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Cybertech's Perpetually Retrievable Past

Not only is so much of the past now being recorded and memorialized via high resolution media and artifact preservation, but dead and suppressed languages along with their native cultures are being brought back to life around the world.

Walter Alter

How many societies, tribes or cultures in the distant past do we have no idea about because there were no means, other than oral, with which to keep their traditions and lore in the present? We have a distorted Rousseau-like idealism about early indigenous cultures based on a primitive and amateur anthropology brought back from the voyages of 18th century empire builders and 19th century naturalists. Indigenous societies were far from the ideals of cooperation and eco-friendliness that we uncritically assign them as progressives looking for models to help us evolve into a more humane people. We overlook the fact that we don't have the memory of untold cultures that were uprooted, conquered, sold to slavery, murdered in clan blood feuds, and sacrificed by stronger cultures contending for hunting grounds and raw materials. Oral tradition was no insurance against the complete erasure from memory of countless cultural groupings.

Not only is so much of the past now being recorded and memorialized via high resolution media and artifact preservation, but dead and suppressed languages along with their native cultures are being brought back to life around the world. Gaelic, Welsh, Basque, Catalan, Kurdish, Aleut, Inuit, Navajo, Sioux, Apache...the list of languages alone is long and growing longer. The preservation of the music of cultures has been a huge modern undertaking and its results made accessible, not only to academics, but due to technology, to anyone with a cell phone or a laptop. There can only be one conclusion here which is that modern industrialized cultures have added to the total fund of human memory in quantities that are inconceivable in pre-industrial terms. In fact, it can be concluded also that we have gone overboard in this memorialization of the past, if the recent NSA revelations are any indication. We are led to the irony that technological society is producing a harmful surplus of memory. If the requirement for privacy is a democratic value then governmental memory banks on our private lives are a problem.

Mnemonic devices were invented to keep track of trade (objects as money symbol) and property relations in the memorialization of land boundaries and the astronomical observation of the shaman caste for agricultural and ritual purposes. Nomadic tribes may have been closer to Nature, but they were also closer to Nature's indifference, rage and unreliability due to extreme weather or natural disaster, which drove the impulse to better insure human survival as a constancy. Their native "aliveness" apparently saw the advantage in predictability as applied to their perseverance. The evolution from oral to written traditions was a natural outcome of the conditions of existence; and complex societies, i.e., civilizations, whether modern or ancient, should be viewed as being as natural as any other form of society.

Modern life has evolved precisely because we needed to develop mnemonic devices due to the complexity of sedentary communities vs. the simplicity of nomadic ones. Language can be conceived of as the parent technology of all others. Language gave us logic (an ordering of words implies an ordering of thought) in problem solving. Superstition was abandoned and intuition was suppressed by forces of cognition that were more powerful in insuring survival problem solving. It's that simple. Language's abstraction of reality included the abstraction of time and gave humans a sense of future and its implications of planning. This future planning and the need to garner resources for preparedness, added the language of mathematics to the mix, another mnemonic device. The mnemonic device that turned time-based planning regimes into hard technology was the ability to reproduce an object accurately via the visual arts- namely the mnemonic device of diagram or illustration. When that faculty evolved into the horizon line perspective of the Italian Renaissance, the conditions were set for the emergence of visual logic over verbal logic, and the potential for blueprint illustration began the process of industrialization.

So, in the current era, what we should NOT be lamenting is the loss of memory, because there has been no such loss. There has, in fact, been an augmentation of memory, from the first boundary marker in the ancient past to contemporary whistleblowers of today. Rather, what we should lament is our resistance to accepting new data as catalysts of change within our memory-based mental processes. A technological society is a complex society requiring a flexible multi-focus, an attentiveness that shapes an informed citizen capable of updating data and effectively reorienting priorities. We live now with the uncomfortable sense that salient decision is threatened or lost in the white noise of endless communication. This waterfall of communication generates a fear that we have no place of calm, no breathing space from which to proceed without emergency or panic. The present is barely present before it is rushed off the scene. There seems to be a rush of everything when a societies shifts from top down hierarchical social systems, which have greater control on communication, to laterally connected egalitarian social systems enhanced by a cybertech which gives every citizen a voice. There's anxiety, distress and fear that everything, including memory, is at an end. Great transformations generate a fear that we are losing our past but such is not the case. We're not losing our past, we are merely watching it become updated as we reorient our priorities at digital speed. The world progresses, only minds obsolesce and so understandably predict the end of everything.

Walter Alter's latest book is Panoply ex-Machina

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