Each age has its own cognitive and epistemological models. The ways people remember, think and think about thinking. The myth of progress has it that societies improve over time, but in cultural terms models merely succeed each other. Ages of faith led to ages of reason (grossissimo modo) because the ways of establishing and assessing true and reliable knowledge changed. Which means that the way we think about knowing and knowledge changed.
Similarly, the ways we think about the memory also changed over time. In the West, the major change was from an architectural model of memory to one inspired by machines and electronic circuits. In the ancient and medieval period, the memory was seen as a treasure room where information and knowledge was carefully stored but even more carefully arranged in view of accessing it. Like a room where every item is placed with the relation to the point of view and approach. Medieval scholars repeatedly made a point that information which is not easily accessible is useless, however well it is stored. According to this architectural understanding of memory – whose use in semi-literate societies was paramount –, the most important thing was how information was remembered and retrieved. Some ancient and medieval thinkers explained that in order for knowledge to be remembered properly – and properly meant effectively accessible –, it had to be stored in much the same way as an edifice. Structure was everything.
But this model didn’t hold once a new set of assumptions about the world and the human being were introduced in the early modern period. Over time, the architectural model of the memory was superseded by an understanding of memory as a machine: a set of moving parts more concerned with transmission of information than storage. The modern mechanical model has more recently been replaced by one which emphasises connectivity: memory banks, nodes and links.
The journey from the cathedral to the memory stick is complete.