cw_02_Asset 2
Table Of Contents
bookmark_2

Chapt. 02: Memory: to remember and forget

Apply Settings
Reset Settings

Lorem Ipsum is simply dummy text of the printing and typesetting industry. Lorem Ipsum has been the industry's standard dummy text ever since the 1500s, when an unknown printer took a galley of type and scrambled it to make a type specimen book. It has survived not only five centuries, but also the leap into electronic typesetting, remaining essentially unchanged. It was popularised in the 1960s with the release of Letraset sheets containing Lorem Ipsum passages, and more recently with desktop publishing software like Aldus PageMaker including versions of Lorem Ipsum.

Lorem Ipsum is simply dummy text of the printing and typesetting industry. Lorem Ipsum has been the industry's standard dummy text ever since the 1500s, when an unknown printer took a galley of type and scrambled it to make a type specimen book. It has survived not only five centuries, but also the leap into electronic typesetting, remaining essentially unchanged. It was popularised in the 1960s with the release of Letraset sheets containing Lorem Ipsum passages, and more recently with desktop publishing software like Aldus PageMaker including versions of Lorem Ipsum.

Lorem Ipsum is simply dummy text of the printing and typesetting industry. Lorem Ipsum has been the industry's standard dummy text ever since the 1500s, when an unknown printer took a galley of type and scrambled it to make a type specimen book. It has survived not only five centuries, but also the leap into electronic typesetting, remaining essentially unchanged. It was popularised in the 1960s with the release of Letraset sheets containing Lorem Ipsum passages, and more recently with desktop publishing software like Aldus PageMaker including versions of Lorem Ipsum.

A
A
A
A
A
A
A
A
A
On
Off
On
Off
On
Off
Go To Bookmark
Stay Here
1
2 3
4
5
6 7

Chapt. 02

Memory: to remember and forget

Introduction

In the first lecture, I talked about computation in its most rudimentary essence. I want to start today’s lecture by suggesting we think of the computer as an abacus, writing pad and clock. The abacus is a calculating tool for counting and simple mathematics. Although modern computers can calculate far larger sets of numbers in a very short period of time, its operation on a basic level is similar to the abacus: it adds, subtracts and compares bits of information. What about a writing pad? When you take notes on a writing pad, you press a pen onto the surface of the pad. The physical imprint on the pad leaves a trace that helps you remember information far beyond that moment. Similarly, a computer’s ability to store and recall information differentiates it from simple calculators. Finally, the clock-like function of computers greatly increases its power beyond its writing pad or abacus aspects. The clock enables instructions to be executed sequentially. It allows us to recall memory and designate tasks to the future.

In this lecture, I’d like to focus on the writing pad (memory) aspect of computation, or more simply put, ‘computer memory.’ Although there is a distinction between digital memory and data, I will use ‘computer memory’ as an umbrella term to include both digital memory and data. I want to examine the concept of remembering and forgetting as technical qualities of computer memory. Do computers and humans do this the same way? And is the ability to remember as important as the ability to forget? My decision to focus on computer memory is because I want to put it in conversation with human memory.

We’ll begin by talking about the Memex,1 a hypothetical device that was designed to be an “enlarged intimate supplement” to human memory and that had a considerable influence on how engineers envisioned the function and future of computers. Despite certain similarities and metaphors that can and have been drawn between computer and human memory, it’s important not to overreach. To this end, I will introduce the concept of plasticity in the brain as a critical difference between human and computer memory. Lastly, I’ll raise the overarching question of what is poetical and political about computer memory.

To remember

To remember is to think and to think is to be human. What if we could remember everything? How would the condition of our lives change if we could retain memory of every single thing that happened in our lives? These are important questions to ask when we realize that the computer, as a technical device that records what we say and do by physically encoding our activity as data, significantly extends and expands ‘human memory.’ So let’s keep these questions in mind as we look at the historical development of computer memory. As you’ll see, it’s a history marked by misunderstanding, wishful thinking, as well as intuition—all of which, along the way, gave some insight into how human memory works.

Around 1945, after WWII ended, scientists were concerned about the human capacity to deal with the impact of technological advancements spurred on by the war. Vannevar Bush, an American engineer who rose to prominence during World War II performing research for the military and who helped develop analog and mechanical computers,2 published an essay in The Atlantic entitled “As We May Think” detailing these concerns.3 He claimed that the new technology would lead to a proliferation of information beyond what humans could reasonably manage.

More specifically, Bush felt it’d be impossible for us to find the information we need because there’d be too much of it for us to effectively index or recall. To address this, Bush came up with an abstract machine called the Memex–a conceptual device with inputs, outputs, and an unlimited amount of storage for information. This device, designed to complement Bush’s understanding of the human mind, could help us deal with the growing volume of information.

Selection by association, rather than indexing, may yet be mechanized. One cannot hope thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail, but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage.3

Illustration of Bush’s Memex: Via @ Life Magazine

Observing that the human mind operates on a principle of association rather than indexing, Bush designed the Memex to recreate a mechanized version of an “associative trail.” The idea is to add notes (what we might call “metadata” today) to information to create a unique web of data connected by these “trails” of association.4 This ability to link certain information to other information is the core concept behind the Memex. In Bush’s view, the Memex machine could eliminate the need to remember everything all the time or to have to rummage through a huge pile of things on a desk (i.e. one’s memory) to access the wanted data.

