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Most of us know what we should expect to find in a dragon’s lair, but, as I said before, Eustace had read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.
― C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Eustace Scrubb should have read The Guardian of All Things: The Epic Story of Human Memory by @michaelsmalone (2013). It is not weak on dragons. A chapter on “Long Leggedy Beasties: Memory as Classification” has several pages about them. It also has quite a bit about exports and imports, if you think of it as including the export and import of information to human minds and computers. There is not much about drains in particular, but Malone covers other civil infrastructure such as computer networks. You could say it is weak on the topic of governments and memory, but there is good coverage of government census-taking from the time of the Egyptian pharaohs through the development of punched cards for the U.S. census.
Before taking the reader on a journey to Dragons and DRAM (Dynamic Random-Access Memory) Malone starts earlier, even earlier than early hominids and the role of memory in becoming human. But that’s where it gets interesting. Maybe somebody who keeps up with popular anthropology on the internet would already know these things, but I learned from this book how singing probably preceded speech. The phrase “singing Neanderthals,” has stuck with me. I wonder if they sat around their campfires wearing bellbottoms, strumming on mastodon-gut guitars.
And the ability to use language made it possible to do analogies and metaphor. Which makes me wonder if instead of bringing us closer to the glorious future as described by Ray Kurzweil, who gets a lot of pages towards the end of the book, the internet has made the future go backwards. Because whenever I make an analogy involving apples and oranges, somebody on the Internet is sure to say, sarcastically, “Yes, because apples are exactly like oranges.” Sigh. But I digress.
Since this post is about the Quote of the Day, here’s a bonus quote, this time from the book: “To lose our memories, as human beings, is to lose our identity, just as the loss of memory to a computer reduces it to little more than an adding machine.” If I ever dust off an old adding machine, I’ll think of it as a computer that has gone to live in a memory care unit.
A recurring concept in the book is “Memory is Power.” Malone shows us the history of memory as a liberating and empowering force, and not just in keeping us, for the time being, out of the special wings of the nursing homes.
But the reason I wonder if Eustace Scrubb would have learned enough about governments from the book is that there is little explicit talk of how governments use their memory of us as a liberating and empowering force to enslave and diminish us. The book was published in 2013, before China started its program of social credit scores and before the tech giants had gone as far as they have towards implementing their programs of “all your memory are belong to us.” They are obviously going beyond our photos, health care records and shopping lists. It’s not clear yet how soon the tech companies will become arms of the governments, but there are a lot of people who are intent on it, and the forces resisting it are relatively weak. But while Malone doesn’t address that aspect of memory as directly as I would like, he gives us plenty with which to think about it.
One final takeaway is that Ricochet could become a memory machine instead of a forgetting machine. There is encouraging news on that front. @blueyeti seems to have taken seriously the idea of a better search engine for Ricochet and the notion that some of us would like to retrieve our posted stories in printable form so that we can save them for our families for posterity.
(Footnote: I don’t think this is the first time the Dawn Treader quote has been used for the Quote of the Day. Until a couple days ago I thought I had signed this up on the Group Writing: Memories calendar. But since nobody has said the same quote can’t be used twice, I figured it would work here as well.)Published in