Technology both enriches and constrains memories. It enriches them through tools such as pens, books, and PDAs. And it constrains them through the power of its metaphor.
First Rose explains a little about scientific metaphors. There are three types of scientific metaphor: the poetic, the evocative, and the structural.
- Poetic Metaphors provide little more than a useful visual image. An example might be Rutherford’s early twentieth century description of electrons as planets revolving around an atomic sun.
- Evocative metaphors provide both an image and a means of transferring a principle from one sphere to another. The Ancient Greeks tried to explain the movement of the sun as if it were being pulled through the sky by fiery horse-drawn chariots. The explanation is bogus, but the principle is transferable.
- Structural metaphors provide useful visual images, allow transference from one sphere to another, and enable the description of principles. So Harvey’s description of the heart as a pump was structural because allowed mathematical models to describe its operations.
Then Rose goes on to track the ascendancy of mathematical and physical viewpoints of the world (especially over biology).
- As a start point there’s Rene Descartes. As well as thinking himself into existence, the Frenchman explained the human body in terms of clockwork motion and in terms of hydraulics. Remembering was little more than a series of valves in your brain releasing memories to the relevant bit.
- Isaac Newton chipped in to this steady maths/physics ascendancy through explaining the motions of the planets with maths. If you can do that, then surely everything else can be explained in a similar way?
- Then comes electricity, even animal electricity. Luigi Galvani galvanised the maths/physics rise by showing that electricity could make frogs’ legs twitch. Electricity, in all its physical glory, seemed to control animals.
- The invention of the telegraph brought into the mix the idea that the mind was like a telephone exchange, routing calls to and from the bits that needed to communicate. Charles Sherington, of enchanted loom fame, was responsible for that metaphor. (It was even mentioned in the presentation speech for him at the dinner where he was given the Nobel prize for services to neurons.)
- Turing, Wiener, von Neumann and others then managed to invent computers. Up to a point the brain informed the design of the computer. The device you are reading this on has memory after all. But that was pretty much the last gasp. The computer metaphor has taken hold.
Rose comments that “instead of biologising the computer, we find ourselves challenged by the insistence that human memory is merely an inferior version of human memory”. To be sure, there was a slight hiccup when AI seemed to be dwindling, but connectionism, ALife, neural nets, parallel computing and the power of hidden layers got the metaphor back on its feet soon enough.
Rose, though, thinks that the metaphor is flawed. Pretty deeply flawed too. And certainly not a structural metaphor. Why?
But if I understand him correctly though, the main flaw is this:
“brains do not work with information in the computer sense, but with meaning. And meaning is a historical and developmentally shaped process, expressed by individuals in interaction with their natural and social environments … our memories are recreated each time we remember”
Rose ends with a sobering thought. While technology freezes and logs memory into what he calls a world of Victorian sepia, it can also subvert it via Zelig-like docudramas.
Artists have been forever fascinated by memory (and not just Proust), and [this is me thinking here] so maybe they are more concerned with fact than they are given credit for?