One of the more obscure problems I realized we have in our modern culture is the disdain for memory. I shared that perspective until I gave it more than a cursory thought, so I wanted to touch on it some here.
This disdain for memory comes from our schools, where people are taught not to memorize things. There is a tiny grain of truth that things which are not well learned will not be remembered, and Rote memorization is the main memorization method used (repeat it until it sticks – so you can recite it for the test then forget it forever). But that is not the only memory technique that matters, and I’m speaking about full memory, not just simple memorization.
Memory, as the ancients knew it, was absolutely essential to maintaining the ancient oral traditions, because without it the epics would disappear into obscurity (as most of them have). After the invention of writing, Socrates had some stern words about the invention:
“For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.”
This is similar to the problem that we have today, where nobody actually knows much of anything, but instead goes and “looks it up” whenever they need it. The illusion of knowledge is strong, and the belief that the information will be there when they go to look for it means that nobody is actually remembering the things that they “learn” anymore.
I have heard some people argue that the ubiquity of access to information eliminates the need for memory, but I’m going to argue that is the furthest thing from the truth. In addition to having access to information, we now also need to be able to remember enormous amounts of information simultaneously to compare it. It is easy to look up a simple fact, but comparing two simple ideas is nearly impossible for a person who can’t recall them both simultaneously without extensive references. This process makes it very easy for people to hold self-contradictory beliefs that they are never able to examine.
Then there’s the problem that, often, our records disappear or break. This is more true with digital information than books, but there is a dire misunderstanding that computerized records last forever, even in the face of obvious examples to the contrary. Nearly everyone in the United States knows what the result of a “hard drive crash” is. Without actively preserving the information, digital records quickly become inaccessible. The Viking spacecraft sent a wealth of data from Mars to Earth over a long period of time, but the computers required to access it are so archaic that the valuable information may be lost to future generations. That mission wasn’t even so very long ago – it ran from the 70’s into the 80’s.
All of that is before we consider malicious intent editing public records to literally change the public’s mind. This year, there are people who cannot remember what happened in the 2016 election and primaries between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton – they claim that there was never a shut down of exit polling, and demand that anyone who remembers it produce evidence – a mostly reasonable claim, except that the digital records are gone because Internet articles are a dime a dozen and don’t stay online forever (contrary to popular opinion). Even written records are sometimes intentionally destroyed, like when a treasure trove of 100 year old documents was recently found in my own state. Whatever was in there, somebody did not want it to be shared.
I realize that human memory is imperfect, but relying on memory tokens rather than exercising our memories is not a healthy application of our intelligence. With the vast amount of data and information available to us today, the ability to remember what has been seen and heard is more important now than ever before. Book burning has never been so easy, and with the ability to literally rewrite history in the minds of the public, memory is more important than ever.
Socrates quote/rant reference: http://wondermark.com/socrates-vs-writing/