Technology and memory, or why there’s a 50% chance you won’t finish this post.
“If kids are put into this electronic culture without any counterbalancing efforts, they will stop reading.” – Dana Gioia
It wasn’t long ago that Will Self trumpeted the death of the novel in The Guardian. In our technological age, he argued, serious narrative form is passé. As new communication technology creates a “permanent Now,” protracted stories become tedious and irrelevant. Citing Marshall McLuhan, Self argues that the medium of internet technology has formed readers who consume only entertainment, resisting all difficult literary forms. The development from telegraph to internet, in his opinion, was the story of the novel’s demise.
As the novel died, the purpose of reading has shifted and new forms have been created. Since the advent of the internet non-fiction has risen at the cost of literary reading. Serious reading seems now to be focused on accumulating information and skills while pleasure-reading seems to have taken a decidedly hedonistic turn. Self notes that while the novel may be suffering, “the kidult boywizardsroman and the soft sadomasochistic porn fantasy are clearly in rude good health.”
The rise of online reading has also changed our habits of reading. News – once the domain of papers – is now mostly accessed online. This switch in mediums is not neutral. Only 50% of online readers read more than half of an article, and 10% of readers don’t even begin it. Online writing is therefore influenced by an advertising model, where the easiest and engaging pieces achieve the most success (aka ‘revenue’). Hence the Onion’s recent story on why Miley Cyrus’ misdeeds were more valuable reporting than current events. E.B. White’s The Elements of Style is currently being replaced by Buzzfeed’s writing guides. This emerging culture of instant communication has also created new forms of communication matched to its viewers’ reading habits.
‘Memes,’ a now ubiquitous phenomenon, appeal to people’s intuitive grasp of an implicit argument rather than undertake the laborious and unnecessary work of thinking. Usually they are instantiations of reductio ad absurdum, mocking the opponent. But memes are not restricted to our political or social commentary, else they would be no different from political cartoons. Memes have become a standard manner in which to communicate with peers. Snapchat, a 2011 iPhone and Android app, allows its 26million US users to send personal memes to their friends with ironic Helvetica text written over it. Lest you think this is an isolated phenomenon, 77% of US college students and 46% of this year’s US high school class use Snapchat daily. A personal anecdote: my brother once resolved a conflict in our college household by fashioning several memes about our situation. Everyone laughed it off and became good friends again. Irony, not sincerity, is our modern modus operandi.
Memes highlight one element of the internet as medium: information is ripped from its context. It is now an expectation that – after meeting someone once – I can totter over to Facebook and retrieve their employment history, summer vacation photos, and relationship status. How else would I get to know them? Ask them? Surely not. ‘Facebook stalking’ humorously but aptly names the modern habit of data mining our peers. In such a climate, is it any wonder that the two most popular activities online are pornography and social networking? Two expressions of our need for communion. Having lost our ability to flirt, it seems no wonder that people are eagerly taking classes on dating. Facebook leaves us with the illusion that we know the person because we have accumulated facts about them.
In close relationships it becomes clear that facts are meaningful because they are part of a story, a history. That Mary likes strawberries is insignificant until you remember that Mary is your wife and that you should pick up some for her as a sign of affection. When information is ripped from its context, can it be understood? Can it be integrated in our lives? The pagans who first came into the Christian ceremonies reported that the Christians were cannibals. Without the Christian narrative, the Eucharist appeared barbaric. Information – especially symbols – needs interpretation from within its own context.
Will Self noted that the “permanent Now” of the internet has turned reading into hedonistic entertainment. But I would hazard that a more nefarious consequence is that it prevents us from forming a cultural context in which to live. In a recent paper, “Google Effects on Memory,” psychologists found that we rely on search engines as an external memory. They call it a ‘transactive memory’ – the same kind as when we rely on a spouse’s knowledge of our children’s birthdays. When we think that certain information is easily accessible, we don’t commit it to our own memory. T.S. Eliot asked us, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” The knowledge we have lost in information is the loss of memory, resulting in a loss of context and consequently of culture. This tectonic shift in cultural mediums has resulted in a massive shift in the consciousness of my generation. And when we lose context, it becomes hard – perhaps impossible – to live well.
And when we lose context, it becomes hard – perhaps impossible – to live well.
Why is context so essential to living? In part because it allows suffering to be seen in perspective. Context – that is, the stories and perspective which provide context – makes suffering part of a larger whole. If, in the midst of suffering, we had no memory of a better past – and therefore no hope of a brighter future – our trials would overwhelm us. What allows us to suffer if not hope? Ignatius of Loyola recommended that we remember consolation in times of desolation, and prepare for desolation in times of consolation. But what if we cannot remember? If every moment is absolutized as the whole of reality?
This context – its stories and myths – are expressed in symbols, which are unintelligible outside of the context. What would the Christian cross mean without the gospel narrative? Well, Richard Dawkins decries the crucifix as a grotesque display of sadistic torture. And – if there was no resurrection – he might be right. Perhaps this lack of context is why New Atheism – with its ironic jabs and confident misunderstandings – finds its rightful home in our culture. When argument is replaced by reaction and history by memes, any manner of respectable atheism is not to be expected. Without cultural or historical context, symbolism becomes impossible to interpret. Without symbolism, we begin to feel that we are isolated individuals – separated from a religious or cultural presence.
Technology has affected our memory and thus our consciousness, making it harder to retain our cultural or historical senses. Amidst these new mediums, my generation’s task is to discover the virtues necessary to establish a proper relationship between us and our machines. We need to learn those virtues which allow us to resist the fragmenting tendencies of these new mediums – virtues of attention, memory, and commitment.
Amidst these new mediums, my generation’s task is to discover the virtues necessary to establish a proper relationship between us and our machines.
How can we build those virtues? My own attempts have been to change my habits of listening to music and of studying. Of how I use and structure my time. Rather than listening to music immediately upon waking, I dress and prepare my day in silence. I try shutting off my internet when writing (putting “___” in where I need to research online later). I print articles to be read rather than reading them on my computer. In conversations, I don’t look at my phone, trying to give my attention to the person speaking.
We have always needed these virtues, but now we are in an age when our work and play are conducted through technology which favors the shallowness of reaction and the laziness of entertainment. As a professor once quipped, “The internet is amazing. 1% of it is St. John Newman’s writings for free, the other 99% of it is pornography.” If we are not able to use such technology, it will change us. We must establish a proper relationship between us and our machines. No medium is neutral.
I am not boycotting the internet. Nor am I proposing a ‘Facebook fast.’ (Though a Facebook delete might be desirable.) Neither am I nostalgic for a bygone era of inefficient machines and atrophied rituals. I could not have researched and written this particular article if not for my computer and WiFi – though whatever I would have written would have been completed with fewer distractions. These technologies possess great potential to shape our world’s political, religious, social, and economic realities. But they also possess certain properties which have intrinsic tendencies. Instantaneous communication does not, by itself, tend to prolonged narratives.
But it is in our nature to be story-tellers. Stories allow us to suffer – to hope. If we lose our capacity to live contextually, that is, to listen to stories, we do not only lose our capacity to preserve an older Western culture – we lose the capacity to hope.