What to make of Memory
The course I’m teaching this semester, “Narrating Criminal Memory in Literature and Culture,” examines narratives of criminal memory, or narratives that relate the story of a crime, often from the perspective of the perpetrator. As a result of this focus, I have been thinking quite a bit about how we gather evidence in criminal cases, and in light of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, what constitutes evidence of a crime has become even more important. Today, we often think of how technology is used as a kind of crutch for our memories, as a support system that can be used to correct, supplement, or even supplant our recollections. Of course, even the presence of such technology does not guarantee consensus. As a result, the relationship between memory and technology becomes crucial, especially since our lives are increasingly mediated by devices that are designed to record our experiences for us, whether through video, photography, or sound recording.
Georgia Tech has asked its incoming students to read Ted Chiang’s short story “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Fiction,” which imagines a future that is completely dominated by a product (Remem) that combines the recording capabilities of headset cameras like Google Glass with the search functionality of Google’s Gmail client. In other words, Chiang asks his readers to consider the possibility that video records would become so pervasive and so easily searchable that our own memories would begin to alter. He also raises the specter of tampering and the implications for us if video records were altered in some way. In discussing this story with my students, I found that they were eager to consider the ways in which technology impacts our memory–questions that will continue to resonate in the course as a whole.
Of course, studies have already shown that technology is influencing the way that we remember. In 2011 a group of researchers posited a kind of memory called “transactive” memory. In essence, the authors of the study found that people with near constant access to the Internet and its search capabilities have changed their memories away from storing specific information. Instead, our minds recall where to go to find information, rather than the information itself. In other words, we remember “wikipedia” or “IMDb” much more easily than specific details about a historical event or movie. (The abstract for that study can be found here.) Yet these discussions only highlight the fact that “technology,” although often conceived of in terms of contemporary gadgets and computers, encompasses much that we now consider non-technological, like books.
What Counts as Technology
Last week, I read a delightful article that to me was a kind of ode to the book in prose. In his discussion, the author, Craig Mod, offers a wonderful picture of the fact that books are very much a technology. Although we rarely think of them in that way, books remain a highly advanced form of information storage, organization, and retrieval. Indeed, I remember the first time that I saw someone bring a Kindle to a reading group discussion. The rest of us had purchased physical copies of the text, but this participant was taking advantage of his new technology. While we all quickly turned to a specific page, he leaned over and glanced for a scrap of text that he could then type into the search box. As he was waiting for his Kindle to catch up to us, a wry emeritus professor of history quipped, “This is codex technology,” referring to our books, “and that is scroll technology,” pointing to the Kindle. We all laughed, but his point couldn’t have been clearer–not all technology improves upon what we already have.
Of course, e-readers will improve (and have), but if memory and technology are so seemingly intertwined now, they must also have seemed so when books were the cutting edge of technological progress. Indeed, Michael McKeon points out in The Origins of the English Novel that the introduction of written records into legal discourse was specifically designed to provide a more reliable form of record-keeping than memory. Perhaps our relationship with technology and memory is always vexed; one moment we are highly suspicious of the changes that technology will bring, the next we are hailing the newest invention as the hallmark of a new era. In either case, it seems clear that human history and culture is not one of memory and technology, but one of memory technology. Each has been influenced by the other, to the point that our memories and our technologies are perhaps so interdependent that it would be difficult to extract one from the other.