Memory: Making Your Influence Last
Memory is the key factor here; it is the register of experience where the flux of daily life is shaped into the signposts and standards of conduct. Computers, we are told, also have “memories,” in which they store information. But computer memory is no more like human memory than the teeth of a saw are like human teeth; these are loose metaphors that embrace more differences than similarities. It is not the least of its liabilities that the cult of information obscures this distinction, to the point of suggesting that computer memory is superior because it remembers so much more. This is precisely to misinterpret what experience is and how it generates ideas. Computers “remember” things in the form of discrete entries: the input of quantities, graphics, words, etc. Each item is separable, perhaps designated by a unique address or file name, and all of it subject to total recall. Unless the machine malfunctions, it can regurgitate everything it has stored exactly as it was entered, whether a single number or a lengthy document. That is what we expect of the machine.
Human memory, on the other hand, is the invisible psychic adhesive that holds our identity together from moment to moment. This makes it a radically different phenomenon from computer memory. For one thing, it is fluid rather than granular, more like a wave than a particle. Like a wave, it spreads through the mind, puddling up here and there in odd personal associations that may be of the most inexplicable kind. It flows not only through the mind, but through the emotions, the senses, the body. We remember things as no computer can—in our muscles and reflexes: how to swim, play an instrument, use a tool. These stored experiences lodge below the level of awareness and articulation so that there is no way to tell someone how we drive a car or paint a picture. We don’t actually “know” ourselves. In an old bit of folk wisdom, the daughter asks her mother how she bakes such a good apple pie. The mother, stymied, replies: “First I wash my hands. Then I put on a clean apron. Then I go into the kitchen and bake a good apple pie.”