This character of trails is similar to Hypertext, which demonstrates the essential characteristic of the World Wide Web. Hypertext is a powerful way to connect discrete items of information to each other.5 This feature of contextualizing information in a dynamic way is what differentiates reading online from reading physical books. We can see an early application of a similar concept in a fascinating undertaking called Project Xanadu.6

As its creator Theodor Holm Nelson explained, Side-by-side connected comparison of parallel documents on the computer screen has always been Xanadu's fundamental visualization.6 This was not an attempt to create the World Wide Web; rather, Nelson had the more ambitious goal of changing the way we write and read by offering a distinctly anti-hierarchical approach to information, where the “trails” are constantly adapting.7

Douglas Engelbart: The Mother of All Demos: Via @ Tech Video

This is quite different from Douglas Engelbarts live demonstration of “trails” in 1968 which featured a distinctly hierarchical system. In As We May Think, Bush offered a vision of what Human–Computer interaction could look like, deeply influencing generations of engineers and designers to come with technologists later adopting Bush’s vision, often times literally, to design and realize a new era of computers. Engelbart’s demonstration is the most well known of these realizations.

Prototype Engelbart Mouse: Via @ Wikimedia Commons

This demo not only debuted the first prototype of a computer mouse, but it showed how through the principles of linking data, the user could have a vastly more powerful interaction with a computer. In this video [starting at 1:47], Engelbart creates a detailed shopping list and shows how he can modify the structure of the list based on different criteria. He first organizes the items according to type or category (i.e. produce vs. soup), then modifies items within that category (i.e. bananas and oranges under produce). Then using what he calls “View Control,” he collapses the items so that only the main categories show, then expands the list to show every item. The demo shows how information can be categorized and put into hierarchies according to one’s uses.

1 'Vannevar Bush,“As We May Think,” Atlantic (July 1945). Accessed July 18, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-may-think/303881/'

2"Even after the WWII, Bush remained an influential figure in the political and academic fields."

3"Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think.”"

4 From “As We May Think”: “One can consider rapid selection of this form, and distant projection for other purposes. To be able to key one sheet of a million before an operator in a second or two, with the possibility of then adding notes thereto, is suggestive in many ways. It might even be of use in libraries, but that is another story. At any rate, there are now some interesting combinations possible. One might, for example, speak to a microphone, in the manner described in connection with the speech controlled typewriter, and thus make his selections. It would certainly beat the usual file clerk.

5 The World Wide Web is arguably the most prominent implementation of computers because it is essentially computers talking to one another.

6Theodor Holm Nelson, “Xanalogical Structure, Needed Now More than Ever: Parallel Documents, Deep Links to Content, Deep Versioning and Deep Re-Use,” Project Xanadu and Keio University, ACM Computing Surveys 31(4) (December 1999). Nelson also notes that “the famous ‘trails’ of Vannevar Bush's memex system were to be built from transclusions, not links.

7Nelson considered the World Wide Web (WWW) a series of hierarchical structures and thought of Xanadu as a complete decentralization; as a result, he takes issue with the claim that Xanadu was the origin of the WWW. However, if we take a step back, we understand the two modes are not entirely exclusive: We find hierarchy and decentralization coexisting in the busy (complex) structures of the WWW.

Chapt. 02:

Memory: to remember and forget

Introduction

In the first lecture, I talked about computation in its most rudimentary essence. I want to start today’s lecture by suggesting we think of the computer as an abacus, writing pad and clock. The abacus is a calculating tool for counting and simple mathematics. Although modern computers can calculate far larger sets of numbers in a very short period of time, its operation on a basic level is similar to the abacus: it adds, subtracts and compares bits of information. What about a writing pad? When you take notes on a writing pad, you press a pen onto the surface of the pad. The physical imprint on the pad leaves a trace that helps you remember information far beyond that moment. Similarly, a computer’s ability to store and recall information differentiates it from simple calculators. Finally, the clock-like function of computers greatly increases its power beyond its writing pad or abacus aspects. The clock enables instructions to be executed sequentially. It allows us to recall memory and designate tasks to the future.

In this lecture, I’d like to focus on the writing pad (memory) aspect of computation, or more simply put, ‘computer memory.’ Although there is a distinction between digital memory and data, I will use ‘computer memory’ as an umbrella term to include both digital memory and data. I want to examine the concept of remembering and forgetting as technical qualities of computer memory. Do computers and humans do this the same way? And is the ability to remember as important as the ability to forget? My decision to focus on computer memory is because I want to put it in conversation with human memory.

We’ll begin by talking about the Memex,1 a hypothetical device that was designed to be an “enlarged intimate supplement” to human memory and that had a considerable influence on how engineers envisioned the function and future of computers. Despite certain similarities and metaphors that can and have been drawn between computer and human memory, it’s important not to overreach. To this end, I will introduce the concept of plasticity in the brain as a critical difference between human and computer memory. Lastly, I’ll raise the overarching question of what is poetical and political about computer memory.

To remember

To remember is to think and to think is to be human. What if we could remember everything? How would the condition of our lives change if we could retain memory of every single thing that happened in our lives? These are important questions to ask when we realize that the computer, as a technical device that records what we say and do by physically encoding our activity as data, significantly extends and expands ‘human memory.’ So let’s keep these questions in mind as we look at the historical development of computer memory. As you’ll see, it’s a history marked by misunderstanding, wishful thinking, as well as intuition—all of which, along the way, gave some insight into how human memory works.

Around 1945, after WWII ended, scientists were concerned about the human capacity to deal with the impact of technological advancements spurred on by the war. Vannevar Bush, an American engineer who rose to prominence during World War II performing research for the military and who helped develop analog and mechanical computers,2 published an essay in The Atlantic entitled “As We May Think” detailing these concerns.3 He claimed that the new technology would lead to a proliferation of information beyond what humans could reasonably manage.

More specifically, Bush felt it’d be impossible for us to find the information we need because there’d be too much of it for us to effectively index or recall. To address this, Bush came up with an abstract machine called the Memex–a conceptual device with inputs, outputs, and an unlimited amount of storage for information. This device, designed to complement Bush’s understanding of the human mind, could help us deal with the growing volume of information.

