To Remember, Or To Forget …

Two (and a half) articles for your consideration today:

a. “Technologically Enhanced Memory” by Evan Selinger at Slate.

b. “The Forgetting Pill Erases Painful Memories” by Jonah Lehrer at Wired. See also Lehrer’s related blog post, “Learning to Forget”.

Selinger frames his essay as a discussion of the implications of transactive memory and extended cognition; in short, the ability to offload our memory and thinking onto our environment. That our environment serves as a “memory-prompting tool” is hardly controversial. That in this way it becomes part of our thinking process or an extended mind is a little more so.

Philosopher Andy Clark, a well-known advocate of the extended mind hypothesis, asks us to consider the hypothetical case of Otto and his notebook. Otto suffers from Alzheimer’s and uses a notebook to help him remember information, for example the address of the Museum of Art he wishes to visit. He consults his notebook and acts based on what he finds there in much the same way that someone without an impairment would consult their memory. In this way the notebook is incorporated into his thinking and acting and is thus an extension of his mind (although not, obviously, of his brain).

Notebooks such as Otto’s have a rather elegant history as it turns out. During the nineteenth century, the aide de memoir, a tiny notebook within decorative case on a chain, became a popular (and practical) fashion accessory. Today it seems they flourish mostly on Etsy. For our part, the smart phone has become our aide de memoir. Less elegant perhaps, but more powerful by many orders of magnitude. And it is these orders of magnitude that give Selinger pause. It is one thing to jot down a list of things to do today; it is quite another to have gigabytes of space dedicated to the storage of textual and audiovisual memories. It is quite another still to have the ability to curate those memories for public consumption.

With “Timehop, a lifelogging app that performs “memory engineering” in mind, he cites Elizabeth Lawley who wonders: “If we go through life aware we’re leaving behind a detailed digital archive that future generations can read, might we be inclined to behave inauthentically so that our digital breadcrumbs point back to idealized versions of ourselves?”

This is a dilemma not unlike the emergence of “Facebook Eye” described by Nathan Jurgenson. “Facebook Eye” describes the tendency to experience life with a view to its re-presenation on a social media site like Facebook and the responses that re-presentation is likely to draw.

Pointing to historical antecedents, in this case the aide de memoir, is helpful to a certain degree, but it also risks lulling us into a facile acceptance of a state of affairs that by its quantitative difference becomes also qualitatively (and consequentially) different.

In his Wired article, Lehrer explores the emerging possibility of pharmaceutical forgetting, pills that may be able to target specific and traumatic memories. As Lehrer notes, a more tactical and strategic realization of the capabilities that animate the plot of Eternal Sunshine of Spotless Mind. The premise of Lehrer’s article is that contrary to popular thinking, the best way to handle traumatic memories is not to air them or talk them through, but rather simply to forget them. And a pill that helped patients do just that would be markedly more successful (and efficient) than the talking cure.

Lehrer pays some attention to the ethical concerns, but you’ll have to go elsewhere to consider those more deeply. Analogously to the manner in which a discussion of historical antecedents tends to communicate “there’s nothing of consequence here”, Lehrer is fond of pointing to the natural fallibility of human memory as an antecedent to the pharmaceutically enabled forgetting that, he seems to suggest, renders it more or less unproblematic, at least not seriously so.

It seems odd, however, to point to the natural and inevitable distortions and deletions of memory in defense of drugs designed to help us forget traumatic memories we seem unable to shake.

It is also worth considering what role extended cognition plays in the remembering and forgetting explored by Lehrer. Leher is focused almost exclusively on neurological processes. Yet memory, as the extended mind theorists (among many others) have emphasized, is more than a neurological phenomenon. It is also an embodied, artifactual, spatial, social, and technological reality.

It would not be the first such irony, but perhaps in the future we will take pills to help us dissolve the memories that our technologically enhanced memories won’t let us forget.

2 thoughts on “To Remember, Or To Forget …

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