Watching Alan Yentob’s Imagine documentary on the future of the traditional paper-based book: Books – The Last Chapter, the other night, I was rather chilled by some of the ideas presented. The documentary referred to the theories of Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian philosopher and scholar, who famously said, ‘the medium is the message’. He predicted the World Wide Web almost thirty years before it was invented. To what extent does/will the new medium of the e-book re-wire our brains? (and more generally, to what extent do/will new technologies do the same?). In the documentary, Douglas Coupland, who has written a book on McLuhan, suggested, that by storing large parts of our memory online, we were in fact moving into the realm of operating as de facto artificial intelligence.
You may think that this is a fanciful notion. That just because we store our photographs on Flickr, say, we are handing over our sensory capacity or our ability to remember; but extrapolate Coupland’s idea: already, large parts of our memory are stored online (not just photographs). We are moving towards a point where almost all our memory is downloadable. When I was a teenager, before mobile phones and before the internet, I used to know all my friends’ phone numbers off by heart.
Now, I’m not saying, storing vast amounts of data which can be stored more efficiently elsewhere is a good thing. On the whole, I’m rather glad that I don’t need to remember everyone’s phone numbers (or addresses, postcodes, birthdays etc). But what happens when we reach a stage where we don’t need to remember anything, in fact, when remembering is a less efficient system to downloading?
I am already at the stage where, instead of spending the minute or so of recall effort required to remember the name of say, an actor, I just Google the film title on my phone and get his/her name that way. I have bypassed that function of my brain and in so doing, it atrophies. The functionality of my brain is being usurped by technology. That which we traditionally refer to as our souls: are deepest felt beliefs, our most emotional memories, that which we hold to be our true selves, is being franchised out to banks of data storage systems in Sweden. What are we losing in this process?
Discussing this with my friend Nadia recently on Facebook, a medium I had never even heard of five years ago (but whose pre-existence is almost inconceivable now), my friend shone a more positive light on the process. She suggested that, as one part of our brain atrophies, that of recall, so another develops. Are we in fact, she asked, not evolving higher, extra-sensory functions of our mind? So, are we or not?