The Birth and Death of Memory

By Bruce Sterling
May 21-23, 1999
Source: http://www.deadmedia.org/notes/42/424.html

"The Future of Memory" Conference
International Center for Semiotic and Cognitive Studies
Republic of San Marino

Ideological Freeware, Distribute At Will

Hello, my name is Bruce Sterling, I am a writer and journalist from distant Texas. My speech today concerns "The Birth and Death of Memory."

This part is the birth of my speech. Very soon, I promise you, we will have the death of my speech. In between, I hope to say something memorable.

So, let us begin with the birth of memory. When was memory born? I am a writer, I am not a neurologist. My interest lies in forms of memory that can survive the death of the individual brain. Not memory within consciousness, but memory's lasting traces in the physical world. In other words, symbols. Records. Archives. Language. Media.

Therefore, I re-phrase our question. When was media born? The earliest physical evidence of symbolic records are found in bones. These prehistoric artifacts are prepared sections of animal bone, about the length of one's hand. These bones have grooves cut into them. These are deliberate, intentional, symbolic marks: long, careful rows of parallel cuts.

Microscopic analysis of these cuts shows that they were not made all at once. They were not decorations. They were accounts.

These grooved bones are records. We do not know what they were recording. There have been many speculations, of course. They might be phases of the moon, astronomical records. They might be calendars, records of days passing. Perhaps they are economics: days spent in some kind of labor, or accounts of gifts, or accounts of services.

This is all theory. All we know is that these notched bones are, by far, the longest-lived system of records that the human race ever created. These bones were born about 100,000 years ago, and they died about ten thousand years ago.

This bone technology was very widespread and successful. Notched bones of this type have been found in prehistoric excavations all over the planet. The technology never advanced, and the technology never decayed. The notched bones always looked very similar, no matter where they were found. This practice lasted ninety thousand years.

This much is well-attested. But were these bones were the true birth of media? I fear we underestimate our ancestors. The bones are fossil media, but the fossil record is untrue to the past.

Time does not preserve reality: time preserves only what time fails to destroy. The Stone Age left us a lot of evidence in stones, but this does not mean that stones were the core technology of the Stone Age.

If you study the lives of contemporary Stone Age people, you soon come to realize that their world is not made out of stones. Their world is made out of wood, bark, fiber, bone, shell, juices, poisons, toxins, drugs, thorns, hide, leather, string, skin, hair, fruit, seeds, roots, meat, and feathers. These are all organic materials. They rot easily, they decompose, they are very temporary. Time does not preserve them. The very first records created by human beings probably did not survive.

And what were these original physical records? Perhaps we can look to the apes. An American scholar named Susan Savage-Rumbaugh studies the bonobo apes in the African Congo.

These chimpanzees live in tribes of about a hundred apes. Every morning, the large tribe breaks up into small family groups, and they go out in the jungle to forage for food. They sometimes use primitive tools, such as the famous chimpanzee termite-stick. Chimpanzees have also been known to use stones as tools.

The small groups of apes separate all day, and they wander over many miles. At night, however, without fail, the small groups always gather together again, into the large tribe. But they do not gather where they started. No, they gather in a different place.

The question then arises: how do the apes know where to go at night? Susan Savage-Rumbaugh says that the answer is simple: the apes mark the trail. Certain trails, you see, are already written into the landscape through the passage of animal bodies. Animal trails are a proto-medium, a physical record of intents, and needs, and resources. Even an ant knows that following a trail will lead you to something good and useful. Some animals can track each other through scent, but chimpanzees have a bad sense of smell. So they mark the trail == they tear up the landscape.

They bend and break branches, they tear off big leaves and place them carefully on the ground, to point the way they have gone. The apes that follow read these symbols, and they follow them.

So, these apes leave symbolic messages by deliberately changing the vegetation. Unfortunately for them, they're not very good at it. Bonobo chimpanzees have never gotten beyond the left bank of the Congo River. The other side of the Congo River is a lovely place, but they have never gone there.

The same might be said for a proto-human stock, the extinct species we call Homo habilis. The Homo habilis species never left the nurturing landscape of Africa. But another extinct species, Homo erectus, exploded out of Africa, and travelled all over the world. Homo erectus crossed rivers, explored over mountain ranges, crossed great plains and deserts.

You might ask how this pre-literate, pre-human group of animals managed this great feat of travel, which no previous ape could perform. Perhaps they were just hardier than other apes. Or perhaps, they knew where they were going.

In Australia, pre-literate humans knew where they were going, because they had a system of marking trails. These were the legendary "song-lines" of Australia, and they were set up in a very deliberate, very poetic fashion. Great chunks of bark would be ripped from trees, leaving huge scars on the tree. Or branches would be stripped of bark and tied together with strips of hide. After a few months, the branches would grow together permanently, creating an artificial, human-made sign in the natural landscape.

With this system of signs came a system of poetry. Children were taught to sing the landscape. When they understood the songlines, they could sing their way from landmark to landmark, over thousands of kilometers.