Selection by association, rather than indexing, may yet be mechanized. One cannot hope thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail, but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage.3

Observing that the human mind operates on a principle of association rather than indexing, Bush designed the Memex to recreate a mechanized version of an “associative trail.” The idea is to add notes (what we might call “metadata” today) to information to create a unique web of data connected by these “trails” of association.4 This ability to link certain information to other information is the core concept behind the Memex. In Bush’s view, the Memex machine could eliminate the need to remember everything all the time or to have to rummage through a huge pile of things on a desk (i.e. one’s memory) to access the wanted data.

This character of trails is similar to Hypertext, which demonstrates the essential characteristic of the World Wide Web. Hypertext is a powerful way to connect discrete items of information to each other.5 This feature of contextualizing information in a dynamic way is what differentiates reading online from reading physical books. We can see an early application of a similar concept in a fascinating undertaking called Project Xanadu.6

As its creator Theodor Holm Nelson explained, Side-by-side connected comparison of parallel documents on the computer screen has always been Xanadu's fundamental visualization.6 This was not an attempt to create the World Wide Web; rather, Nelson had the more ambitious goal of changing the way we write and read by offering a distinctly anti-hierarchical approach to information, where the “trails” are constantly adapting.7

This is quite different from Douglas Engelbarts live demonstration of “trails” in 1968 which featured a distinctly hierarchical system. In As We May Think, Bush offered a vision of what Human–Computer interaction could look like, deeply influencing generations of engineers and designers to come with technologists later adopting Bush’s vision, often times literally, to design and realize a new era of computers. Engelbart’s demonstration is the most well known of these realizations.

This demo not only debuted the first prototype of a computer mouse, but it showed how through the principles of linking data, the user could have a vastly more powerful interaction with a computer. In this video [starting at 1:47], Engelbart creates a detailed shopping list and shows how he can modify the structure of the list based on different criteria. He first organizes the items according to type or category (i.e. produce vs. soup), then modifies items within that category (i.e. bananas and oranges under produce). Then using what he calls “View Control,” he collapses the items so that only the main categories show, then expands the list to show every item. The demo shows how information can be categorized and put into hierarchies according to one’s uses.

1 'Vannevar Bush,“As We May Think,” Atlantic (July 1945). Accessed July 18, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-may-think/303881/'

2"Even after the WWII, Bush remained an influential figure in the political and academic fields."

3"Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think.”"

4 From “As We May Think”: “One can consider rapid selection of this form, and distant projection for other purposes. To be able to key one sheet of a million before an operator in a second or two, with the possibility of then adding notes thereto, is suggestive in many ways. It might even be of use in libraries, but that is another story. At any rate, there are now some interesting combinations possible. One might, for example, speak to a microphone, in the manner described in connection with the speech controlled typewriter, and thus make his selections. It would certainly beat the usual file clerk.

5 The World Wide Web is arguably the most prominent implementation of computers because it is essentially computers talking to one another.

6Theodor Holm Nelson, “Xanalogical Structure, Needed Now More than Ever: Parallel Documents, Deep Links to Content, Deep Versioning and Deep Re-Use,” Project Xanadu and Keio University, ACM Computing Surveys 31(4) (December 1999). Nelson also notes that “the famous ‘trails’ of Vannevar Bush's memex system were to be built from transclusions, not links.

7Nelson considered the World Wide Web (WWW) a series of hierarchical structures and thought of Xanadu as a complete decentralization; as a result, he takes issue with the claim that Xanadu was the origin of the WWW. However, if we take a step back, we understand the two modes are not entirely exclusive: We find hierarchy and decentralization coexisting in the busy (complex) structures of the WWW.

8
9
10
11
12
13
14

Engelbart then demonstrates a dynamic map of his route from work to home with various stops he needs to make, including the grocery store and library. When he points at the library with his mouse, it links to information about books that are overdue. And when he points at the drugstore, it links to items to pick up there. Prior to Engelbart, there wasn’t this sense in the mainstream imagination of the screen as a space with an X-Y axis that one could navigate as if it were a real map.

“Hypermedia route from work to home, labels hotlinked”: Via @ Doug Engelbart

What may seem so familiar now were radical functionalities at that time8. Engelbart’s interpretation of “trails” with hot linked connections allowed for hierarchical organization as well as dynamic engagement with the screen (via map-like structures). This demo had a decisive influence on how future generations approached computer memory, namely, using hierarchy as the basic organizing principle. To this day, we continue to think of computer memory as data residing in files and folders, folders inside of folders, which is evident in the visual metaphor of manila folders in contemporary operating systems.

Folders: Via @ Nicks Mind Portal

Later on, movies such as Minority Report (2002) continue to demonstrate a version of “trails” as envisioned by Bush. In a famous scene, the protagonist Tom Cruise navigates a 3D interface of densely linked information in search of evidence for preemptive policing. In the scene, the “trails” are visualized literally as a timeline and clusters of memory, rendered as hazy videos in first-person perspective. The scene extends Bush’s vision of a computer as a container for knowledge that can be accessed as needed; also, it further propagates in the popular imagination, the idea that computers can ‘hold’ information about our lives, reliably and permanently.9

To this day, many contemporary technologies have a direct connection to the Memex machine as its basic principle of “trails” are integrated into smartphones, self tracking devices and social media. We’ve learned to harness the computational power of these applications and devices to help us remember and communicate. However, the Memex presented only one vision of computers and is not without its shortcomings.10

Bush invented the Memex to aid humans who are incapable of indexing large quantities of information. However, in designing the means for humans to access information efficiently, Bush promoted a simplified vision of how human memory operates. He assumed that the act of accessing the missing information was commensurate with understanding it. Wendy Chun critiques this in her essay, “The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory”

In Bush’s writing, and in prognoses for the information revolution more generally, there is no difference between access to and understanding the record, between what would be called, perhaps symptomatically, machine reading and human reading and comprehension, between information and argument. The difficulty supposedly lies in selecting the data, not in reading it, for it is assumed that reading is a trivial act, a simple comprehension of the record’s content. Once the proper record is selected, there is no misreading, no misunderstanding, only transparent information.11

Chun argues that accessing some information does not necessarily mean understanding it. Reading does not necessarily lead to comprehension. And most importantly, information is useless without an argument to provide context to make it meaningful.

