Thursday, July 22, 2010

Memories, Data, and Dreaming

Yesterday, I unearthed some memories. That happens a fair amount in my wet-ware memory, as words or sights or scents serve as trigger events for a cascade of recollections across my neural net. Sometimes that's cause for a delightful reverie. Sometimes that makes me wish for the services of the Haitian.

But this remembering was different.

In puttering around straightening things up in the basement, I found an old Palm organizer. By "discovered" I don't mean it had been lost, or that it was anything other than in plain sight. It had just been set aside, as its function had been supplanted by a sequence of increasingly schmantzy smartphones. Its rechargeable batteries were depleted. It was abandoned.

But when I picked it up with the intent to perhaps recycle it, I reflexively hit the power button. And it turned on.

I noodled through the old familiar menus for a moment, and in seeing the icons, recalled that there were videos on the thing. Not in the puny onboard memory, but in a 512MB SD card that was neatly slotted into the top. As I recalled that, the charge punked into nothing, and the organizer shut down.

I popped the card out, and went downstairs to our iMac. I chunked it into the card reader that's integrated into our printer, and went a-hunting through the file menus. QuickTime managed to handle the arcane file format, and what I found were memories.

They were pixelated and crude, the output of a sub-megapixel camera, but real. Two little boys, playing in a snow fort. A fifth birthday party for the now-almost-ten youngest son. A shot of big brother walking little brother to the bus stop on his first day of kindergarten. "If you're feeling shy, or scared, don't worry," said big brother. "I'll be there."

As I meditated on these electronic recollections this morning, I wondered about the impact that this new way of remembering has on us as human creatures. Across the span of human existence, our ability to recall things across time has gone through significant change. First, there were stories, told and remembered and retold. Then, language took on symbolic form, and those stories were written...and history began.

Now, our remembering is more than just writing. It is aural and visual. We hold onto a moment, to its sounds and the play of light across a face. Voices and song and laughter still echo from a hundred years ago. Or from the faces of little children who are no longer little children.

This is still a profoundly new thing. We forget how briefly it's been around, how the last 100 years is just a tiny flicker of who we are as a species.

I wonder if that remembering will make us wiser, as the accumulated visions and images give us a stronger sense of who we were, who we were created to be, and what purpose underlies our existence.

I wonder if the accumulation of that remembering will drive us mad, as a great weight of images and thoughts pile up in our collective subconscious, building and building into a vast inchoate mass until they overwhelm us and we can no longer discern the real. Cultures, after all, do not sleep. They do not dream. So they do not sort, and do not learn.

Some combination of the both, I shouldn't wonder.