Short Cuts

Michael Wood

I don’t know what it’s like at your end of the global village but I keep coming across extraordinary instances of evolutionary good cheer. The optimism doesn’t involve the theory of human origins or the longed for decline of the theology of intelligent design but the simpler assumption that adaptation is an ongoing success story. Human beings, it seems, are all right. We may shoot ourselves in the foot, other people in the head, crash cars and planes, ruin the environment and have a bad habit of turning conflicts of interest into vast cash bonuses, but natural selection works, or at least works better than reason and technology and cultural history want us to believe. The grand suggestion seems to be that although we feel we are helpless in all kinds of respects, help is not only round the corner but already lurking in our heads and our habits.

‘Your brain lies to you a lot,’ we read in Welcome to Your Brain (Rider, £12.99), Sandra Aamodt’s and Sam Wang’s informative picture of the state of play in neuroscience. Still, ‘for the most part it’s doing a great job.’ It answers questions ‘behind [our] back’, but only because there are so many questions we can’t answer by looking straight at them. And Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, in a new book called Delete (Princeton, £16.95), thinks what he calls ‘biological forgetting’ (‘built into our human physiology, down through the millennia of human evolution’) is a ‘perfectly functioning mechanism’, or was until we started replacing it with digital remembering.

Mayer-Schönberger has a revealing dilemma. He wants to talk about biological forgetting but he can’t get the computer out of his head or his language. He insists that for ‘us humans’, as he is fond of calling us, forgetting used to be the norm (or the rule) and remembering the exception, because the former was easy and the latter was hard. Now the situation is reversed because of digital memory, and yet (or perhaps I mean ‘and so’) Mayer-Schönberger’s endlessly repeated metaphor for this switch is itself digital. In the old days – that is, for several millennia up to the 1990s – ‘the default was to forget.’ Today ‘forgetting has become the exception, and remembering the default.’ He really does want to ‘humanise our digital age’, which he thinks can be done by constructing ‘a more forgetting world’. His constant suggestion is that we need to change ‘the default of remembering in the digital age’, to ‘flip the default back to where it has been for millennia’. What he means is that we should think outside the machine but he can only recommend a change of the machine’s program, and his dilemma is real because unlike the people who believe in ‘cognitive adjustment’, or what he calls, in a truly remarkable combination of science and commerce, a ‘cognitive upgrade’, he doesn’t think we are going to adapt to digital memory, and learn on our own to forget what it cannot but remember. In this sense he’s an optimist about evolution but a pessimist about what we’ve done with it, our adaptation of adaptation. What else can we now do except tinker with the program?

We could drop the metaphor of the brain or mind as a computer. This is what Aamodt and Wang recommend, because it’s ‘not really accurate . . . the brain works more like a Chinese restaurant that we know in Manhattan; it’s crowded and chaotic, and people are running around to no apparent purpose, but somehow everything gets done in the end – and efficiently too.’ What’s most interesting in this image is that we are the customers in this neuro-restaurant, not its owners or managers or waiters; and the same little allegory is at work in the conception of our brains and ourselves being different moral entities (‘Your brain lies to you a lot’). The brain in this sense is the adaptive unconscious but not the Freudian one, and ‘we’ are our conscious minds, an internal projection of whatever we think we are doing. I think, therefore I am in the dark.

Mayer-Schönberger distinguishes occasionally between remembering and being remembered, between a person’s difficulty in sifting through the flood of information and the administered society’s delight in having so much dope on us, but he wants us to worry about both, and he has only one real suggestion: an expiry date for all information, so that we can say how long we want it to be available, and to whom. Try that out on the Department of Homeland Security. But the attraction of the book doesn’t lie in its practical proposal or in its rather clunky, even heartless insistence on the virtue of forgetting – the author himself loses sight of all those people for whom forgetting is a desperate problem, even a disease. Almost every fault he attributes to ‘the digital age’ could have happened, did happen, in other ages by other means. Like remembering things we would rather forget and being remembered for them.

Mayer-Schönberger has some helpful things to say about the ‘cheap storage’ and ‘easy retrieval’ of digital data, but for once he undersells his case. Storage capacities have become all but infinite, and retrieval is not only easy but instantaneous. The size and speed of the possibilities of reference, whether we regard them as ‘information advantages’ or information nightmares, make it almost impossible to think coherently about the galloping digital world we have made, so that there is scarcely any more mileage in panicking about it than in celebrating it. But there is obviously something to start thinking about, and any coherence we can achieve will be welcome.

It’s clear that there is no simple technological or old-fashioned humanist solution to what may not even be a problem. Mayer-Schönberger evokes Borges’s story of Funes the Memorious, a young man who as a result of an accident acquired something like perfect recall, and who ‘could reconstruct all his dreams, all his fancies’. ‘I have more memories in myself alone,’ he says, ‘than all men have had since the world was a world.’ This mode of memory is a curse because Funes can’t really think (‘to think is to forget a difference’) and has great difficulty in sleeping. ‘He was the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform world which was instantaneously and almost intolerably exact.’ Mayer-Schönberger cites the astonishing recent case of a Californian woman who suffers from Funes’s imaginary condition. She is 41 years old and remembers pretty much everything that has happened to her since she was 11.

What are we to make of this? One of Borges’s implications, and indeed the apparent implication of the story of the woman in California, is that we should be careful what we wish for when we wish we could remember more. Another, slightly more recessive implication might be that the real plight is finally not quantitative at all. Perhaps what matters is not how much the person remembers but the detail and intensity of the recall, the intolerable exactness of the remembered world. We might cancel this condition with a drug, but I can’t imagine a cure for it. Certainly forgetting isn’t going to be much help. Nor is quick selection or biological cheer.