Access ≠ Understanding

Reading ≠ Comprehension

Information ≠ Argument

Unlike Bush, Chun does not take understanding for granted because as humans, understanding is always relational, always contextual. We remember certain information by finding arguments around it, creating contexts for comprehension, and through repetition, we come to understand the information. Bush, on the other hand, makes a deterministic assumption about how the human brain operates:

In the outside world, all forms of intelligence whether of sound or sight, have been reduced to the form of varying currents in an electric circuit in order that they may be transmitted. Inside the human frame exactly the same sort of process occurs.12

In Bush’s narrative, he reduces all manifestations of intelligence (memory of some kind) to currents in an electrical circuit (storage of some kind), such that the ‘significance’ of these currents should be accessible and apparent. While this may be true to a degree for computers, this does not apply to the human brain.13

This is in large part because human brains have the characteristic of ‘plasticity,’ and computers, while they can imitate plasticity, operate according to a more rigid series of instructions. Human memory is always associative and contextual, while computer memory is often indexical and categorical. I will explore these differences in the next two sections—first, with the concept of forgetting, and second, through the concept of plasticity.

To forget

'Funes the Memorious' (1942): Via @ Pinterest

Jorge Luis Borges wrote “Funes the Memorious,” a story about meeting a man who had a terrible accident, and as a side effect, could remember everything.14 For a time this man was considered a genius because of his incredible long term memory. However, as time passed, he could not live his life because his mind was totally occupied by memories. His memory was driving him insane. For him to recall one day, it took another whole day because he would remember every detail of every experience. In a sense, he was cursed with an inability to forget. When Borges returns to him years later, he finds a man that has been defeated by the destructive nature of total memory. Because of it, he could not live or sleep, and it ended up destroying him.

We find a less ominous vision of this capacity to remember all things for all time in Bush’s Memex, which is essentially a memory machine. Bush suggested the information (records) in the Memex could attain a permanency not possible before, and that if it were stored on disk formats in an accessible way, we would be saved from the burden of having to remember since computers would do the labor. He further implied that attaining such control over information could give humans control over the environment and even the future.

Partly due to Bush’s outsized influence, some version of the Funes story has become a reality wherein computers have become our ‘external brain’ which remembers and archives everything. Much of the compilation of our data is now automated and not really within our control. However, we’re haunted by traces of an infinite and ever growing past.

Whether in Bush’s time, Borges’s time, or our own, the assumption is that forgetting (or losing memory) is always the problem, but the story of “Funes the Memorious” continues to remind us that forgetting is necessary. Forgetting is as important as remembering. Forgetting enables us to remember. If we cannot forget, we may soon run out of capacity to remember as well as the ability to experience the world through sensory stimulations. Forgetting is a human experience of existing in the world. Although much technology, especially since the Memex, has focused on enhancing human ability to remember, perhaps we need to secure our ability to forget. Perhaps this ability to forget is not our flaw, but our bliss; that which essentially makes us human.

Perhaps we are starting to get a sense of what is at stake in the comparisons made between the computer and brain. It’s important to resist overstating the similarities between the way the brain and computer work because we may mistakenly project lack where there is none, or project a desire for some kind of totality that has no real applications in our life. We will further explore those themes in a future lecture on forgetting in relation to the archive. For now, I turn to an essential and distinguishing characteristic of the human brain.

8I have entities of all sorts that I can say, I want to do operations on, and this basic structure that I can move over and study and get about very quickly. That’s the essence of the tool we have.- Excerpt from transcript of demo: http://dougengelbart.org/pubs/video/fjcc68/Englebart's-1968-Transcription.html.

9Minority Report tells a disturbingly familiar tale of a dystopian future that centers on patriarchal protagonists and their quest for a control so complete that even memory (and the temporality embedded therein) is subject to their actions. This kind of narrative appeals to Hollywood film audiences because of their fixation with technology (what can’t technology do?) and the fantasy that technology can grant ultimate mastery over their own bodies, those around them, and the shape of their lives. These kinds of narratives are common in technology product demos, like Apple product launches, where the general message is how the new device will empower you. Whether in the realm of consumerism or in the more fantastic (sci-fi) iterations of entertainment, these narratives shape how we think about and use technology products.

10The Memex presents the vision of a computer as an encyclopedia of knowledge, as a giant archive machine. However, other visions were possible such as computers as a tool for communication and for automation (cybernetics).

11Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future is a Memory,” Critical Inquiry 35 (Autumn 2008).

12 Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think.”

14 Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Funes the Memorious,’ trans. by Anthony Kerrigan (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1962).

Chapt. 02:

Chapter Two Page 2

Engelbart then demonstrates a dynamic map of his route from work to home with various stops he needs to make, including the grocery store and library. When he points at the library with his mouse, it links to information about books that are overdue. And when he points at the drugstore, it links to items to pick up there. Prior to Engelbart, there wasn’t this sense in the mainstream imagination of the screen as a space with an X-Y axis that one could navigate as if it were a real map.

