Memory: the next frontier
By Bruce McKinney
A thread that connects and unites all human beings is memory. Without it we are cavemen on the edge of oblivion. With it, we are linked with ever expanding knowledge, functioning in a world that evolves. Our comprehension [awareness, understanding] constantly increases, and has from the beginning of time, while our ability to deeply remember only recently became possible. I'm speaking of the breathtaking scope of memory made possible by the linking of unlimited numbers of processors and electronic storage devices. It is our next frontier.
We understand the importance of memory when we think of the occasional discovery of isolated tribesmen that, absent contact with the modern world, live in a primitive state. Our connection to the civilized world, it turns out, is tenuous. Break the cycle of information transfer and we are like them. What we know is not intuited. It is learned, transmitted from generation to generation by education and experience. Society so values memory that it organizes itself to ensure transfer is effective. It starts with pre-school and now includes organized education to at least age 18, often to 21 and increasingly beyond. Two hundred years ago life expectancy was barely 40. Today we spend half that time passing on our understanding of how things are done. Life is more complex and there is more to know, more to remember.
Five centuries ago, we arrived at a crossroads similar to the one we face today. A couple of millennia past, Greek and Roman scholars were making great discoveries, both in terms of physical and social sciences. Indeed, millennia prior to that the Egyptians accomplished architectural and construction wonders we still cannot fully grasp. Even more marvels were going on in Arabia, Persia, India and China. Yet, virtually all was forgotten with no practical means of passing this knowledge on. For a thousand years, the world plunged into the Dark Ages, rescued only when Gutenberg invented a means to save and distribute this knowledge to all mankind. Still, the press lacked the technical capacity to capture more than a speck of memory. Lincoln's thoughts could be preserved, those of tens of thousands of soldiers and slaves forgotten. Today, we are on the threshold of the next quantum leap, where everyone's memories, yours included, can be permanently saved. A new Renaissance unfolds.
These days the human experience itself looms as the next threshold for important research. What we did, how we did it and why are questions that when answered by tens of thousands, if not millions, will provide crucial information that helps future generations overcome many of the issues we face today. Access to this information about ourselves may well unlock the enigma of self-destructive actions, resolve many medical mysteries, show us the impact of behavior, experience and diet through lifetimes, across generations, even to the scores Lincoln spoke of in the Gettysburg Address. Our greatest goal, earnestly spoken here, may simply be to leave a sufficient permanent record that humans of the future might in time see in our behavior lessons to move beyond our most self-destructive communal act: war. Santayana said if we do not learn, we relive. Our greatest project, one in which every person on the planet should in time have an opportunity in which to participate, is simply this: leave a record that others may learn. Good will come of it.