Friday, January 09, 2009

Digital Technology, Memory, and Social Networks

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According to the Torah, God made Adam out of dirt or clay, so according to it humans are, on the most literal level, of the earth. Adam’s descendents have now forged their own neo-Adams out of silicon, the most common element in the earth, and copper. The genesis of artificial intelligence has a longer history than you might suspect. In 1642, Blaise Pascal invented the first calculator (mechanical of course), the abacus notwithstanding. It was made of wheels and gears, quite in line with mechanistic views of the universe circulating at the time, and heavily influenced by clockmakers. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, several different large analog and digital computers were developed, especially to decipher codes used in the war. After room-sized computers, came the personal computer in the seventies, which quickly revolutionized everything from business to hand-eye coordination as people started playing video games. The PC took a couple more baby steps that posterity will remember more as a moon walk as it made itself over in the form of the laptop and the palm pilot. In 1973, Canadian Martin Cooper invented the cell phone, which operates through radio waves. As many non-digital technologies digitized (cameras, phones, the walkman), humans stepped into the realm of cyborgdom. The primary or auxiliary function of many of these digital portable devices (DPDs) is memory. With all these gadgets decked out with memories of their own, that moonlight as accoutrements, has the human memory suffered? Or perhaps we shouldn’t be so pessimistic in the formulation of our questions and ask how our memories have changed since the popularization of these devices in globalized culture.

Scholars believe that in the middle ages, because of the generalized lack of literacy (a privilege or a burden, depending on how you look at it, borne by monks in seclusion), cultural memory, and history for that matter, was preserved in verse. Troubadours were the wandering historians, putting oral stories generated by different communities into rhyme and meter. Fast forward to 1875 when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in Brantford, Ontario, and made the first call from New York City to Chicago. As this new technology spread like a bushfire during a drought, people started memorizing or simply remembering phone numbers en masse to maintain their social and business networks. The rapid displacement of analog technologies in favour of DPDs has introduced external memory to our personal space. For many of us, this is a relief, as we don’t feel as compelled to perform the sometimes tedious task of memorization. Of course the minute we lose or misplace our cellphone, which also serves as a digital phone book, provided we haven’t transferred this contact list to four different DPDs (a task that is itself tedious and sometimes cluttered with frustration), we are in a serious muddle. A chain reaction of limitations on our actions is imposed on us from without; we feel a loss of agency, and only then do we realize the extent to which we are chained to our DPDs. During such a loss, we can experience a feeling of isolation, a sudden disconnection from our social networks.

While these devices have opened up new avenues for social networking, such as mass emails and online networking tools like facebook, which often reconnects people who’ve lost touch with one another – sometimes contrary to their better intentions – these artifacts of modernity don’t come without their knicker-knotting aspects. Whole new realms of techno-ethics and etiquette are arising, unbeknownst to some. Is there anything more infuriating than hearing a cellphone go off in a movie theatre, for instance? Mind you, it’s easy to forget to turn them off (unless there’s signs posted, in which case, there is no excuse at all), but there are people out there who seem oblivious to the world around them and actually carry on loud, long conversations during a movie, much to the frustration of many movie-goers. Then you have a debate raging over the place of cellphones in schools. As a teacher, I have experienced the frustration of students furtively playing with their cellphones during class. Yet parents assert their right to access their children at all times. This has produced the unexpected effect that children are losing their tenuous sense of independence. Cellphones have also made the possibility of cheating on tests and exams via text message that much more real. The classroom, a site to hone the memory, is not immune to the memory-proof digital commons land of cut and paste. The ease with which information can be looked up on the internet using search engines has made memory retention a somewhat quaint, even an archaic, talent.

There is a catch-22 lurking in the erosion of human memory at the hands of technology. It consists of remembering the ethics and etiquette of emergent technology, which is changing so quickly that it is hard to keep on top of appropriate usages and contexts. The instances of forgetting or simply being unaware of these ethics can serve as agents of social splintering rather than cohesion, generating conflict. The proliferation of mp3 players and musical phones has made the option of aural seclusion available in very public places, which can also result in an exaggerated sense of personal space and a sense of individualism that complicates sociality. While these technologies are touted as the answer to all our networking problems, they have the potential to alienate as much as cohere. Since their popularization, the boundaries between business networks and social networks have been dissolving, and work has found its way into the most private nooks and crannies of our life. We have entered a world of paradox, where our memories have been lulled into inactivity, and where we can cultivate spaces of isolation and yet be held accountable to our places of business as we change our babies’ diapers.

The phone number is practically the blueprint of short-term memory retention; perhaps it is no accident that its basic form is seven digits. Humans have evolved to remember seven items of information (such as a digit) for a span of about 15 seconds. To transfer these bytes of information into the long term memory, we have to work by imprinting them through repetition, translate them into images, acronyms, or use some other trick to remember them over long periods of time. To keep items in the long-term memory, we generally have to periodically retrieve this information to “refresh” it and keep it active. Now that many of us have DPDs, the necessity to memorize phone numbers has diminished. Phone calls are merely a matter of speeddialing or summoning the contact list, finding the right name and number, and pressing dial. It seems to follow that the diminishment of such an important skill in everyday life, the memorization of phone numbers, that keeps our memories active and strong, has the potential to drastically change our consciousness by making forgetting a more determining factor in our lives than remembering. Not only that, but to what degree are the benefits of new technology for social networks counterbalanced by socially divisive knowledge sets that develop between digital haves and have nots?

1 comment:

Trevor_Cunnington said...

Oh geez. Rereading this I realize this argument is a little platonic. UGH!

But it does have some roots in empirical psychological research, so maybe it's not that platonic.