What may seem so familiar now were radical functionalities at that time8. Engelbart’s interpretation of “trails” with hot linked connections allowed for hierarchical organization as well as dynamic engagement with the screen (via map-like structures). This demo had a decisive influence on how future generations approached computer memory, namely, using hierarchy as the basic organizing principle. To this day, we continue to think of computer memory as data residing in files and folders, folders inside of folders, which is evident in the visual metaphor of manila folders in contemporary operating systems.

Later on, movies such as Minority Report (2002) continue to demonstrate a version of “trails” as envisioned by Bush. In a famous scene, the protagonist Tom Cruise navigates a 3D interface of densely linked information in search of evidence for preemptive policing. In the scene, the “trails” are visualized literally as a timeline and clusters of memory, rendered as hazy videos in first-person perspective. The scene extends Bush’s vision of a computer as a container for knowledge that can be accessed as needed; also, it further propagates in the popular imagination, the idea that computers can ‘hold’ information about our lives, reliably and permanently.9

To this day, many contemporary technologies have a direct connection to the Memex machine as its basic principle of “trails” are integrated into smartphones, self tracking devices and social media. We’ve learned to harness the computational power of these applications and devices to help us remember and communicate. However, the Memex presented only one vision of computers and is not without its shortcomings.10

Bush invented the Memex to aid humans who are incapable of indexing large quantities of information. However, in designing the means for humans to access information efficiently, Bush promoted a simplified vision of how human memory operates. He assumed that the act of accessing the missing information was commensurate with understanding it. Wendy Chun critiques this in her essay, “The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory”

In Bush’s writing, and in prognoses for the information revolution more generally, there is no difference between access to and understanding the record, between what would be called, perhaps symptomatically, machine reading and human reading and comprehension, between information and argument. The difficulty supposedly lies in selecting the data, not in reading it, for it is assumed that reading is a trivial act, a simple comprehension of the record’s content. Once the proper record is selected, there is no misreading, no misunderstanding, only transparent information.11

Chun argues that accessing some information does not necessarily mean understanding it. Reading does not necessarily lead to comprehension. And most importantly, information is useless without an argument to provide context to make it meaningful.

Access ≠ Understanding

Reading ≠ Comprehension

Information ≠ Argument

Unlike Bush, Chun does not take understanding for granted because as humans, understanding is always relational, always contextual. We remember certain information by finding arguments around it, creating contexts for comprehension, and through repetition, we come to understand the information. Bush, on the other hand, makes a deterministic assumption about how the human brain operates:

In the outside world, all forms of intelligence whether of sound or sight, have been reduced to the form of varying currents in an electric circuit in order that they may be transmitted. Inside the human frame exactly the same sort of process occurs.12

In Bush’s narrative, he reduces all manifestations of intelligence (memory of some kind) to currents in an electrical circuit (storage of some kind), such that the ‘significance’ of these currents should be accessible and apparent. While this may be true to a degree for computers, this does not apply to the human brain.13

This is in large part because human brains have the characteristic of ‘plasticity,’ and computers, while they can imitate plasticity, operate according to a more rigid series of instructions. Human memory is always associative and contextual, while computer memory is often indexical and categorical. I will explore these differences in the next two sections—first, with the concept of forgetting, and second, through the concept of plasticity.

To forget

Jorge Luis Borges wrote “Funes the Memorious,” a story about meeting a man who had a terrible accident, and as a side effect, could remember everything.14 For a time this man was considered a genius because of his incredible long term memory. However, as time passed, he could not live his life because his mind was totally occupied by memories. His memory was driving him insane. For him to recall one day, it took another whole day because he would remember every detail of every experience. In a sense, he was cursed with an inability to forget. When Borges returns to him years later, he finds a man that has been defeated by the destructive nature of total memory. Because of it, he could not live or sleep, and it ended up destroying him.

We find a less ominous vision of this capacity to remember all things for all time in Bush’s Memex, which is essentially a memory machine. Bush suggested the information (records) in the Memex could attain a permanency not possible before, and that if it were stored on disk formats in an accessible way, we would be saved from the burden of having to remember since computers would do the labor. He further implied that attaining such control over information could give humans control over the environment and even the future.

Partly due to Bush’s outsized influence, some version of the Funes story has become a reality wherein computers have become our ‘external brain’ which remembers and archives everything. Much of the compilation of our data is now automated and not really within our control. However, we’re haunted by traces of an infinite and ever growing past.

Whether in Bush’s time, Borges’s time, or our own, the assumption is that forgetting (or losing memory) is always the problem, but the story of “Funes the Memorious” continues to remind us that forgetting is necessary. Forgetting is as important as remembering. Forgetting enables us to remember. If we cannot forget, we may soon run out of capacity to remember as well as the ability to experience the world through sensory stimulations. Forgetting is a human experience of existing in the world. Although much technology, especially since the Memex, has focused on enhancing human ability to remember, perhaps we need to secure our ability to forget. Perhaps this ability to forget is not our flaw, but our bliss; that which essentially makes us human.

Perhaps we are starting to get a sense of what is at stake in the comparisons made between the computer and brain. It’s important to resist overstating the similarities between the way the brain and computer work because we may mistakenly project lack where there is none, or project a desire for some kind of totality that has no real applications in our life. We will further explore those themes in a future lecture on forgetting in relation to the archive. For now, I turn to an essential and distinguishing characteristic of the human brain.

8I have entities of all sorts that I can say, I want to do operations on, and this basic structure that I can move over and study and get about very quickly. That’s the essence of the tool we have.- Excerpt from transcript of demo: http://dougengelbart.org/pubs/video/fjcc68/Englebart's-1968-Transcription.html.

