The Future of Memory
Sebastian Groes

Tutor

open set summer school 2016

Workshop

24 — 26/07

Location

tent / cbk rotterdam

from: Memory in the Twenty-First Century (edited by Sebastian Groes)
Palgrave Macmillan (2016) pp. 1355 — 636

Ten characteristics of memory in the Twenty-First century

It is helpful to set out a list of numbered developments that chronicle the changing state of memory in the early twenty-first century.

  1. The role of the human mind in memory is increasingly marginalised. With the ferocious power of the digital, technologies and machines are increasingly taking over cognitive and memory functions and storage, making memory an increasingly non-biological process. New forms of cognitive technology make the brain a porous, permeable container that mediates and navigates between the mind and the world. The early twenty-first century is characterised by a nomadism of mind and memory. Cognition and memory are not dependent solely on neural activity but are dynamic processes in which the mind interacts with external forces beyond the subjective self. Although in the anthropocentric model of embedded cognition the human being still features at the centre of thinking and memory processes, in models of extended cognition the human biological unit is a subservient part of a dynamic self-organising whole. The power of humans has become more complex and ambivalent because ‘the underlying issues involve the very complex dynamics and human agency in both its conscious and unconscious manifestations’.1 Through instant, repeated and shared retrieval processes, memories are increasingly dynamic and protean, but also migratory and distributed across platforms, media and technologies, and other people’s minds.
  2. Memory is increasingly a collectively shared networking activity between humans and machines resulting in transactive assemblages with a democratic potential. In a digital context, memory that is based on cognitive interdependence has intensified exponentially.2 Both memory storage and memory processes tend to involve more than one creator and/or user, who assemble what has been called ‘networked memory’.3 While the state and conglomerates such as media and ITC giants attempt to wield power through digital technology, traditionally powerless individuals and bodies of people are able to create independent zones for themselves for the reinterpreting and rewriting of knowledge and memory.4 This development has a democratic potential and allows us to challenge hierarchically structured authority and other privileged social constellations, and explore the potential of the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ or the ‘group mind’.
  3. Memory is an intersubjective process. The location of memory is changing, taking place not strictly in the brain, but acting through dynamic cognitive processes within the intersection of the mediating spaces where the mind and external tools and machines connect in cognitive loops and circuits. Memory processes also take place between individual subjects, who, with the help of the ubiquitous presence of technologies, engage in ‘transactive memory’.5 Memory requires an intersubjective, transhuman point of view.
  4. ‘Global Memory’ has matured. New technologies have caused memory storage and processes to become a world-spanning practice; the global reach of the corporations and the internet have created a super-organism made up of all human minds bound together by something like a biological version of the internet. This process started around 1900, and matured in the twentieth century with the strong effects of the advancement of new technologies on cultural production.6 With more awareness of climate change at the start of the twenty-first century, there is also a renewed awareness of the earth as a global notebook that contains memory traces of mankind’s presence written into the geological strata.
  5. Memory is an increasingly mediated process of fictionalisation which undermines the possibility of authentic, original remembering. Postmodernism taught us that thinking and perception are constructed and narrated, and argued that in the post-war world we tend to (prefer to) live life at the level of representation. Our heavily mediated perception fictionalises memory, and external forces beyond the subjective self shape, edit and manipulate memory. Despite the waning of postmodern theory and a renewed desire for authenticity, memory is more than ever a process of representation.
  6. Memory is increasingly conditional, mutable and open-ended. In the digital age, much of memory is taken over by technology and programs outside the human body, so that outside forces are shaping our memories. This open-endedness of memory is increased by the knowledge that, because technology makes memories easily retrievable, we are enabled to revisit and reinterpret past autobiographical memory. Other people share in the construction of our memories, both now and at a later date, and this makes memories less fixed and absolute, and more relative and mutable. Memory work in the twenty-first century is never finished, and always provisional.
  7. Memory is forwardlooking. There is a renewed emphasis on the fact that memory evolved for planning purposes, and that it has a great role in shaping our imagination and prediction of the future. Memory has a profound role in making decisions, navigating space and plotting the world ahead. The possibility of the extinction of mankind due to climate change asks us to imagine our present lives as future memories.
  8. Memory has acquired new, complex temporalities. We are seeing new, posthuman machine times that displace traditional organic notions of history and time. With the ability to instantly retrieve memories and information through digital technologies, the gap between the present retrieval moment and past memories is a closed circuit. Conceptions of death have become increasingly complex: even though we may experience biological death, we may continue to dwell in cyber space as digital memories. The Anthropocene asks us to imagine our present as memories in a future where everything is already dead. These are new, posthuman mortalisms that shape twenty-first century subjectivities.
  9. The unconscious has a major role to play in memory. We are seeing a return to an investigation of the role of non-conscious processes in memory. Research has shown that for half of our ‘conscious’ lives we are engaged in some kind of mind-wandering. In fact, a recent study even suggested that daydreaming is the default state of our brain, and that those parts of the brain are overridden by other parts when we need to focus on a particular task.7 Hayles notes that recent research has suggested that the unconscious ‘plays a much larger role than had previously been thought in determining goals, setting priorities, and other activities normally associated with consciousness. The “new unconsciousness”, as it is called, responds in flexible and sophisticated ways to the environment while remaining inaccessible to consciousness, a conclusion supported by a wealth of experimental and empirical evidence’.8 The web and social media such as Twitter, which are algorithmically generated and mined, have become a new collective unconsciousness of our culture.
  10. Memory has accrued a plurality of new, often anti-anthropocentric perspectives. New studies into memory require new posthuman forms of vision and imagination.9 Climatic memory demands a geological perspective. Neuroscience has introduced a molecular, neural vision which in art has generated a cellular, synaptic imagination. ‘Big Data’ and algorithmic patterning require an ‘empty’, mathematical perspective. These perspectives continue to displace humans at the centre of critical thinking.
groes-website-landing-page
Lesion (2010), Andrew Carnie

