Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Media of Memory

A Meditation on the Theme:  Trouble with Technology
We have this brain that experiences and remembers things, but it’s an imperfect instrument and, furthermore, one day it will no longer exist.  So we would like to find another, more reliable--and durable--vehicle for sustaining and transmitting the wisdom and intention of our individual brains.
Language was the first “reliable” vehicle of transmission of thought from one brain to another, and may indeed have been the vehicle for the differentiation of Homo sapiens from other hominids - maybe as long ago as a hundred millennia.  When we speak to each other, we transmit information, thoughts and feelings, termed “memes” to others who hear our words.  We embed a fragment of our mind into theirs.  For most of human history, language was essentially the only vehicle for thought transmission – the only medium of memory.
Probably, sometime after language developed, humans began to make pictographic images of objects in their environment and ideas in their minds, and these images often took on a mystical aura as representing the essence or spirit of the thing depicted.  No doubt, music also developed along with pictographic images as a medium for transmitting rituals of words and movements.  Words somehow seem easier to remember if set to music.
Then came writing, perhaps five millennia ago, arising, no doubt, from pictures and dots and lines used as symbols for things and numbers.  This allowed transmission of memes across a broader field in both space and time than was possible with one-on-one or small-group verbal contact.  The extent to which writing survived the millennia depended upon the medium on which it was engraved:  inorganic media such as stone or clay had greater durability; organic media such as paper or parchment were easier to transport and store, but were subject to decomposition and hence, permanent loss.
Then, just half a millennium ago, came the printing press, the medium of mass dissemination that ultimately transformed the mindset of Western civilization.  The disadvantage of paper’s fragility in preserving content was offset by the numerical advantage of multiple copies of a single piece of literature, (e.g., the bible) for preserving works of written words that touched innumerable minds - concurrently and down through the centuries.  In the same way, images – once unique and created individually - were etched and reproduced in multiple copies, often as an integral part of a printed book.
A century and a half ago, photography was developed, with its capacity to capture, at a given moment in time, images of people or activities or objects of art, allowing the preservation and wide dissemination of visual as well as verbal memes.  So “A picture is worth a thousand words,” became a new mantra.  Half a century later, movies developed that gave us the illusion we were seeing things in motion on a still screen.  Photographic technology eventually took over the reproduction of verbal information (books, magazines and newspapers) as well as of visual images.
With television, in the middle of the 20th century, the illusion of motion came into family homes in the form of electronic images.  Photons of light were translated in a cathode-ray tube into electrical pulses that danced across the screen at unimaginable speed, generating images that the average person had no ability (or inclination) to recreate.  The cathode-ray tube (CRT) has recently been replaced by the liquid-crystal display (LCD), and the dance of electrons has been replaced by shimmering dyes stimulated digitally on a thin, unimaginably fine grid. 
Now we have the digital age, in which words and images are preserved digitally in technologies that change every half decade.  The blips and bleeps of fragmented memories are disseminated widely through the “ether” at the speed of light.  In theory, any given image (picture) or any sequence of images (video) could be viewed simultaneously by everyone in the world who had access to the internet, which amounts to hundreds of millions of individuals.  When even a thousandth of that number of individuals views an image or video, it is said to “go viral,” which means that a large portion of the human population has that meme embedded in its psyche. 
Even more than the organic media such as paper and parchment, the electronic media are truly impermanent.  Their words and pictures are not etched in anything that will be accessible to future minds or media and are bound to disappear from the record of time unless they are copied and transmitted and retransmitted indefinitely.  And who would do that?
How long do the memes we absorb visually and passively last?  How much of what we see and hear endures in our minds as memory?  And how long before our present media will be obsolete and our memories will dissipate, flying free as photons into the cosmic background radiation?

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