Banking on the memory bank

The allegory of memory from a 13th-century manuscript

Culture depends on memory and communication. Without the ability to transmit stored information, human cultures would be stuck in the eternal present, and would dissolve after one generation. Without the ability to store information, human beings would still be able to communicate with each other, but every generation would have to start from (the evolutionary) scratch.

The two most important memory tools ever invented are books and the historical method. These are relatively recent inventions. Humans have managed their cultures for thousands of years without either. Oral speech and collective memory ensured that yesterday’s achievements would not be lost tomorrow.

The memory revolution. We didn’t just wake up, we couldn’t forget anymore. And the obsession with the past – the cultural investment fund – became an obsession with memory. Wherever this revolution occurred, the cultures involved underwent exponential growth and accelerated development. A written culture developed to keep up with the human productions which cultural agents were no longer willing to forget or leave to chance.

Surrounded as we are by SSD drives, USB sticks and sticky Clouds, we tend to forget the impact material memory has had on human culture over the last three thousand years. We deplore of outsourcing of human memory, but we should remember that it is precisely because of outsourcing it that our species has made it this far, out of the cage of the immemorial present instant and into a a world of recollectable possibilities.

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