Twenty-first century ethics of mind and memory

In light of this list of changing characteristics of memory there are some new, urgent questions that arise: What should we do with our memory? What is memory for, in twenty-first century contexts? How can we make memory more useful, and perhaps in different ways? Must we take better care of our mind and memory, or ensure that we reduce the impact of these contexts on our human minds? How, and to what extent, can we let our cognitive abilities evolve in beneficial ways? Should we be afraid of the evolution of the human mind that’s to come?

Such questions evoke new debates about the bioethics and the biopolitics surrounding these rapid changes in memory. They include the right to privacy in the digital age, and, more contentiously, the right to be forgotten through some kind of digital switch-off after we die biologically. There is also a fascinating debate about the ethics of human enhancement, which Nick Bostrom and Julian Savulescu explore in Human Enhancement (2008). In The Second Machine Age (2014), Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew MacAfee explore how machines will take over various human professions in the next century, greatly altering the shape of society, but also the values and forms of recognition.

To discuss the ethical issues regarding memory fully would require another book. Yet, let us make a start by calling for a new ethical agenda that sets the agenda for the new critical thinking about, and protection of, the human mind. Our humanity exists in a shared duty of care towards our cognition, in which memory features centrally. In society there exists a strong awareness of the lived effects that new and rapidly changing contexts have on cognition and memory, which can be used to establish a new competency of mind and memory. We need a reconsideration of pedagogic strategies within a new form of education and society that should teach all of us about the precarious nature of the human mind, and the contexts and influences that shape it and govern our everyday lives as citizens in liberal democracies. This new competency generates a new ethical and political awareness about human power and freedom, which can be laid down in a flexible, open-ended body of rules that safeguards our psychobiological life. These ethics should form a body of codes that enriches our lives, and reaffirms our basic civil liberties. We should have more ownership and control over our brain, mind, memory and behaviour. Just as physicians take the Hippocratic Oath, these ethics should be enshrined in universal law and be integrated into business models and in capitalist production.

Fantasies of stopping scientific, technological progress and the digital revolution are useless, and enslave us to a nostalgic, potentially regressive rhetoric. We should establish an ethical debate about how technology can be used in a beneficial manner. We can re-direct the harmful impact of technology on the human mind by finding new ways to protect and nurture the workings of the mind and memory, through software such as internet blocker Freedom, but also, more importantly, through ethical debates in the public realm. In liberal democracies, the government must aim to close the current gap between rapid developments and their often slow responses through the creation of independent bodies whose advisory reports are swiftly implemented. New technologies can be employed to, wherever possible, create contexts in which we are able to use and explore our human cognitive abilities and functions to the fullest. Those same technologies can also be used to commit our society to improving the lives of people whose cognition is somehow impaired. As an example, Ineke van der Ham showed how we can use GPS technology to help, for instance, stroke patients.

