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The Last Memory – Part 2

Previous article: The Last Memory, Part 1

“A memory is only as real as the last time you remembered it.”  ~ Jonah Lehrer

We’ve discovered that memory shifts and changes according to recollection. The past is a dynamic, moldable backdrop, our understanding of which depends on our last memory.

This drawing of a spotted hyena in the Chauvet Cave, France, is around 30,000 years old (image source: wikipedia.org)

So what is the ultimate last memory in our day and age?

Let’s go back in time and run through the media that have enabled us to record what goes on around us.

Old School

In the beginning was the word. Actually, it was cave art, through which humans first expressed their view of the world.

To etch those images on rock walls, of course, humans needed reason. An ability to represent things in an abstract manner.

So in the beginning there was reason.

Then came the grunts, the body language, and cave art.

But this form of communication hardly encapsulated the richness of the human mind. It took language to do that. Primitive language, which, in time, was refined.

In due course, grammar evolved and our understanding of the world evolved with it. The richness of the material and mental spectra were brought to the surface. Space was itemized and scrutinized. Time was added to the human narrative. History and religion were born.

But the spoken word was subject to manipulation. People would often lose or gain details during transmission or recollection, sometimes wilfully, other times unwittingly, due to memory distortion.

So when the written word was invented, the game changed. Things were recorded for posterity, solidifying memory into form. Stories, legends, myths, religious teachings, political edicts, philosophical essays, transcripts and discourses – they were recorded, saved and accessed down the line without fear of losing information.

For a while, books and written discourses were the source to which people referred to set the record straight. Of course, not many people could afford books – of which there were far too few copies anyway – so hearsay and recollection were still the main molders of reality in practical terms.

The printing press enabled information to be produced en masse, setting the foundation for regular reporting (image source: wikipedia.org)

New Kids On The Block

Then came the printed word, and the game changed again. Transcripts became available to everyone. Information spread faster, replenishing itself en masse. Memory was accessed, stimulated and shaped at will.

In time, the printing press gave way to a more powerful medium: the visual medium. Photographic imagery came into play. A picture was worth a thousand words. Used in an article, it was priceless.

Words and images were soon challenged by a rival medium: the auditory medium. Radio broadcasting was introduced and content was transmitted via the waves. Although people still resorted to written accounts, they remembered – and were guided by – what they heard on the frequencies.

But the visual medium made a comeback, with a twist. Motion pictures had already been invented and images were coming to life on the silver screen. An image may have been worth a thousand words but a motion picture was worth a thousand images.

So when someone decided to combine sound with moving imagery, introducing ‘talkies‘ to the scene, the game changed again. Radio gave way to film. Soundtracked movies created a reference to the world that encapsulated action as never before. What people saw on the screen was as real as it got, if not hyperreal.

What You See (And Hear, And Feel)…

Movies and television captured the imagination of the world for a while, including mine. Born in the tube-and-silver-screen era, I, like most individuals of my generation, resorted to them at will. Movies and TV were the prevalent source of reference, shaping awareness across the board. Not only did they recreate the past in an impressive and entertaining manner, substituting historical accounts with memorable versions of the truth, they presented a visual representation of the world as had never been seen before. They weren’t just our last memory. They were our ultimate imagination platform.

The only media that could admittedly beat the power of the screen had not yet been invented. But they had been envisioned. We’d seen them in Star Trek: TNGThe Lawnmower Man and The Matrix. Holographs, holograms and computer simulations: new generation media transmissions that would add faculties like touch, taste, smell and balance to the process. Through them, in theory, people would recreate the past, engaging in a super-realistic representation of the world across time.

In other words, time would be harnessed and memory shaped according to simulated experience aka virtual reality.

Infobyte: People began to access reality according to the parameters and capabilities of the world wide web

Internet And The 2.0 Format

But something arrived before virtual reality. Something unexpected. It didn’t involve simulations that generated evermore sophisticated renditions of reality. It involved a computer network called the internet.

Basic in its format, almost primitive in recreational terms, the net, as we referred to it, provided a new way of understanding the world. We began to access reality according to the parameters and capabilities of the world wide web. Shorter and simpler soundbites, videobites and press clippings that accommodated the technology. Our understanding of of the world adapted to the new platform.

Then came more evolved computer programs called application software, or apps. These tools, initially created to connect the informational infrastructure to the new smart devices, brought the web to everyone’s palm and gave us fresh access to information.

They also provided platforms that were representative in their own right. People on the go experienced the world through the lens of whatever app they used at the time, assimilating reality in the way it was framed. Kids growing up with smart phones and tablets regarded them as one of their main frames of reference. App versatility portrayed and projected reality in a new, multidimensional, defining manner.

From cave paintings to infographics, the world has come full circle (image origin: zabisco)

Then came the surprise, something hardly anyone expected. Words, numbers and still images, most of them simple and rudimentary, made a comeback.

People called them information graphics, or infographics. They took the web by storm, encapsulating the world in long, static, 2-D images that told their stories in ways that a busy bee could afford and a seven-year-old could understand. Curious about the French revolution and too bored to read a book? Too tired to watch a series, a movie or a documentary on the subject? An infographic gives you the relevant details in five minutes.

And there you have it. Apps and infographics currently provide the most widely-available access to information. Simple, sleek, and easy to go through – and until virtual reality is perfected, or something new comes along – they’re the ultimate last memories.

Or are they? Perhaps we’re too hasty to discount the video experience. Movies, television programs and YouTube videos are very popular, offering an experience no infographic can match.

As for apps, they scarcely recreate the descriptive oomph a video has, no matter their gadgetry and animation, but they’re interactive, which means potential.

A Thousand Images

Video rules. Apps may be everywhere and infographics are practical, but video tracks incorporate the ideal amount of information and entertainment, reality and imagination necessary to hold people captive. Movies, series and other such programs magnetize attention in a manner that will shape human recollection for a while longer. They are, in this writer’s opinion, the defining last memory in this day and age.

The Last Word

History is not written by the victors. It’s written by the scribes

After I read Jonah Lehrer’s statement about things being as real as the last time we remember them, I couldn’t help thinking. If memories shift in time, distorting the facts, changing the truth and shaping how we remember the past, they must shape the way we carry our legacy forward. They set the pace, the bar, the standard, the direction.

Our transcripts therefore shape the world, deciding what works and what doesn’t, what is praised and what is vilified, what is marginalized and for what reason. Our transcribers succeed one another in an endless sequence of interpretation and re-imagination of previous accounts. Ultimately, history is not written by the victors. It’s written by the scribes, the artists, the actors and directors, the editors and producers whose representations and renditions of what happened serve as record and reference to the rest of us.

Of course, with millions of scribes out there, only a few accounts survive, or make it to the top of our attention. We can’t heed them all, and choose some of them over others. Sometimes we go for the most entertaining ones, even if they’re not the most accurate. Other times we prefer the most easily remembered, the simplest or the weirdest ones. And sometimes we can’t decide what to go with because the available options are equally compelling. Lost for words, unable to make an informed decision, we choose at random. Chance plays a big role in memory and information processing, in the way we shape past and future — a much bigger role than we’d like to admit. At least that’s what I had in mind when I sat down to write this, and, for now, the insight holds.