Sunday, 15 April 2012

Old Snow

I don't know if my memory has always been poor but the everyday things sleet through my hand like old snow. Perhaps because of this, I have an obsession with memory and with the history of thinking about memory.

(blah blah blah, it's long, fair warning)
 

Before we could write we thought differently. The patterns of speech and thought are different in an oral culture to a written one. They are even different for those who cannot write. If you spend time communicating with people connected to a written culture, their thinking slips into yours and changes it. This happens invisibly, for the most part.

Before we could write, we needed ways to lock important memories into place. A law that the majority don't remember is barely a law. A history of the culture can only live for a generation in no-one recalls.

So we made stories, and we made them a certain way. The stories had movement in them, travel through landscapes and three dimensional space. People are keyed to recall the way they move. Once, drunk, I found my way home like a dog, non-conscious but awake, following the route written in the deeper structures of my brain. It's not unusual for this to happen to people but its rare that we wonder about the persistence of complex spatial information even when the personality is damages or inactive. One would think that the brain would guard continuity of personality above all else, but it is not so.

They had potent, strange living beings. Things like animals but with qualities no animal has, or jumbled up, or expanded or contracted. We remember living things. We remember animals especially, we still teach our children with their names.

They had people. The people were often only met one at a time, but they were in complex relationships with each other. They all related to at least one other person in some way. Few were alone. It's a technique for memory masters to recall the sequence of a deck of cards by envisioning a journey with a series of meetings with distinctive people in known places. The Greek creator of the Art of Memory is said to have discovered it when after fleeing from a dinner party when the house collapsed, he was able to pinpoint the location of each other person and so identify the bodies. Personality. Locations.

Looked at as purely an information processing problem it should be easier to recall a sequence of isolated card numbers and names. That's how we would set the problem for a computer. It's more efficient. But our minds (mainly) hate that. They dislike abstracts. They love networks of living things, located in space, even though it takes more information to process, this is knowledge we will hang on to.

The stories had other things, not human, not animal, things that could never exist. Gods, ghosts, monsters. We needed to remember ideas but our minds are not friendly to abstraction, especially without the distance writing creates. So our Good and Ill, Brave and Fearful, all became living things, they could speak to us like that directly, they still speak to many people. Again, this seems less efficient than simply having a law, but it's not. It's much better to speak to god directly, what if he changes his mind?

Even if we are only speaking to a part of ourselves when this happens. It's still going to be more adaptable, and possibly smarter, than a written law.

And there is one last thing. Groups. People remember better when they have to create, and perform as a group. A story told from one person to another, in isolation, will be recalled one way. One we have to learn, perform as a synchronised group and do so in front of our closest network, that will stick in the mind like nothing else.

(And singing and dancing. We talk about writing as a technology and we can sense the remains of oral culture in our written culture. Once, my cousin told me a joke and I stopped him half way through and asked “Is this Irish?” He said “How did you know?” I replied “It's long”. But I could hear it in the words, the long long sentences, the repetitions and returns you need to encode something without writing. Writing is a technology but talking is also a kind of technology and I think dancing and singing came before talking and persisted in the talking-culture in the same way that Irish joke and the call-and-response of churches and a thousand other things persist and call back to the oral culture ours grew from.)

So it's interesting to me that my favourite hobby is pretty much a kind of reverse-engineering of the techniques and obsessions of an oral culture. Journeys through strange spaces, unusual and distinctive living things, complex personalities in relationships, powerful, embodied, supernatural forces. All done in a group, performed by everyone present, for each other. It's like the deeper parts of our minds remember what we used to get up to and the structures just kind of vomited up the whole RPG industry as a kind of accidental/evolved version of our older selves.

I can remember how all my characters died, who they met and what they did. I'm in training at work, a place I paid to pay attention to. I have forgotten most of the processes we have to learn.

(ps, there's magic items too. Charismatic items with strange powers are also a big deal in oral cultures.)

(pps, there is as yet, no singing or dancing in RPG's apart from SeaDracula, but it's only a matter of time before it happens I think, probably through virtual space where people feel safer.)

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