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

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.

Published March 1, 2012




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