The passage of time would erase this medium. But it was still a communication system of great power, because it might allow small groups to migrate with purpose and intelligence, to a known destination. Imagine that starvation is on the land, and that you, Homo erectus, know the songlines, but that Homo habilis, your older brother, does not know. Your advantage over him is spectacular; you will survive, he is doomed. Media becomes a matter of evolutionary life and death.

My suspicion, therefore, is that media was born about two and half million years ago. Media is much, much older than the human race.

The thing I like about this media origin theory is its missing link. A marked trail is a missing link between unintentional marks == the tracks and trails that an animal body leaves naturally, as it moves through the landscape == and intentional symbols, a sign hacked into a tree, a human sign that is given a mythic, religious, poetic meaning.

We have no record of this theoretical prehuman medium. A marked trail is temporary by its nature, it could not survive the passing of its landscape. But prehistory has many such concepts, mostly unsupported by evidence. We have no record of the entity we call "protolanguage," which is the theoretical state of language between the grunting and gestures of apes, and the human world of syntax and grammar. But we believe in the concept of protolanguage anyway, because it's very hard to believe that human grammar sprang up suddenly out of nothing at all.

In today's world, there is no such thing as a "primitive language." Primitive people have extremely complex languages. The only primitive languages we have belong to brain-damaged people. Or, to the spaces between established languages, the broken world of pidgins and creoles. Even a new-born pidgin, the halting two- word communications of refugees, conquered peoples and prisoners, cannot stay primitive. In a generation at most, it becomes a creole, and in a few generations, it becomes a thriving mongrel vernacular, like English.

The deep past is full of theoretical phantoms. Let us consider the imaginary language "Nostratic," which is said to be the ancestral language stock of the Indo- European family of languages. "Nostratic" is at least ten thousand years old, possibly much older.

Interestingly, the marks of landscape seem to be preserved in Nostratic. Some of its root words seem to be involved with mountains, rivers and rushing streams, the paleolithic world of the south Caucasus and eastern Anatolia.

If media arose from attempts to mark the landscape, perhaps the Nostratic language, too, arose from attempts to name the things in one's own immediate surroundings. To name the plants and animals is to know them. To know them, gives you the ability to use them, to survive. So perhaps we can say that languages of the Stone Age rose up from their region, that they grew there, like fine vintage wines.

A human language is a giant memory system, an intricate creation of millions of people, over thousands of years. Every human language has a regional version of reality. Each language cuts reality at some different angle. Even a humble dialect takes a chip from the broken stone of reality.

This brings us to the melancholy topic of the death of memory. Because across the world today, small, local languages are dying. Along with the mass extinctions in the natural world, the postindustrial epoch is bringing us mass extinctions of languages. It is difficult to quantify what we are losing by this, but we are definitely losing something of importance. People cheerfully die for the sake of their native language. When a language has died, what have we lost? Some vital aspect of the memory of a people.

My own native language is English, which is the great, globalized language primarily responsible for crushing all the other languages. English crushes those languages under its feet, like grapes in a global tub.

I know this is true. I admit it to you. I feel all the pain one feels at a sad event which causes one to benefit very much. I am an author of English-language books, so every death of a small language suggests more readers for me.

I would point put, however, that the noble Italian language is also far from guiltless in this regard.

Let me refer you to the very interesting and extremely morbid "UNESCO Red Book of Endangered Languages." There are hundreds of dying languages around the world, so we will concentrate on Europe. UNESCO's Red Book numbers 94 languages on the European continent. Europe has forty-three Indo-European languages, twenty- five Finno-Ugrian languages, six Turkic languages, plus Kalmyk, Cypriot Arabic, Basque, Romani, seven Jewish creoles, and nine diaspora dialects. Fifty of these 94 European languages, more than half of them, are considered endangered languages by UNESCO.

Since I speak in the ancient and honored Republic of San Marino, I must point out that the local language, "Emiliano Romagnolo," is one of those endangered languages. Italy is crammed with endangered languages. They are all being crushed like grapes by the televised Italian broadcasts of great media businessmen, like your former Prime Minister.

It presents a great moral difficulty for an English speaker like myself to even publicly recite the names of these victim languages. My Italian accent is so horrible that it will probably make this list of victim languages sound unintentionally comic. But despite all this, as a gesture of respect, just to show that I am paying attention, let me publicly recite the names of: Cimbrian, Algherese Catalan, Provencal, Ladin, Friulian, Molise Croatian, Gallerese Sardinian, and the native tongue of San Marino, "Emiliano Romagnolo." English is not killing these languages. Italian is killing them. The mighty Italian language, the unifying force of a Group of Seven advanced industrial nation.

I am not a linguist. I prefer engineering to syntax. If you looked at the paper I distributed to accompany this lecture, you will see that I am an amateur historian of media technology. My interest in the subject of the death of memory came about through studying new media.

