Without Memory

What would we be without memory?  Would we be happier?  Would we never regret the passing of the past?  Would everything we see, everyone we know, remind us of nothing?  The great Alexandrian library and museum took its name from the fact that it was dedicated to the Muses, the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, goddess of memory.  A museum holds the memories of our past, as our brain holds the memories of our life.

In his memoirs, the Vicomte de Chateaubriand wrote,

Memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in some strange way blind us to life.  How often this has caused me to feel that my memories, and the labours expended in writing them down are all part of the same humiliating and, at bottom, contemptible business!  And yet, what would we be without memory?  We would not be capable of ordering even the simplest thoughts, the most sensitive heart would lose the ability to show affection, our existence would be a mere never-ending chain of meaningless moments, and there would not be the faintest trace of the past.  How wretched this life of ours is!—so full of false conceits, so futile, that it is little more than the shadow of the chimeras loosed by memory.”

 I often wonder about the consequences of memory when contemplating popular and undoubtedly prudent sayings such as “living in the moment,” or the self-attention advocated in The Power of Now.  I understand these principles in theory but rarely in practice.  I’m not a Zen master and always get overwhelmed with memories from the past and anxieties of the future whenever I attend mediation sessions.  I have a friend who is a Buddhist monk at Tassajara who says this is normal, and that one should think of these in-coming thoughts as tennis balls that simply need to be lobbed out of one’s mind.

I even wonder if the notion of living entirely in the present is an excuse for a lack of knowledge, perspective and insightful anticipation.

While I hesitate to draw a commercial comparison, brands could not exist without memory.  Existing in the minds of consumers, brands are the accumulated thoughts and experiences people have with brands.  Think of Apple, the preeminent brand today.  Many of us are old enough to remember pre-Mac Apple, and Apple’s famous anti-IBM 1984 TV ad.  I had an MBA student last year who didn’t know who Elizabeth Taylor was on the day she died, but could describe the 1984 ad in detail despite its single airing happening before she was born.

Great brands trade on our memories of them: Chevy, Ivory Soap, Coke, Michelin, Crest, Kirin…  New TV shows like “Pan Am” trade on our memories of even a long defunct brand.  Edsel continues to connote failure, a joke. Even internet brands evoke their beginnings.

And that’s the fallacy of companies attempting to create a brand from scratch, simply by asserting that certain benefits will be appreciated by consumers viewing its advertising.   Bricks are laid one at a time and the house doesn’t come to life until all the walls are up.  A brand isn’t a product or service, distinct from the world it lives in.  I’ve recently seen a “brand” strategy that includes among its many objectives the desire to produce a feeling of gratitude among people who see the ads as they imagine how they might feel after they buy and use the product in question.  This might be very hard to accomplish!  I don’t know how to feel grateful for something I’ve never experienced, regardless how wonderful that something might be.

Back in the Dark Ages of my career, I remember sitting in a meeting at DEC after the launch of their Alta Vista search engine—lauded at the time—when someone asked whether anyone had heard of this new competitor with the kooky  name, Google.  It was dismissed as an upstart.  But then Ken Olsen, DEC’s founder, dismissed PC’s thus starting DEC’s demise.  No business school student I’ve had in the past three years has ever even heard of Digital Equipment Corporation, much less understood its importance in the history of computing.  DEC has been erased from memory, along with Silicon Graphics, Amdahl and hosts of other companies born and died in the Valley.  Facebook, now valued at $104 billion (how do you even imagine that?) sits on the former SUN campus.  History buffs may well be scratching their heads.  We know what happens to people who forget the past.

Facebook isn’t going the way of SUN anytime soon and has given the world a communication platform unlike anything seen before.  Along with Twitter and other social sites, Facebook may be one example of a brand that does, in fact, live very much in the present.  Not much lives in the past on Facebook; even less so on Twitter.  It’s about this moment, right now, and the anticipation of the next five minutes. A Google search, on the other hand, is all about delivering the past, to the eternal regret of people and companies who want their pasts forgotten.

With the vast surveillance capabilities of the US government, and their storage in what will be the world’s largest server facility being built in Utah, there will be no such thing as a forgotten memory.  The very idea will be irrelevant.  I tell my sons to consider every computer key stroke, every cell phone call, every site visited, bill paid—perhaps even every word spoken in public—will be known by someone, somewhere, sometime.  I still get unnerved today when I’m writing to a friend on Gmail about, say, a dog and simultaneously an ad for Purina Dog Chow is being served across the top of the page.  In other hands, this aggregation of key words and their linkage to advertisers who pay to know could have very different consequences.

I think, perhaps, there are situations in which we would be happier without memory.  A loss or a broken heart might be one.  In these circumstances evolution may have got it right giving goldfish their three-second memories. Why remember anything that produced pain and anguish.



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  1. Memory is in my opinion the single most important attribute of what makes humans human. Memory allows us to learn and to adapt, to use our past to predict the future and to live a single cohesive life. We may be able to learn reflexes through instinct if we did not have the same memory as we enjoy today, but without it, we would be lost in any research field. Research is built from one idea to another, and without being able to learn from those original core concepts we would be nowhere. Think about American literature if Mark Twain had never existed…

    I could not agree more about memory and ad campaigns. A good ad will stick in ones mind much longer then the television program that was being watched at the time. I do disagree about facebook though. In my opinion, they have made a mistake in their understanding of memory, i.e., through the use of “timeline.” Or really, the users have misunderstood timeline, as it seems that everyone disapproves of it. Timeline tries to capture your past and document it so others can relive it. It takes your memory and digitizes it through our current technology. Is this a good thing? I don’t know, but I my instinct (based on learned habits) is that it is good and people are overreacting in a negative way to the change.

  2. Debby Moorhead

     /  March 9, 2013

    who are you?


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