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01 MARCH, 2012

Memory Is Not a Recording Device: How Technology Shaped Our Metaphors for Remembering

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Debunking the myth that memory is about “reliving” a permanent record stored in a filing cabinet.

Last year, Joshua Foer set out to hack his memory. Last week, Jonah Lehrer examined the promise and peril of memory erasure. But what, exactly, is memory — and how does it work? A new book by Alison Winter tackles precisely that — Memory: Fragments of a Modern History explores how the science and understanding of memory evolved over the past century, from early metaphors that likened it to a filing cabinet to the quasi-science of the prewar era’s “truth serums” to the psychology of false confessions and the latest neuroscience breakthroughs on how remembering works.

One particularly fascinating aspect Winter examines is the entwining of technology, media, and cultural accounts of memory. The book, Winter points out, “may tell us as much about how to approach the history of information media as as it does about human memory.”

The modern sciences of memory emerged when newly developed sciences of mind coincided with the proliferation of new media: technologies for recording, transmitting, and recreating sounds and images. Photography, the phonograph, and the moving image all developed between 1850 and 1900. They became identified with memory process in a series of associations that shaped both how those processes were understood and how the technologies themselves would be used. Throughout the twentieth century, memory researchers continued to look to the most recent, cutting-edge recording technologies for insights into the nature of remembering.

[…]

There was never just one way to use recording technologies to think about memory. At one extreme, researchers suggested that they were models for memory itself. Perhaps, they reflected, memory was an internal recording that could be replayed at will… But on the other extreme, researchers also used recording devices to define precisely what memory was not. For a number of scientists, the idea that memory is a recording device rests on an unrealistic fantasy of accuracy and permanence. Instead of practices that facilitated ‘reliving’ a permanent record, they sought out ways to reveal an ineradicable role of interpretation… in the construction of knowledge and memory.”

I spend a lot of time thinking about the evolution of knowledge in the age of Information Overload, and “memory” has always been a centerpiece of “knowledge.” But at a time when the rift between accessibility and access to information is gaping wider than ever, memory as a foundation for knowledge is shifting from retentional to relational, elevating the importance of the ability to retrieve and connect information over that of the ability to retain it.

As we move from storing units of data — books, music, images, footage — to saving pathways to and among them, our frameworks for thoughtful interpretation, which include the curation and contextualization of information, will become of crucial importance.

Winter, of course, goes in much more depth in Memory — well worth a read.

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29 FEBRUARY, 2012

Sparkle and Spin: A 1957 Children’s Book About Words by Iconic Designer Paul Rand

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A mid-century lens on the relationship between language and image, shape and sound, thought and expression.

As a lover of children’s books and mid-century design, I have a particular soft spot for vintage children’s books by iconic mid-century designers. After last week’s look at Saul Bass’s only children’s book, here comes Sparkle and Spin: A Book About Words — an utterly, perhaps paradoxically, delightful 1957 children’s book illustrated by legendary designer and notorious curmudgeon Paul Rand, and written by his then-wife Ann.

(I came across the book in the excellent Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling, a treasure trove of seminal vintage children’s books.)

With its bold, playful interplay of words and pictures, the book encourages an understanding of the relationship between language and image, shape and sound, thought and expression, a lens we’ve also seen when Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco introduced young readers to semiotics in the same period.

Though the cover of the 2006 reprint, with its all too literal glitter gimmick, would have likely sent Rand into a vapid fury, the book is an absolute treasure, one I’m happy to see survive the out-of-print fate of all too many mid-century gems.

Sparkle and Spin is part of a Rand trilogy, including Little 1 (1962) and the out-of-print, incredibly hard to find Listen! Listen! (1970).

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29 FEBRUARY, 2012

The Visual Cliff: What a 1960 Perception Experiment Reveals About Emotional Decision-Making

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Why we’re all just babies on Plexiglas when it comes to interpreting and acting on emotional ambiguity.

Living in a highly individualistic culture, we might be tempted to believe we navigate the world as isolated rational actors guided solely by our own perception of reality. But as quantum physics can tell us, everything is connected to everything else — and human psychology is no exception. One of the most fascinating studies of how emotional feedback from others shapes our own perception comes from psychologists Eleanor J. Gibson and R.D. Walk, who in 1960 devised a clever experiment dubbed the visual cliff study: The researchers placed 36 babies, one at a time, on a countertop, half solid plastic covered with a checkered cloth and half clear Plexiglas, on the other side of which was the baby’s mother. To the baby crawling along the countertop, an abyss gapes open where the Plexiglas begins, signaling danger of falling, yet the solid feel of the surface offers ambiguous input. “Will I fall, or will I reach mom?,” the baby ponders.

The researchers found that to make the assessment, the babies relied on the mothers’ facial expression — a reassuring, happy one meant they kept crawling, and an alarmed, angry one made them stop at the edge of the Plexiglas.

When faced with emotional ambiguity, most of us remain babies on Plexiglas — we search for feedback to resolve uncertainty, and often forget that the Plexiglas is there, unflinching — a solid, albeit invisible, support. We just have to take the leap… or crawl, as it were.

For more on the fascinating interplay between our cognition and the emotions of others, see the excellent A General Theory of Love, rereading which reminded me of the visual cliff study.

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