Many of us here at this "Future of Memory" conference are deeply involved with new media, with historical databases, the social impact of television, digital libraries, information agents, and so forth. The reason I myself am among you is that I discovered that no one was keeping track of the new media that did not work. Everyone in the industry of creating new media wants to promote and sell new media, but most new media do not work. They fail and they die. They do not become the next dominant medium. New media do not carry civilization forward in safety, handing the torch the culture to the next generation. On the contrary, they mostly become dead media. Any memory entrusted to the care of these dead media becomes a dead memory.

The Internet in particular, the great titan of new media, is a fiendishly efficient device for destroying local languages, and local heritage, and local memory. Broadcast television was also very good at this. I give television every credit for enforcing national character, and destroying local character. I have seen this happen in my own region: the effect of national American television on regional cultures like Acadian Louisiana and the Texas-Mexican border has been absolutely astonishing. These backward, impoverished areas were almost obliterated by television in a single generation.

But the Internet is even more powerful, because it encourages the user to talk back and take part. Television merely floods the landscape from a central source, like a kind of paint. People under television are the oppressed; people on the Internet are collaborators.

The Internet appears at the user's fingertips, and seductively asks him to take part in the global world, to become a global citizen.

A global citizen has very little time or motivation to learn preindustrial regional languages. In my own case, these languages would be Comanche, Tonkawa and Lipan Apache. Comanche, Tonkawa and Lipan Apache are the languages spoken two hundred years ago in my home town of Austin, Texas. I am sure these languages have many valuable pieces of data about how to skin bison, dig roots, and live off the land of Texas in huts made of leather. I can guarantee you that I have no intention whatsoever of learning to speak these languages. UNESCO cannot make me learn them. A moral crisis cannot make me learn them. I bluntly refuse to learn them. I am far, far too busy surfing the Internet.

Why? Because the Internet sends electronic mail inviting me to go to conferences in distant San Marino. Mastery of Comanche, Tonkawa, and Lipan Apache will never give me these valuable things. I do not defy the global Net. No, I choose to be here with you. By that very choice, I carry a message of doom.

For the third part of my speech, let me turn to the subject of archival memory, or the collected history of the human race.

Why do archives die? There are many possible causes.

First, entropy. The passage of time. Natural decay. The elements. Insects. Fungus. Fire. Flood. Earthquake. Undergraduates. Paper can last for centuries if it is well cared for, but it can also turn to mush in a matter of hours.

Second, mnemonicide, or the deliberate killing of memory. Human malice. This happened to the Mayans when their libraries were burned. It happened to the Incas when their knotted strings were burned. It happened in China at the command of the first Emperor. It happened under Stalin in the Soviet Union. It is happening in the Balkans today.

The third reason is obsolescence. Indifference. Loss of interest. Civilization does not break down, there may be no foreign invaders, but the media of one's ancestors goes out of vogue. The archives are no longer seen as possessing any value. Cultures change. People lived under the stone monuments of Egypt for hundreds of years with no idea how to read them. The Babylonians built their homes out of broken cuneiform bricks, the clay records and accounts of the past.

One recalls the legendary words of doom: if these books deviate from the Koran then they are blasphemous; if they agree with the Koran, then they are superfluous. In the contemporary epoch this might be rephrased: If it's on the Net then we have it already, and if it's off the Net, then obviously nobody wants it.

Digital data is easy to reproduce, but it still has no archival format. There is no permanent way to store digital data. This is a great and terrifying scandal. There are problems in the hardware, problems in the coding schemes, problems in the formats.

It would be a simple matter for our civilization to create digital archives of tremendous, unparalleled scope: if we had the money and the political will. We have money. We have no political will.

My great fear for the "future of memory" is that history will become part of the culture industry. Culture as we have understood it since the Renaissance could dissolve into the stream of media, like salt in water. All memories will be for sale. Any memory without a commercial value will not be supported or sustained.

This is a nightmare vision, but nightmares can be useful things. One imagines a version of Orwell's 1984 where Winston Smith is not a political ideologue, but a software salesman. No return on investment? Into the memory hole.

What does this nightmare look like in detail? It looks like this. Our heritage is no longer the heritage of mankind, but a commercial part of the heritage business. An old castle is no longer an old castle, but a painted simulacrum for the tourist trade. Universities become non-governmental organizations, or, even scarier, post-governmental organizations. We no longer sympathize with the thinking of the past, but merely try to retail its commercially attractive aspects. Memory becomes a commodity. Cultural identity becomes a consumer choice. Bad archives are deliberately favored by the market, because they are the culture-industry's version of planned obsolescence. A computer that swiftly breaks and decays can be sold to us again. We will buy the same music again and again, in different formats, on tape, vinyl, CD and DVD.

In this media-saturated world, the archives of the twentieth century might still be visible, like scratch marks on old bone. But the motivation behind them would be lost, no longer understood. There would be no past and no future, just the flow of data and the rise and fall of the market. In that imaginary society, in that dystopia of commodity totalitarianism, the media of liberal democracy would have no meaning. Just as we ourselves see no meaning in the long-lost media devices of Athenian democracy, such as the kleroterion, the ostraka, and the clepsydra.

Would history end? No. History does not end. But speeches must end. This speech has ended.

Thank you for your attention.