Funny thing memory
We tend to pay little attention to it; until it starts to fail us.
Sometimes its reason for failing us is a conspiracy of genes + environment – creating a disposition to Alzheimer’s and other forms of degenerative disease – the desperate creeping extinction of everything that made us one the whole beautiful living breathing loving human being we are.
At other times it’s disappearance is to do with the impact of new technologies. Recent technologies tempt us to dispense with our need to ‘remember’. Or they diffuse or diminish our natural ability to remember those things most important and valuable to us. In his book the shallows, Nicholas Carr points to how excessive immersion in the internet and the digital world disturbs our ability to transfer and store working memory into our deeper long term memory, reshaping our neural pathways.
Unlike language, art or drama – older human technologies designed to mine, explore, capture, elevate and replay memory and the experience and impact of living – our most recent technologies sometimes seem to seek to simply mathematically atomise our lives and the memory of them until human feeling is viewed as nothing more than a data point – something to be measured calibrated and engineered.
The idea that consciousness, identity and the precious value of memory is a form or condition of existence that can simply be dissected, measured, data pointed, and reengineered by science is a theme explored in Nick Payne’s play Elegy. A woman raddled by a degenerative disease that will eventually kill her is told her condition can be halted by ‘life saving’ surgery – the miracle of science – but only at the cost of catastrophic loss of memory. At which point one has to ask: ‘What life are you saving if not the recollected one; the one filled with precious riches and experiences?’
In some ways the diaspora of memories and recollections once housed in picture frames diaries sketchbooks letters and albums into the lost vaults of smart phone devices and hard drives is robbing us of tangible tactile living memory. This functional un-remembering allow us to abdicate the responsibility for maintaining those experiences, memories or recollections and synthesizing them. The machine nature of calling up data is very different to the human nature of recollecting memory – the former is perfect, linear, modal and cached, the second, imperfect, linear, messy and overlapping, every journey into it opening up the possibilities of new revelation – as opposed to the same data cache relentlessly replayed like the locked loop in a stored file.
One of the most powerful drivers of our progress and evolution and of our astonishing resilience as a species is personal and shared recollection. Perhaps memory is a just a simple evolutionary trait mythologised – of collected wisdoms and experiences of fear pain survival and joy, regurgitated in fire side stories, tales, mementoes, symbols artefacts and dramas.
But to connect memory or remembering to some higher order of existence – to have created the thread between what is, what has been and what will be via the technology of memory is some proof of our ability to transcend the claw and scratch of base existence.
That the memory of us and what we do may well be a vanity particular to our species – a desperate need for our life to be more than some nihilistic little blip on a cosmic scale.
Nonetheless, our need to try and reach beyond the brackets of birth and death and seize immortality; whether it be through our beliefs, by our actions, the legacies we leave, the children we bear or the blunt tool of extending our physical and conscious existence, is a defining trait in us.
Gladiator’s Maximus demonstrates our need to be remembered as an inspiration of improvement and achievement when he states: “What we do in life echoes in eternity”
To be forgotten is a terrible thing. Immortality, until some scientific trickster or data consciousness A.I. guru makes it otherwise , is mostly an exercise in seeding a process of relentless remembering.
We have a number of simple systems already in place, some rooted in thousands of years of repeated doing and some rooted in immoveable belief systems, and some developed through more recent technologies.
Some forms or remembering have until recently been seen as the sign of mental distress or illness. Take Nostalgia. Sneaking off for a quick youtube binge of TV theme tunes from childhood or rummaging through pictures of old Y Front adverts (love Retronaut!!) and a desperate yearning to watch the infamous Ziggy Stardust Top of the Pops is usually seen by the up-tight ‘its all abut the Now man’ zealots as some mawkish sentimentality BUT recent developments in psychoanalysis have shown that nostalgia is a powerful human tool – and can actually strengthen our sense of self and centre our identity, enabling us to weather greater shifts, turbulence and transition.
Look Back In Joy, a recent Guardian article looking at the power of Nostalgia, focuses on an Greek Born American academic, Constantine Sedikides, who had left the University of North Carolina to become Professor of Social & Personality Psychology at the University of Southampton. He realised that he was using nostalgia to manage the turbulence and dislocation of changing continents. This led him to exploring in far more robust academic terms the role and facility that nostalgia provides us with. His findings are liberating. Sedikides talks of nostalgia as the “perfect internal politician, connecting the past with the present, pointing optimistically to the future” and a mental state “absolutely central to human experience”.
For me this quick blog journey through the Art of Remembering was bough on by a recent collision of banal choices, a profound realisation and professional curiosity.
The banal. Sky movie choice time with my children. “What about The Book of Life?” – a simple, beautiful whimsical story with a simple point by the master Guillermo Del Toro. Yes, its about greatness. Yes, its about the illusion of courage. Yes, its about true love. yes, its about belonging – but really, it id a film about not forgetting. Relentlessly Remembering is about Not Forgetting. Memory and the act of remembering are the most powerful tools that we have at our disposal. We are all kept alive in the hearts and minds eyes and memories of those who love us and have lived out some part of their lives in around and about us.