Discussions by Heather Yeung, Peter Childs and Martijn Meeter have foregrounded the importance of the ethics of memory, and remembering, whilst Nick Carr, Adriaan van der Weel and Sebastian Groes showed the ethical implications of reading. Such ethical considerations show the continued value of the Humanities, which is the pre-eminent field in developing the intellectual frameworks to offer a proper duty of care to the human mind. The Humanities will thus continue to be able to offer its traditional social functions, which includes enabling frameworks for empathy and morality, facilitating an ethical responsibility, and for critical thinking and reading. This ability to unite disparate forms of thought as well as its ability to think critically offers new opportunities for a seriously marginalised Humanities. But after the dismantling of the authority of the Humanities at an institutional level, we can no longer return to a naïve, archaic form of Humanism. The idea that, in Robert Hampson’s words, ‘humanities research has an important custodial role in relation to cultural assets’ no longer seems to be enough.10

The Humanities can be the middle ground where our increasingly uncertain, chaotic world, and the fragmentation of our pluralizing knowledge, norms and value systems might be restored to some sort of unity. However, this middle ground is constantly shifting and we need a more mutable, flexible model; the Humanities’ practices are to be reconsidered in order to adapt to new, contemporary demands on society and the human mind. The challenge of its authority should be viewed as an opportunity for reinvigorating responses; the Humanities are not sacred, but could benefit from a critical, anti-monumental spirit, which will take them into the twenty-first century with new confidence, and new objectives. This book embodies and enacts a new idea of a dialogue between the Humanities and the Sciences, in the spirit of E. M. Forster: Only Adapt. This book is symbol of a new, ferocious intellectual energy, and has shown the power of cross-disciplinary dialogue through the creation of a space where thinkers and critics can interact with one another as active citizens. Its dynamism invites a new embodied cognition, a thinking-with-the-body that can incorporate numerous disciplines, including neuroscience. Memory in the twenty-first Century celebrates play, curiosity, creative-critical exploration, serendipity and imagination. We can make it new, again.

Critical reading and thinking have a privileged position in understanding contemporary forms of thinking about memory because reading comes closest to understanding and analysing, in Paul Ricœur’s words, ‘the virtual experience of being-in-the-world proposed by the text’.11 We must reconsider reading as a form of simulation that allows us to critically navigate, anticipate and understand modern virtual experiences. This skill is political and ethical, and indispensable, and if we reconsider literacy in the digital age, we may take the human into the next century in new, creative-critical ways. We must reintroduce Homo Ludens, ‘Playing (Wo)man’. Play is an immersive, creative power that draws on, and generates, spaces that often fall outside the power of the state and capitalist enterprise. As Jussi Parikka states: ‘Play is important when understood as part of didactics — the hands-on approach that allows us to try, to have tactile contact with, to touch and open media and hence, paradoxically, to work in quite the opposite manner to the cool distance-taking mechanic methodology’.12 We must play in order to adapt to the digital, and the digital offers plenty of opportunities for play, if approached with an awareness of the mode of production from which it emerges and a conscious knowledge of the rules of representation that it is founded on. Paul Bloom states that ‘[i]magination changes everything. It evolved for planning the future and reasoning about other minds, but now that we have it, it is a main source of pleasure. We partake in experiences that are better than real ones. We can delight in the minds that create imaginary worlds’.13 However, we could use imagination for not just pleasure, but also for a serious purpose: it is the novel, hopefully in new, exciting forms, that is able to provide the deep imaginary space that enables a complex thought. As Adriaan van der Weel, Michael Burke, Sebastian Groes and Mark Currie have argued, the novel has a vital role to play in the ethics of memory because the world of the text problematises our relationship to the world beyond the subjective self, acting as a space of simulation where we rehearse multiple interpretations, part of an ongoing, unfinished process that questions memory and identity in our contemporary culture. If memory operates and acts in the same way as predictive simulation, we should use the dynamism and mutability of memory so that we can reorder and reinterpret the past with a view to forcing a major reconsideration of the world to come.