9Minority Report tells a disturbingly familiar tale of a dystopian future that centers on patriarchal protagonists and their quest for a control so complete that even memory (and the temporality embedded therein) is subject to their actions. This kind of narrative appeals to Hollywood film audiences because of their fixation with technology (what can’t technology do?) and the fantasy that technology can grant ultimate mastery over their own bodies, those around them, and the shape of their lives. These kinds of narratives are common in technology product demos, like Apple product launches, where the general message is how the new device will empower you. Whether in the realm of consumerism or in the more fantastic (sci-fi) iterations of entertainment, these narratives shape how we think about and use technology products.

10The Memex presents the vision of a computer as an encyclopedia of knowledge, as a giant archive machine. However, other visions were possible such as computers as a tool for communication and for automation (cybernetics).

11Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future is a Memory,” Critical Inquiry 35 (Autumn 2008).

12 Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think.”

14 Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Funes the Memorious,’ trans. by Anthony Kerrigan (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1962).

15
16
17
18
19
20

Plasticity

Image of Neuron: Via @ Carbono

One of the first people to discover the neuron was Ramón y Cajal. In his drawings of a brain neuron, Cajal demonstrated his unique technique of using silver to trace the cell membranes. He used a microscope and traced what he saw onto a piece of paper. His attempt of ‘cartographing’ the connection between the synapses is visible in his drawing. By viewing this picture, one can imagine Cajal in his makeshift lab, tracing the synaptic modulation, trying to understand how brain works.

Inside of our brains, in the smallest spaces between neurons, there are synapses. When an action potential is triggered, neurotransmitter is released from one of the axons of a neuron, into the synaptic gap, where it's taken up by receptors on the post-synaptic neuron. When there’s repeated stimulation of a neuronal circuit, the synaptic chemistry is modified, and the synaptic junctions are pruned to strengthen that path so it can be activated more readily. Repeated experiences strengthen associations between certain parts of the brain, thus creating long term memory.

The connections in the brain are not indexed and organized in a static format. One neuron can be connected to different places and can be activated by different cues. When we use language, we activate different parts of the brain. For example, when we say ‘apple’, the parts of our brain associated with memory, language, taste, sight, smell and experience may be activated. The connections function as filters and other times as amplifiers, through many layers of abstractions. Observing all this, Catherine Malabou, a neuroscientist and a philosopher, makes this broader point:

Our brain is plastic, and we do not know it. We are completely ignorant of this dynamic, this organization, and this structure… Meanwhile, plasticity directly contradicts rigidity. It is its exact antonym. In ordinary speech, it designates suppleness, a faculty for adaptation, the ability to evolve.15

In its dynamic suppleness and adaptability, the brain demonstrates the quality of plasticity. This refers to the incredible changeability of the synapses, the small gaps between the neurons, in response to stimuli. It refers to how neurons and neural connections can receive form and give form to alter their collective structure and function. Plasticity is differentiated from rigidity, which means to become immobile or static.

This being the case, Malabou asks ‘what we should we do with our brain?’ I think this is a great question. The question is not how we should use our brain, but how can we occupy the brain? It is one organ that we really don’t understand but completely rely on every second of our existence. We may be better positioned to see the implications of brain plasticity by first considering the notion of plasticity more broadly.

The concept of plasticity has an aesthetic dimension (sculpture, malleability), just as much as an ethical one (solicitude, treatment, help, repair, rescue) and a political one (responsibility in the double movement of the receiving and the giving for form). 16

Malabou’s wide-ranging application of plasticity as receiving and giving form offers an alternative framework for thinking about the social and political realms we inhabit. This is where we begin to see some connections between plasticity as manifest in our brains and in our shared lives. In particular, it sheds a light on how our complicity, or participation, in the dominant world systems of capitalism requires us to operate within the counter-paradigm of flexibility.

Flexibility is a particularly relevant notion that many people who’ve worked as freelancers can relate to. It’s the ability to be everything and do everything on demand. One is asked to be flexible in the workplace, in relationships and in their relationship with the world. The word (flexibility) is tied to ‘employability.’ We are asked to be so flexible in our everyday life; we are asked to be so many things at the same time. If flexibile life is that of exploitation and innovation, plastic life is that of empowerment and invention. We can also ask if our being ‘flexible’ worsens the complex entanglement of exploitation and alienation.

Being plastic means one can resist the normalizing forces of capitalism and create alternatives, while also perceiving the world with humility and presence. But how can we stay informed and mindful about our existence? To view the entire brain system as one of plasticity leads to ideas of a more progressive relationship between humans, computers and the world. It begins by remembering (giving form) and forgetting (receiving form) in lived reality. This can mean a lot of things. Being more conscious of the temporal nature of computer memory; not obsessing over the impermanence of memory; being more engaged with the present. Accepting the inevitable loss of data with grace. Malabou wants to shake us from our stupor and convey the power of give and take, of plasticity:

We persist in thinking of the brain as a centralized, rigidified, mechanical organization, and of the mechanical itself as a brain reduced to the work of calculation. Perhaps, as I have said, this is because plasticity is precisely the form of our world and because we are so immersed in it, so constituted by it, that we experience it without either thinking it or being conscious of it. We do this to such an extent that we no longer see that it structures our lives and sketches a certain portrait of power. We find here the poetical and aesthetic force that is the fundamental, organizing attribute of plasticity: its power to configure the world. 17

Is it possible to configure the world through computation? I’d answer yes, since computers are essentially a human invention. Recall that Funes, like computers, had the curse of not forgetting and was rigid with memories such that he could not make or change his world. Can we combine our plasticity with the rigidities of computers to configure the world around us, specifically, by imagining poetic use of computer memory? Poetic computation can be a way of organizing digital memory, and thus configuring the world, for the way a set of information is configured is as important as the information itself.

End note

1. All memory is physical, [so] information is material

2.All memory is finite, [so] information is ephemeral

This lecture was a two-fold mash up of a critique of the Memex and an exploration of the concept of plasticity. I’d like to collect these disparate ideas back into aesthetic questions regarding computation.

