Monday, December 13, 2021

Exhalation, Memory, Writing

My oldest niece — DN2's child — is 34-and-a-half years old. At Christmas 32 years ago, her parents got a video camera and spent Christmas morning videotaping every moment of her day. Later in the afternoon, when the rest of our family came up to visit them, we spent the whole time watching the videotape of what her morning had been like as she opened her mound of presents.

Ted Chiang's science fiction short story "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" brought me back to that day. In the story, most people have taken up the practice of automatically recording video of their every moment, and a new technology has just made it possible to access those videos efficiently to play back immediately, checking and essentially replacing your memory on demand.

The story's narrator questions the effect this will have on organic human memory, examining and comparing his own memories to videos, at first as an example but soon as a painful object lesson. He also juxtaposes these reflections with a story about the effect of introducing writing to a preliterate society.

We don't normally think of it as such, but writing is a technology, which means that a literate person is someone whose thought processes are technologically mediated. We became cognitive cyborgs as soon as we became fluent readers, and the consequences of that were profound.

Before a culture adopts the use of writing, when its knowledge is transmitted exclusively through oral means, it can very easily revise its history. It's not intentional, but it is inevitable; throughout the world, bards and griots have adapted their material to their audiences and thus gradually adjusted the past to suit the needs of the present. The idea that accounts of the past shouldn't change is a product of literate cultures' reverence for the written word. Anthropologists will tell you that oral cultures understand the past differently; for them, their histories don't need to be accurate so much as they need to validate the community's understanding of itself. So it wouldn't be correct to say that their histories are unreliable; their histories do what they need to do.

Right now each of us is a private oral culture. We rewrite our pasts to suit our needs and support the story we tell about ourselves. With our memories we are all guilty of a Whig interpretation of our personal histories, seeing our former selves as steps toward our glorious present selves.

But that era is coming to an end. (pp. 226–227)

In addition to my personal memory of reliving my niece's Christmas morning, Chiang's story also made me think of Pearl North's YA speculative fiction book Libyrinth, which told of violent conflict between cultures over whether to maintain literacy or not. I remember when I read her book in 2009, I found the idea that literacy could ever be consider bad as startling and unsettling.

Now, I can at least entertain the idea. Would a culture based on oral traditions be preferable in some way? Was writing, as a technology, a mistake for humans on some larger scale? Are technologies that supplement human memory mistakes? Or are the technological changes we're undergoing now all just as relative as the past ones for future generations? Many of us already can't remember anyone's phone numbers, and it doesn't matter, right?

"The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" is part of Chiang's collection Exhalation, and (big surprise) there's not a bad story in it. Most are pretty challenging. This is not surprising, given that he wrote the story that the film Arrival is based on.

I've got three stories left to go.

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