will be no October Newsletter.



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  • In2:InThinking Network President Bill Bellows will be taking the stage at the IQPC's Lean Six Sigma West joining other notable industry figures including Jack Welch. Controversially, this session is about NOT doing Six Sigma and Lean. Bill addresses the notion that every company needs a little fat. Follow this link for more details on his presentation. Conference runs October 26-27 in Las Vegas.




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There will be no October Newsletter in anticipation of our special November Newsletter with details on Forum 2006.