The computer is a giant memory machine. When we use the computer, we are, in essence, making memories of our perception, experience and thoughts. Computer memory is physical, even at the level of signals inside of digital electronics. But contrary to Bush’s vision, the computer is an unreliable memory machine. As much as the computer remembers, it tends to forget as well, just not in the ways we want. Indeed, Chun writes that memory always disappears, whether digital or physical:

If computer memory is like anything, it is like erasable writing; but, if a penciled word can be erased because graphite is soft, a computer’s memory can be rewritten because its surface constantly fades.18

Computer memory (data) is a thing, an object. And it is subject to the same constraints of all physical objects. All computer memory is just electrical charges held momentarily in a complex weave of circuits. And all computer memory is stored on a physical hard disk or in the cloud, which also involves physical hardware. As Mimi Onuoha points out, “All data, from dutiful Facebook likes to iCloud selfies to every secret NSA database, is stored on a physical device somewhere.'19

Computer memory is often flawed and recalcitrant in that what you want to be permanent gets lost and what's supposed to be temporary sticks around forever. Because backups are not always reliable, and the possibility of losing data is always present, corporations have developed many solutions designed to produce profit (and some might argue to hold data hostage) to try to preserve one’s computer memory. In the final analysis, though, the life and death of data is often beyond our own control20

So instead of fixating on the durability of digital data, let’s focus on the complexities of computer memory, its fragility and its resilience, through an artistic vision. The poetic computation is about challenging what is possible within the constraints of computation. Instead of seeking more efficient ways of preserving computer memory, more interesting and urgent questions await us.

What makes some computer memory more meaningful to us? How does computation affect the way we remember the past, live in the present and project the future? How can we use computation as a tool to understand how we think and remember? What are the emotional resonances with certain types of computer memory? What is the poetry that can be written through computer memory? What are the ethical responsibilities of creating computer memory?

Bibliography

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Funes the Memorious.” Translated by Anthony Kerrigan. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1962.

Bush, Vannevar. “As We May Think.” Atlantic (July 1945). Accessed July 18, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-may-think/303881/.

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. “The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future is a Memory.” Critical Inquiry 35 (Autumn 2008).

Malabou, Catherine. What Should We Do With Our Brain? Translated by Sebastian Rand. New York: Fordham University Press, 2009.

Nelson, Theodor Holm. “Xanalogical Structure, Needed Now More than Ever: Parallel Documents, Deep Links to Content, Deep Versioning and Deep Re-Use.” Project Xanadu and Keio University, ACM Computing Surveys 31(4), (December 1999).

Onuoha, Mimi. “What It Takes To Truly Delete Data.” FiveThirtyEight. Last modified January 30, 2016. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/what-it-takes-to-truly-delete-data/.

Shannon, Claude E. “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” The Bell System Technical Journal, vol. 27 (1948): 379-423, 623-656.

Wiener, Norbert. Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1948.

15 Catherine, Malabou, What Should We Do With Our Brain? trans. Sebastian Rand (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009), 5.

16Malabou, 30

20 To try to assert our control over the permanent trace of our activity online, activists claim the “Right to be forgotten.” It essentially claims that as free individuals, we should have the right to be forgotten through the agency of deciding how our computer memory will be shared online after our death, if at all.

Chapt. 02:

Chapter Two Page 3

Plasticity

One of the first people to discover the neuron was Ramón y Cajal. In his drawings of a brain neuron, Cajal demonstrated his unique technique of using silver to trace the cell membranes. He used a microscope and traced what he saw onto a piece of paper. His attempt of ‘cartographing’ the connection between the synapses is visible in his drawing. By viewing this picture, one can imagine Cajal in his makeshift lab, tracing the synaptic modulation, trying to understand how brain works.

Inside of our brains, in the smallest spaces between neurons, there are synapses. When an action potential activates the neuron, a signal travels through the synapse and releases neurotransmitters. This movement of contraction and expansion in the synaptic gap contributes to transmitting a ‘message’. And when there’s a stimulation, the connections between neurons change with lighting fast speed. Repeated experiences strengthen associations between certain parts of the brain, thus creating long term memory.

The connections in the brain are not indexed and organized in a static format. One neuron can be connected to different places and can be activated by different cues. When we use language, we activate different parts of the brain. For example, when we say ‘apple’, the parts of our brain associated with memory, language, taste, sight, smell and experience may be activated. The connections function as filters and other times as amplifiers, through many layers of abstractions. Observing all this, Catherine Malabou, a neuroscientist and a philosopher, makes this broader point:

Our brain is plastic, and we do not know it. We are completely ignorant of this dynamic, this organization, and this structure… Meanwhile, plasticity directly contradicts rigidity. It is its exact antonym. In ordinary speech, it designates suppleness, a faculty for adaptation, the ability to evolve.15

In its dynamic suppleness and adaptability, the brain demonstrates the quality of plasticity. This refers to the incredible changeability of the synapses, the small gaps between the neurons, in response to stimuli. It refers to how neurons and neural connections can receive form and give form to alter their collective structure and function. Plasticity is differentiated from rigidity, which means to become immobile or static.

This being the case, Malabou asks ‘what we should we do with our brain?’ I think this is a great question. The question is not how we should use our brain, but how can we occupy the brain? It is one organ that we really don’t understand but completely rely on every second of our existence. We may be better positioned to see the implications of brain plasticity by first considering the notion of plasticity more broadly.

The concept of plasticity has an aesthetic dimension (sculpture, malleability), just as much as an ethical one (solicitude, treatment, help, repair, rescue) and a political one (responsibility in the double movement of the receiving and the giving for form). 16

Malabou’s wide-ranging application of plasticityas receiving and giving form offers an alternative framework for thinking about the social and political realms we inhabit. This is where we begin to see some connections between plasticity as manifest in our brains and in our shared lives. In particular, it sheds a light on how our complicity, or participation, in the dominant world systems of capitalism requires us to operate within the counter-paradigm of flexibility.

