Law in the Internet Society

The Omnipotent Memory

-- By JasonL - 18 Oct 2021

---++ Information Storage as an Evolutionary Pursuit

Humans have an innate desire to document their lives and make memories indelible. We create photo albums and scrapbooks, write things in diaries, tell stories—all in the pursuit of cataloging our lives and creating lasting legacies. This tendency is not surprising; the urge for information permanence is, after all, the purpose of DNA: store information, replicate, and store again. Thus, information storage is at the core of our very existence.

If there is an evolutionary force driving humans to maximize their information storage capabilities, the Net ostensibly marks a crowning achievement. Digital technology has amplified our ability to store information about ourselves to the utmost degree. The Net’s unbounded storage capacity allows humans to eschew a homemade photo album with fifty photos for digital album with fifty thousand. Additionally, every thought transcribed into words on the Internet will be there for posterity’s reference, obviating the need for journals or diaries. It is also no longer necessary to remember phone numbers, addresses, emails, poems, recipes, important dates, or facts: the Net is the greatest memory that ever was or ever will be.

---++ "Bicycles for our minds"?

Arguably, every new technology was conceived with the intention of making human life more convenient and increasing leisure time, but the Net represents a catastrophic overstep in human enhancement. The more we rely on the Net for information storage purposes, the more our own information storage abilities will wither and languish. Internet queries will replace ordinary acts of recall. Once that happens, Ted Chiang explains that “we will become cognitive cyborgs, effectively incapable of misremembering anything; [the Net] will take over the role once filled by our fallible temporal lobes.”

The Net signifies more than creating an unlimited capacity for memory. The Net now exists as exoskeletal superhuman brain. The Net is there not to facilitate human mental functioning but to replace it. Steve Jobs tried to argue that computers are “bicycles for our minds.” (So convinced was Jobs by this analogy that the name of one of Apple’s earliest personal computers was almost “Bicycle,” but the company pivoted to “Macintosh.”) Not so—more appropriate is the assessment by Vassar mathematician Grace Hopper, the programmer of one of the first computers, the Harvard Mark I. As Hopper explained the goal of computers in 1952, “it is the current aim to replace, as far as possible, the human brain.” Hopper’s ambitious and prophetic aspiration for the computer has become an unsettlingly reality.

---++ The Dehumanization of Man

What are the consequences of an unlimited memory, one that refuses to forget? Human memories are infamously fallible, but this is not necessarily a flaw. The unreliability of memory does not demand mechanic intervention. Forgetting and misremembering are essential self-care and self-preservation functions—they allow individuals to bury old wounds and go on with their lives. We reconstruct events in our minds to cope with cognitive dissonance in reality. The persistence of vivid and intrusive memories is a central feature of PTSD. Thus, our brains help us through those traumatic experiences by suppressing such memories. The Net, meanwhile, has not evolved to consider these purposes; its only duty is to preserve the underlying data, not the human to whom the data belongs. The Net eliminates (or at least drastically impairs) our attempts at self-preservation. Even minor gaffes like cringeworthy pictures and comments are enshrined on the Net for time immemorial. The Net’s cache of memories is omnipresent.

Forgetting is also a necessary social function, but everlasting memories have created cultural strife. Twitter miners dig up decades-old offensive comments from public figures to shame them. Employers use Google searches to uncover prospective employees’ skeletons. Proponents may claim sunlight is the best disinfectant: it is better to have a complete record of a person’s misdeeds so to make educated decisions about them in the future. But this argument is example of exceptionalism gone awry. There is something brutally meritocratic about this mentality: the notion that every human action is another line on an infinite resumé. In our pursuit to maximize data storage, we have lost sight of the virtues of forgetting, as well as the inevitability of human error and honest mistakes.

The greatest documented human memory probably belonged to Solomon Shereshevsky, who could quote lines from The Divine Comedy that had been read to him fifteen years prior, despite the fact he had no knowledge of Italian. But Shereshevsky was tortured by his superhuman ability: reading text evoked so many images in his mind that could often could not focus on what he was reading. His awareness of innumerable facts made it difficult for him to comprehend abstract ideas. Once he tried to buy ice cream and when the vendor described a flavor as “fruit ice cream,” he was so overwhelmed with images in his mind that couldn’t buy the treat. Is this the quality we have chosen to “replace” our brains?

The rise of the Net as an all-encompassing storage unit is the onset of the dehumanization of man. Without the ability to forget, time itself loses its distinctiveness, since the past perpetually lingers and can be recalled at any given moment. Furthermore, if we delegate data storage to this external server, what happens if the server becomes incapacitated or inaccessible? If we offload too much of our life’s data to an external storage unit, we run the risk of losing ourselves in the process.

For my taste, there is too much reasoning by metaphor here. Human mnemonism is a topic of some interest to me. But the cases of Shereshevsky or S. Luria's famous patient, or the superb Ireneo Funes imagined by Jorge Luis Borges don't actually tell us anything about something closer to Borges' Library of Babylon.

And I do have a taste for Borgesian symbolic reasoning, which avoids the declamatory prophetic style that occasionally mars this draft. Humility in the face of the future is always a simple, advisable, foundational bet.

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r2 - 04 Dec 2021 - 19:16:05 - EbenMoglen
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