Monday, 27 February 2012

On Building Palaces

- how sweet the silent backward tracings! / the wanderings as in dreams--the meditation of old times resumed / --their loves, joys, persons, voyages - walt whitman - memories -

I’ve been fascinated with memory palaces since first encountering them in my teens reading about Hannibal Lecter (briefly discussed here). The idea that a person could build a beautiful space in their minds and escape to it, and, at the same time, improve their memory and ability to make connections, this remains a beautiful image to me today, but it was unimaginably perfect to the unfocussed only child that I was (ok, and still am…). I toyed with building such a mental structure, and managed to do an ok job of memorising cards and attaching them to the street and house I grew up in, but a workable palace always escaped me; I was distracted and, at that time, probably felt there little worth remembering. Memory palaces became reduced to another example of wonderful things other people did, like magic or wingsuit flying.

But why bother, of course, to memorise anything at all? “We have Google for that” etc. Having to remember things is starting to seem quaint, and to be honest I have some sympathy for this view. I’ve never been convinced, for instance, that a written exam tests anything approaching a useful skill. It doesn’t examine writing skill any better than well researched coursework, and it doesn’t test your ability to interrogate an idea under pressure any better (and I think probably much worse) than a structured oral discussion. Instead, the arguments for retaining remembering as a skill, at least when it comes to education and research, must surely lie in being able to make novel links between data points that are kept in mind.

I won’t list the books and blog posts dedicated to mourning the effects of digitisation and the internet on our minds, everyone has their favourite/most loathed. These are the voices heard, arguably, at the point of transition from a culture of memory to a culture of access. The best case would be that the transition is swift and we move to a society which prides the particular skills of the digital age (as the society we leave prides the particularities of book learning), rather than trying to map the concerns of an old world onto the new with increasingly fraught and fractious results.

The worst case, however, is a lost generation (or two, or more) who are expected to possess a host of new digital specific skills in the adult world that are not yet valued by the education culture they find themselves embedded in. These are the students who might, already, be failing on academic courses even as they start to write the things which impact upon the world, even as the cultural products which surround them seem to feed, promote, and reward their fledgling abilities.

So, a pressing research question for Digital Humanities might be “how do we make tools to avoid a lost generation?” And one response might be “digital memory palaces” (though this is, perhaps, a hopeful thought experiment rather than a viable suggestion).

Imagine a system where you could easily build and edit rooms and buildings online (maybe selecting them from a list of famous places, maybe building them out of photos), rooms that could be populated with discrete objects which, in turn, could be tagged with data (if we’re being wishful it could be virtual) reality, but VR isn’t a necessary requirement for a culture increasingly used to traversing and memorising rich 3D environments in games; when navigating World of Warcraft, or Skyrim for instance, many players abandon the maps for these huge expanses as they develop a sense of scale and placement of familiar landmarks (and in the case of WOW this still ably functions in relatively homogenous terrain)). Zotero enables researchers to curate articles and references into projects for easy reference, so why not have a room? You’d perform a regular Google search to find key articles, and at a click they get saved into a holding grid. After your research, go into your memory system, go to the room built for your project and create and tag objects with the relevant associated files taken from the grid. An essay on Foucault might be attached to a sculpture of a nude, or, better, The History of Sexuality could be attached to a pornographic calendar (the point of a memory palace is that the associations are memorable!), etc. etc. You could physically draw links between objects by clicking on each and having a coloured string seen to be tied between them. If specific articles seems too much then what about the plan for an essay or a book based around the arrangement of objects tied to a particular idea giving a compelling visual (and easily adjustable) display of your work in progress?  I know that when I was writing my thesis it was hard to keep everything in mind, to see the shape of the whole project, and maybe such a system, particularly if used from the start would have helped to visualise the work.

Such a palace, a room system, stored in the cloud and used regularly, would build up a history of your projects; by glancing into old rooms you could be reminded of ideas which might help for new research, to see the old connections you’d made. More interestingly this might work offline, and this might be considered the end goal, to provide you with a digitised visual guide to your thinking that would also function when the computer wasn’t there. Because you’d have built a memorable palace you’d have been training yourself to think in this historically significant way. On the train, or taking a walk, you could amble through the halls to your new work and start to think your way through, to rearrange. If a flash of insight came the next time you logged on you’d make the changes to the room until it matched your mental map and thereby further cement the connection. Maybe, after a while, eventually, you wouldn’t need to log on at all, the palace would be mentally accessible and that’s all you’d need.

In a school setting where you’re still expected to learn the periodic table a 10 or 12 year old would build their first room, do their first revision. That small room might be the start of a palace which will be with them, growing, their whole lives, online and off. As their school system places continued privilege on memory in a world increasingly based on access and links the digital memory palace would sit between the two, an outsource of memory which also fosters an ancient memory technique lost to scholastic life. By making memory and access techniques available in the same space, students who’ll later become researchers could learn their most efficient and effective blend of creative techniques.

Maybe this is just a digital art project, a comment on the fate of memory. But it’s also a tool I’d love to get a chance to use.

*Update*: This could change things...

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