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.


  1. "[Cultures] do not dream. So they do not sort, and do not learn."

    These assertions jumped out at me when I read them. Not only do they ring very false to me, but they seem very pertinent to our on-going conversations about faith.

    My gut reaction to the idea that cultures don't dream is to say "Well, not literally, but of course cultures dream. That's what art is." But since that objection requires a bit of poetic license, I'll provisionally grant you that one.

    But surely cultures sort and learn. They remember the things that that are memorable and forget the things that are forgettable, and in that sense they learn things -- how to use fire, or music, or slavery, or democracy. In some sense, that is what culture IS -- the aggregate of sorting memories and learning from them.

    It also strikes me that your version of faith is based on a kind of cultural sorting and learning. You are a fundamentally decent person who is able to live according to a the teachings of a book filled with absurdities and atrocities because you are able to sort them out. Your particular religious culture has learned to reject old ideas and embrace new ones.

  2. @ Browning: There is, I think, a distinction between accretion and progress. Hence the two different categories I lay out.

    As for art being the form of our collective dreaming, I rather like that. Difficult to prove empirically, of course, but it's a real purty concept. Makes your enduring those lines at the Virginia Department of Poetry almost worthwhile.

    If our art...expressed visual, tactile, and narrative media...reflects the way in which we collectively accumulate and sort and value knowledge, what and how do we "dream?"

    Running with that for a moment, I see certain subcultures that dream in transformative, positive ways, using art and storytelling to bring about positive change. But I also see a terrifying absence of reflection and discernment, one that means those "advances" only lead us to unpleasant places. What sort of culture dreams the Saw movie franchise and Kei$ha? What sort of learning and growth do those things reflect?

  3. To say that art is the way that cultures dream is a metaphor, and so of course you can't prove it empirically, any more than you could prove that the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon stormy seas. But we can judge how apt a metaphor it is, and such judgment itself is not a kind of science so much as a kind of art.

    We can't even prove empirically that actual dreams are functional. They may not be. Sleep is clearly adaptive, but dreams may just be an entertaining by-product of the process. The sense we make, or think we make, of our dreams may be illusory, or at least only subjectively useful. In my experience, one should not take one's dreams too seriously. Use what you can and forget the rest. (One thing that I has always fascinated and frustrated me is how hard it can be to remember dreams. The body seems programmed to forget them, which suggests that evolution does not generally favor dwelling on them overmuch.)

    I've never seen a Saw movie (and I had to Google Kei$ha just to get the reference) so far be it from me to defend that stuff. I have little inclination to watch a Saw movie, and I feel the same way about The Passion of the Christ, and for exactly the same reasons. I don't enjoy extreme sado-masochistic fantasies.

    But I feel inclined to defend our culture, and the notion that, in spite of horror movies, it is a vast improvement over what came before it. Generally, things have gotten better than they were before, and could, in principle, get better yet.

    But nightmares and id-driven fantasies are a natural part of the human dream world -- and the art world -- since forever. If it says something ugly about our culture that we have a Saw movie franchise, does it say anything different from a culture that had Ovid's Metamorphosis? Or Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus? Or the Book of Revelations? I mean how sick is a society that not only tolerates the Book of Revelations, but reveres it? Swears in their public officials on a copy of it?

  4. @ Browning: Of course it is. The most significant truths are the ones we understand through metaphor.

    Never seen a Saw movie either, and that you had to Google Kei$ha is a good thing. What such art says about us as a culture is, well, precisely the same thing that Titus Andronicus says.

    Which to me, at least, indicates that while we're swept forward on the accretions of centuries of knowledge, we're really much the same creatures we've always been.

  5. Harold Bloom said that the the best version of Titus Andronicus would be directed by Mel Brooks.

    In other words, he thought it was something akin to, say, the Monty Python Black Knight scene.