We should, then, not fear the future, but accept the current indeterminacy and uncertainties with a spirit of openness and plasticity that posits the increasingly conditional and relational nature of life in the twenty-first century as a form of control, rather than viewing it as a disempowering development. The plurality of futures embedded with our reconsideration of memory allows us to reject the cynical idea that our old world cannot be changed through ideas. Let us reject the rigid anticipated expectations of future anterior tense that dominates our twenty-first century lives, and embrace the possibilities of the unbidden. The world is changing, and if it is losing particular values and ways of life, this might not be such a bad thing after all. Our changing memory shows us how to adapt to the new contexts that are reshaping our lives: we must embrace mutability, plasticity and be prepared to live in and open-ended manner if we want to survive. How fast the ecology of life is changing can be demonstrated by looking at Will Self’s The Book of Dave (2006), which is partly founded on neuro-scientific knowledge of the memories of black cab drivers. In his satirical novel it is our carbon-based way of life that is criticised, through the imagined flooding of England. Glow (2014), an equally psychotropic, neuro-literary work by young novelist Ned Beauman suggests how the world is changing when the protagonist Raf points to the new mindful consciousness of a new generation:

Raf has always envied couriers for the MRI scan they take of their city, front tyres like toroid dog noses, a dead leaf’s difference in the height of a familiar kerb felt somewhere in the sinews when Raf himself probably wouldn’t even notice an extra few inches; and because, like pirate radio, they were supposed to get squashed under the internet, but didn’t; and because he once saw a game of bike polo and it looked like a lot of fun.14

The world is changing, and humans are changing with it, rapidly and maybe irrevocably. If we want to continue allowing future generations to remain human, we should accept and embrace this continuity in change. Memory allows us not only to find mental anchors in the past, and thus create an (imagined) sense of stability and coherence, but also to forge connections between the past, present and future. Memory is what makes us human to begin with; therefore, our new understanding of memory considered in this book gives us fresh insights into how we will be able to keep us human — albeit of a different sort — in the next century. Memory is vital for imagining new ways of being human whilst navigating the radical changes and possible futures of the world that lies ahead.


  1. N. Katherine Hayles, How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis (University of Chicago Press, 2012), 94. 

  2. See Daniel M. Wegner, Toni Giuliano and Paula T. Hertel, ‘Cognitive Interdependence in Close Relationships’, in Compatible and Incompatible Relationships, ed. W. J. Ickes (New York: Springer, 1985), 253 — 276. 

  3. Andrew Hoskins, ‘Digital Network Memory’, in Mediation, Remediation and the Dynamics of Cultural Memory, ed. Astrid Errl and Ann Rigney (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2009), 91 — 108. 

  4. Ananda Mitra notes: ‘Those who have the power to create voices in the discursive space of the Internet could also be the ones who produce memory narratives of the digital age. This is a particularly curious position since the technology is problematizing power in the virtual. While the conglomerates such as media giants are attempting to wield power on the Internet, the traditionally powerless individuals are able to carve out a discursive zone for themselves too’. ‘Digital Memory’, Journal of Information, Communication & Ethics in Society, 3(1) (2005), 5.  

  5. Wegner, Giuliano and Hertel, ‘Cognitive Interdependence’.  

  6. Wolfgang Ernst notes: Wolfgang Ernst: ‘In contrast to two thousand years of basically written history, the advent of the audiovisual recording media had led to a genuinely multimedia “global memory” projects […] which turned the archive into a discrete matrix of life itself’. Digital Memory and the Archive, ed. Jussi Parikka (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 125.  

  7. See Paul Bloom’s How Pleasure Works (London: Vintage, 2008), 197 — 201, who points to Malia F. Mason, ‘Wandering Minds: The Default Network and Stimulus-Independent Thought’, Science 15(393) (2007), DOI: 10.1126/ 

  8. Hayles, How We Think, 94. 

  9. Eric Kandel notes: ‘Thus we gain from the new science of mind not only new insights into ourselves – how we perceive, learn, remember, feel, and act — but also a new perspective of ourselves in the context of biological evolution. It makes us appreciate that the human mind evolved from molecules used by our lowly ancestors and that the extraordinary conservation of the molecular mechanisms that regulate life’s various processes also applies to our mental life’. Kandel, In Search of Memory, xiii. 

  10. Robert Hampson, ‘Custodian and Active Citizens’, in The Public Value of the Humanities, ed. Jonathan Bate (London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011), 69. 

  11. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, Volume 2, trans. K. McLaughlin and D. Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 100. 

  12. Jussi Parikka, ‘Archival Media Theory’, in Wolfgang Ernst, Digital Memory and the Archive, ed. Jussi Parikka (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 1 — 36; 14. 

  13. Bloom, How Pleasure Works, Loc. 3219. 

  14. Ned Beauman, Glow (London: Sceptre, 2014), Loc. 404. 


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