Archive for February, 2011

The Persistence of Memory February 23, 2011

Tim Challies today shared a thoughtful post on the nature of human communication across three epochs of history (for his purposes, he referred to them as “cultures”, as the first two epochs survive in pockets around the world today): Oral, Written, and Digital. He made the point that at creation, there was no written word. The Words of God were passed along to other people verbally until Moses wrote many of them down in the Pentateuch. The memories of individuals were the key repositories of all useful information. After writing systems developed and  became widely accepted, the page (stele, tablet, scoll, etc.) became the storehouse of knowledge, leading some philosophers, notably Socrates, to be suspicious of writing because of its threat to the supremacy of memory. The final era, in which we live, he called the digital world, where information is primarily  trusted to computer systems. He asked readers to consider how life and communication  today differs from that of our forbears in the previous eras. What follows is a slightly  fleshed-out version of  my comment in response to his post

Socrates may have  warned that writing would be the death of memory, but I don’t think it was entirely. It was more a blow to forgetting. As the collected stories, laws, and traditions of a society were transcribed and gathered into libraries, they were preserved for posterity, even if at the expense of the readiness of access that internalized memories provided. After the proliferation of writing, nothing of import could completely slip from the realm of existence except through disasters (fire, flood, etc.). The role of memory was still important in the age of writing because of the difficulty of moving large quantities of written material. That is, a debater or speaker couldn’t drag an entire library to the lectern with him. He depended upon his memory from careful reading and rereading of relevant writings. Writing expanded the pool of available knowledge, but did not diminish the role in society of the man who could marshal that information at will.

In the digital era, however,  even that stronghold of memory is being supplanted by the instantaneous recall of information from any number of the plethora of web-ready devices available today. Why bother to have committed a passage of a book to memory when you can pull it up on your iPhone in the middle of a conversation? Why study geography when you can affix a GPS device to your windshield to guide your every turn?

The digital revolution does not have to  be interpreted as  an inherently problematic development of culture–it allows a broader knowledge base to come into play in every discussion than was ever possible previously. However,  I see  three main frustrations/dangers associated with our computer-assisted communication of  today.

1) Sorting: The volume of information available far outweighs our ability to properly and carefully utilize it. 2) Laziness: Essentially what I described in the paragraph above. When we don’t have to rely on memory and other personal skills, we lose those skills. 3) Fragility: Whereas in the previous two epochs there was some level of permanence to information (the odds of every tribal elder with a good memory dying at the same time or of every library in the world burning down on the same day were quite slim), the necessary interconnectedness of the digital world makes it susceptible to systemic failure. That, in light of the previous two problems stated would render a digital culture largely helpless to recover (or even recognize) what it had lost.

The bottom line is that we were created to be communicators. Humans speak, and that fact in and of itself sets us apart from the rest of the natural world. God spoke us into existence and has spoken to us from the beginning. Whatever form our words have taken through the millenia, the centrality of the message shines through. Poor speech, poor writing, and poor digital content come and go, but truth endures. It is that core which we dare not forget.

Posted by Justin Lonas

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