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?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Korea, Are You at Peace? Sounds


When I arrived in Songtan, which was to be my home during that first year in Korea, the temperature was hot, oppressively hot, and muggy, though neither hotter nor muggier than my home in Charleston, South Carolina would probably be without air conditioning. My apartment, like most places off-base, was not air-conditioned.  Sounds, mostly unfamiliar sounds, rang through open windows.  The shriek of jets and the thump-thump of helicopters reverberated in the air above Osan AFB only a few blocks away. Shrill sirens announced tests of emergency sound systems. Taps and anthems were blurred and muffled in the dense air. In trees and grasses, insects whirred and tittered.  From the streets and houses behind my apartment, voices and animal sounds penetrated into my not-quite-private space.

And then there were the cicadas, which seemed louder and more insistent than Charleston cicadas. A particularly loud colony inhabited a poplar tree outside the Education Center on base. It was almost deafening to walk beneath that tree when I first went there to introduce myself to the staff at the University of Maryland office, and to pick up the keys to a very cheap old car I had bought with another faculty member. For two or three days, the cicadas screeched and scolded every time I walked under that tree.  Then a cold snap hit and the tree was silent. A few mornings later, the cicadas were again strumming their fierce trills, so I knew that the weather had warmed.  However, a cold spell so early in autumn suggested that rumors of frigid Korean winters were probably not idle.

Of course, another unfamiliar sound heard through the windows and on the streets was the Korean language. Its guttural exclamations rang through the Songtan alleyways, and a gentler version was exchanged between people on Osan Air Base (mostly women) who performed much of the service work--secretaries in offices, bank tellers, food servers at the Taco Bell or Antonio's Pizza, check-out clerks at the commissary and base exchange, agents in the on-base travel office.  When Koreans spoke to each other on base, they spoke Korean; when they addressed customers (mostly military personel), they spoke English with variable success.

Behind my apartment building were two houses whose roofs were on a level with my balcony. When the frosted glass door was open to let in whatever sullen breeze might stir, I could see across the garden patches to kim-chi pots and clothes lines dotting the flat roofs.  In one of those buildings lived a family in which the father shouted a lot. Of course, I couldn't understand what he was saying--it often sounded simply like grunts that varied in pitch. Sometimes a woman would yell back, sometimes there was wailing, sometimes I could hear a child cry or a dog bark.  

One day, I watched a man on his roof strike a woman (I assumed it was his wife).  And another night, I awoke to sounds of yelling and thumping and wailing that lasted for half an hour or so.  I had trouble going back to sleep, thinking about that not-so-distant drama and another woman's helplessness - as well as my own.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Scanning Photos

A couple of weeks ago, I spent the morning scanning a few photos selected from photo albums of 1981 & 1982, and saved, digitally, a total of 20 scans, or some 50 photos (2 – 4 in most scans), which includes about a fourth of the photos that I had saved from the albums (already triaged by half).
That represents two years--and two albums--out of perhaps forty.  So I’ve done maybe 5% of the job that needs to be done to excerpt and “preserve” the family photos.  Once the photos have been scanned and saved digitally, I asked myself:  How long will it be possible to retrieve them as technology marches on?  This gave rise to one of my trouble-with-technology moments, as I contemplated some infinite regression as I and my offspring endlessly copied increasingly distorted images of past events into more compressed and less visually accessible storage devices, for the sake of... 
I have a few photographs of one grandmother and only two of the other.   One of the photos is a copy of the original, and the graininess shows.  That grandmother seems to have been beautiful but sad even as she was smiling slightly, her head tilted to one side for the camera.  She died when my father was 15 years old, and I think he always felt her absence as an emptiness, although he almost never spoke of her.  When we named my middle daughter Elisabeth, he seemed pleased to remind me that Elizabeth Adams had been his mother’s maiden name.
My mother photographed family events (Christmases, reunions, trips) with a movie camera using “Super-8” film which, after developing, we could view on a standing white screen using a projector that wound the film through it.  I, too, took movies of family events, first with Super-8 film and then with a video camera (VHS).  I had most of the family movies, including some of those from my mother, “copied” to VHS video tape, so that we would be able to view them on the  TV screen, thinking that way to preserve them for future generations.  But now, it’s virtually impossible to purchase the technology needed to view VHS videos.  Luckily, I have an old TV with a video slot that still works, so I could watch them if I wished, as long as the video mechanism doesn’t jam or quit working (which has happened in the past with other machines). 
I recently bought a VHS-DVD player/copier that, in theory, should be able to copy the VHS videos to DVDs.  When I went looking for one at Best Buy, the sales person said they were on sale because the store wouldn’t be carrying VHS-compatible machines in the future.
So I sometimes feel like a monk in a scriptorium trying to copy, copy, copy, in the hope that at least some of what has been seen, done and thought by those I know and care about might, with luck, survive into the future, along with their blind and thoughtless DNA.