Flexibility is a particularly relevant notion that many people who’ve worked as freelancers can relate to. It’s the ability to be everything and do everything on demand. One is asked to be flexible in the workplace, in relationships and in their relationship with the world. The word (flexibility) is tied to ‘employability.’ We are asked to be so flexible in our everyday life; we are asked to be so many things at the same time. If flexibile life is that of exploitation and innovation, plastic life is that of empowerment and invention. We can also ask if our being ‘flexible’ worsens the complex entanglement of exploitation and alienation.

Being plastic means one can resist the normalizing forces of capitalism and create alternatives, while also perceiving the world with humility and presence. But how can we stay informed and mindful about our existence? To view the entire brain system as one of plasticity leads to ideas of a more progressive relationship between humans, computers and the world. It begins by remembering (giving form) and forgetting (receiving form) in lived reality. This can mean a lot of things. Being more conscious of the temporal nature of computer memory; not obsessing over the impermanence of memory; being more engaged with the present. Accepting the inevitable loss of data with grace. Malabou wants to shake us from our stupor and convey the power of give and take, of plasticity:

We persist in thinking of the brain as a centralized, rigidified, mechanical organization, and of the mechanical itself as a brain reduced to the work of calculation. Perhaps, as I have said, this is because plasticity is precisely the form of our world and because we are so immersed in it, so constituted by it, that we experience it without either thinking it or being conscious of it. We do this to such an extent that we no longer see that it structures our lives and sketches a certain portrait of power. We find here the poetical and aesthetic force that is the fundamental, organizing attribute of plasticity: its power to configure the world. 17

Is it possible to configure the world through computation? I’d answer yes, since computers are essentially a human invention. Recall that Funes, like computers, had the curse of not forgetting and was rigid with memories such that he could not make or change his world. Can we combine our plasticity with the rigidities of computers to configure the world around us, specifically, by imagining poetic use of computer memory? Poetic computation can be a way of organizing digital memory, and thus configuring the world, for the way a set of information is configured is as important as the information itself.

End note

1. All memory is physical, [so] information is material

2.All memory is finite, [so] information is ephemeral

This lecture was a two-fold mash up of a critique of the Memex and an exploration of the concept of plasticity. I’d like to collect these disparate ideas back into aesthetic questions regarding computation.

The computer is a giant memory machine. When we use the computer, we are, in essence, making memories of our perception, experience and thoughts. Computer memory is physical, even at the level of signals inside of digital electronics. But contrary to Bush’s vision, the computer is an unreliable memory machine. As much as the computer remembers, it tends to forget as well, just not in the ways we want. Indeed, Chun writes that memory always disappears, whether digital or physical:

If computer memory is like anything, it is like erasable writing; but, if a penciled word can be erased because graphite is soft, a computer’s memory can be rewritten because its surface constantly fades.18

Computer memory (data) is a thing, an object. And it is subject to the same constraints of all physical objects. All computer memory is just electrical charges held momentarily in a complex weave of circuits. And all computer memory is stored on a physical hard disk or in the cloud, which also involves physical hardware. As Mimi Onuoha points out, “All data, from dutiful Facebook likes to iCloud selfies to every secret NSA database, is stored on a physical device somewhere.'19

Computer memory is often flawed and recalcitrant in that what you want to be permanent gets lost and what's supposed to be temporary sticks around forever. Because backups are not always reliable, and the possibility of losing data is always present, corporations have developed many solutions designed to produce profit (and some might argue to hold data hostage) to try to preserve one’s computer memory. In the final analysis, though, the life and death of data is often beyond our own control20

So instead of fixating on the durability of digital data, let’s focus on the complexities of computer memory, its fragility and its resilience, through an artistic vision. The poetic computation is about challenging what is possible within the constraints of computation. Instead of seeking more efficient ways of preserving computer memory, more interesting and urgent questions await us.

What makes some computer memory more meaningful to us? How does computation affect the way we remember the past, live in the present and project the future? How can we use computation as a tool to understand how we think and remember? What are the emotional resonances with certain types of computer memory? What is the poetry that can be written through computer memory? What are the ethical responsibilities of creating computer memory?

Bibliography

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Funes the Memorious.” Translated by Anthony Kerrigan. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1962.

Bush, Vannevar. “As We May Think.” Atlantic (July 1945). Accessed July 18, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-may-think/303881/.

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. “The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future is a Memory.” Critical Inquiry 35 (Autumn 2008).

Malabou, Catherine. What Should We Do With Our Brain? Translated by Sebastian Rand. New York: Fordham University Press, 2009.

Nelson, Theodor Holm. “Xanalogical Structure, Needed Now More than Ever: Parallel Documents, Deep Links to Content, Deep Versioning and Deep Re-Use.” Project Xanadu and Keio University, ACM Computing Surveys 31(4), (December 1999).

Onuoha, Mimi. “What It Takes To Truly Delete Data.” FiveThirtyEight. Last modified January 30, 2016. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/what-it-takes-to-truly-delete-data/.

Shannon, Claude E. “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” The Bell System Technical Journal, vol. 27 (1948): 379-423, 623-656.

Wiener, Norbert. Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1948.

15 Catherine, Malabou, What Should We Do With Our Brain? trans. Sebastian Rand (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009), 5.

16Malabou, 30

20 To try to assert our control over the permanent trace of our activity online, activists claim the “Right to be forgotten.” It essentially claims that as free individuals, we should have the right to be forgotten through the agency of deciding how our computer memory will be shared online after our death, if at all.

Chapter 1
Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8