The profound. In a simple exchange between my brother and I, we reminded ourselves that the effects of my beautiful but now dead mother will eventually need to be shared out between my he and I – the next step in the atomisation of her living memory into our lives and eventually the lives of my children and so on. Each effect vibrates with associated memory – sodden with the context which arrives like a steam train every time they are recalled into being – expressions, sounds, smells, feelings, times and experiences. The atomic truth that an atom never dies – and that the world vibrates with the atomic echoes of every one who has ever lived needs to include the more ephemeral but still equally powerful atomic nature of the vibrations of memory that run through the effects of those we have loved. Their atomic nature is indirectly imbued by their having been part of a life. They are rendered ‘animate’ by those vibrations. This belief in this form of conscious osmosis doesn’t stop at the effects and belongings of those who have passed out of sight. We also apply it to sites and buildings – from Stone Henge and battle fields to the blue plaques on buildings. We make pilgrimages to the hallowed halls of here and there, wishing for the conscious greatness and wellhead of wisdom and learning steeped in their walls to pour out into us.
The professional. This curiosity arose while exploring the purpose of one of the Virgin Accelerator businesses I have had the pleasure of working with. In a world of zero hours and the death of the social contract between large corporations and their employees, their idea of a platform that links previous, present and future employees creates a simple and compelling way for rebuilding a powerful and precious social memory into a company.
Social or Living Memory in a corporation or business is increasingly left to chance and the random foray into face-book pages, LinkedIn and the odd Instagram surge. Fully connecting with a company’s Now – amongst its employees, the communities it touches, its customers, its partners and suppliers – is only part of true socialisation
Socialising a company requires more than just acting in the Now. But few companies actively connect their past with their present and even fewer attach it to their future. The anti-socialising of a company – the active dislocation and rupture the social threads that run through it – the ties that bind it from its past to its future – are not just an oversight on the part of the social strategy or HR.
It is not just economic pressures or the trend for zero hours that destroy the social contract and living memory of a business. Many ambitious and venal execs actively dispense with the ‘dead wood’ and not always for the right reasons. This forest fire approach is often simply a way of removing those with a greater living memory of the business than the ‘new’ order now prevailing and controlling it .
Agreed, often the human nature of getting stuck in our ways: fixing things: securing them and subsequently seeing all change to them as alien or dangerous can kill a business; sucking the light and life out of it. But the baby & bathwater approach to removing people who’ve been around too long can rob corporations of a vital cornerstone of their resilience. When done wilfully this kind of action should be seen as an aggression against the business and in turn the shareholder – because it is purposefully eviscerating a source of memory and knowledge that though in its linear and previous form may be obsolete, could be re-tasked and transformed into a new and more powerful resource to greater long term value.
All of these impacts, however great or small, can create a form of Corporate Alzheimer’s – the degeneration of the social memory of the company, and with it the very thing that made the company burn so brilliantly for so long.
In a conversation with a large American telecomm business about how they might help High School kids resist dropping out, I was surprised to find that they struggled to see the value in connecting their ex employees – a truly universal and multitudinous cohort of living memory and life experience – with the young high school crowd via a weekly skype roulette. The idea was simple – for a massive telecoms and connectivity provider to create a showcase of meaningful connections by using social platforms to randomly connect high school kids and oldies to share moments of life and experience to mutual benefit. I realised that to grasp the value of this and institute this type of initiative requires an innate understanding of the power and value of being remembered for ex employees and of memory to those just staring on their journey.
Regardless of what a company gets wrong, and many get much wrong in regards to how they treat their employees over time – the truth is those companies still invest an enormous amount of time and money into training up and expanding the capabilities of their workforce (self interestedly granted but in that mutual self interest lies the truth of the social contract between an employee and an employer).Why let it all walk out the door when the employee leaves? Because sometimes their tenure was bumpy or you didn’t act in the best manner towards them?
At the close of the Theory of Everything , when Steven and his ex wife Jane watch their children playing in the garden, their exchange summarises the value and potency of connected imperfections perfectly.
“Look what we made”.
For all the mistakes. For all the disappointments. For all the pain. Would you have it any other way? Memory can hurt. But is can also heal. Forgetting is a cop out.
Some people and the companies they run would be all the better for taking this view – and in doing so commit to rebuild their ability to relentlessly remember – drawing a long line from their past to their future. Social or Living memory is not only one of the most powerful human facilities. It could also be the cornerstone of a companies greatest resilience in our accelerating atomizing world.
Purpose, the north star of any company, is one of its tools for Relentless Remembering – and it becomes meaningless if it is only socialised in the Now.
A purpose must be part of a continuum that reaches from the beginning of a company to its end. And to do that it must exist inside a structure that values and facilitates everyone’s ability to relentlessly remember and be improved and enlightened by that remembering.