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    Book Review: Distrust That Particular Flavor

    In the early 1990s, William Gibson wrote Agrippa (A Book of the Dead), a 300-line autobiographical poem saved on a 3.5″ floppy designed to erase itself after a single use. The book version accomplished the task in analogue: its pages were treated with photosensitive chemicals, which began gradually fading the words and images from the book’s first exposure to light. The text was about memory, and the idea was that a reader would experience it as such, with the words becoming memories as they were consumed. Like a conversation, like a moment experienced in direct time, one could never recall it precisely, or command it–as on a computer–to return. It was simply lived, then faded away.

    Although Agrippa was engineered to be ephemeral, it committed one cardinal error: it was written at the dawn of the free information age. Almost immediately after the poem’s initial “Transmission” (a complex affair involving illusionist Penn Jillette and a vacuum-sealed sculptural magnetic disk) enterprising hackers pirated the text and disseminated it online, on USENET groups and listservs. Since Gibson didn’t use email at the time, fans faxed him pirated copies of the text in droves. If Agrippa had been undertaken today, I can only imagine the full text would have been leaked before it even made it into the art gallery. The project was, in short, a failure: not because it was a bad idea, or poorly-executed, but because there simply is no such thing as a transitory memory anymore. When someone tries to artificially construct one, our networked technological milieu literally wrests it away and commits it, permanently, to the cloud.

    We no longer serve one another sensory impressions, live largely felt experiences; we no longer conjure up the past through a patchwork of fallible nodes of thought, ever-shifting, foggy and surreal. It’s difficult today, perhaps impossible, for an artist to make something with the qualities of pure memory: intangible, subjective, and yet with real emotional affect. In an age of hyper-documentation, of consistent quantifiability, every click leaves a trace.

    Which, of course, may have been the very point Gibson was trying to make. Agrippa, in attempting to emulate natural memory, was an impossible object. By being technological, it was inherently destined to assimilate itself into a greater collective cache of experience. In his new collection of essays, Distrust That Particular Flavor, he addresses this more succinctly: technology, in a sense, is memory.

    In Gibson’s view, our technology is–always has been–an direct extension of our humanity. He argues that the moment we began began taking photos, making films, externalizing the human experience with so-called “mass” media, we set into motion an immeasurably vast prosthetic memory for the race. What we can’t remember, or live directly, we can now conjure up through images, films, and data; we can remember second-hand, often losing touch with the difference between our memories, truth, history, and the experience of others. We can view things at a distance, things which happened before we were born, we can watch the dead talk: ghosts have been walking among us since the first image was recorded. Of film, Gibson writes, “we are building ourselves mirrors that remember–public mirrors that wander around and remember what they’ve seen,” adding, ”that is a basic magic.”

    Only briefly does he make what I think is a crucial leap to extending the argument beyond the parameters of 20th century technology. The prosthetic memory of the human race isn’t just quantifiable in archives of film, living networks of interconnected conversation, and endless bytes of media data. It’s also a different kind of information: mesopotamian clay tablets, cave paintings, the printed word, anything, in fact, that is capable of representing a fragment of ineffable experience in physical form. Of course, this isn’t Gibson’s territory, the cyberprophet, the calm-and-bemused voice of techno-truth, but he tackles it:

    “Our ancestors, when they found their way to that first stone screen, were commencing a project so vast that it only now begins to become apparent: the unthinking construction of a species-wide, time-defying, effectively immortal prosthetic memory. Extensions of the human brain and nervous system, capable of surviving the death of the species. The start of building what would become civilization, cities, cinema.”

    While media is an “extended nervous system we’ve been extruding as a species for the past century,” art is a complex memory we’ve been collaboratively creating for much, much longer. It’s too big for a single individual–or a single machine, hopefully– to experience it all at once, but it’s the central project of the human race. And it can’t be pirated, or destroyed: only lived, and added to, often thoughtlessly, by succeeding generations of increasingly technological human beings.

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    gamma     Tue, Apr 24, 2012  Permanent link

    I am interested in human memory system, loosely related to this topic.


    Memory of an event, a record of an exchange with something that makes me feel increased intensity.

    The intensity may refer to the intensity of emotions. Also, other palpable fields of mind, mental objects possess intensity and concentration, which are equivalent to the states of matter such as gaseous, liquid and solid. Intensity satisfies the mind that has a wish to remember.

    Memories require workouts, exercises that create neural links in the hippocampus. The links are later copied to the cortex and then relinquished. I think that we can ascribe the language forms to the links below and the intuition to the links above. (Oh, cortex is up, hipocampus is below). We call it intuition when we already know things. We use more intense effort of will, words of language, numbers, writing, repetition and all that in order to learn things for the first time.

    (The language however, is not stationed in hippocampus. Everything that matters is in the cortex.)

    The mental athletes mentioned in J.F's  use the synesthetic or synergistic approach to memorizing immense sets of data accurately. They use images of their known reality to embed items that are associated with images, sounds, scents. The items are more easily remembered through the created visual scene. However, the scene is bizarre, in my opinion. For example, you could associate movie stars with playing cards and a visualized place where the cards are located. The obtained "image" is a cortical feature presumably, and it makes me think that the cortex possesses insane images and weird ways of storing memory.

    The cortical reality could perhaps be as nice as it is perceived, an ideal copy of a place without any playing cards or accompanying super powers of memory. Here, I imagine a more potent lucid dream-like manifestation, a projection like a beam of electrons spraying the pixels of old TV screen.

    Existence is a table of pixels. But, you talk of things knowledgeably and almost of memories that are dear to us, close to our hearts, things that are so far out that are beyond the possibilities of reality. You talk about objects impossible in the observed physical reality that can bend space, draw and suck in much of items. They add weight by being emotionally charged. Gibson's fade-out is an emotionally charged mental object, dynamical in its core, it is an event on the mental plane with a radical, advanced pixel table.
    Olena     Sat, May 26, 2012  Permanent link
    "The project was, in short, a failure: ... because there simply is no such thing as a transitory memory anymore."

    With the whole essay, I don't really disagree. I take your meaning.

    But I wonder, provoked by that line mostly, if memory is quite so permanent... or is it simply that we're moving into longer time frames? That we'll have to start thinking in terms of centuries+? I don't know if I could consider "the cloud" permanent, in the literal sense especially.

    Maybe it's just because I recently read Anathem and tied those things together (the Long-Now Foundation's goals of thousands of years, etc.)