Saturday, April 19, 2008

MEMORY: Helpful Devices or Convenient Dumps?

Prices of memory devices have gone down remarkably over the years. Due to competition and technological improvements, new generations of memory chips replaces the old at less than half the price. Modern disk drives not only perform better, they cost less. The memory capacity increases dramatically while reducing the physical size at the same time. Whole encyclopedias of old can be easily crammed into a tiny gadget. What used to fill huge library shelves can now be simply compressed into a small device to fit the shirt pocket. With the invention of the Amazon Kindle, entire books and libraries can be downloaded wirelessly into a small electronic reader. While on the one hand, we marvel at what technology can do for us, it might be good to pause and ponder if it has helped us become better developed persons.
  • Has it improved our ability to read and write?
  • Has it resulted in a gentler and more caring society?
  • Has it help mankind be more patient with one another? Look around us, especially in hush-and-rush environments, and one can see more negative than positive examples.
  • Will this improvement in technology lead to a proportionate increase in literacy levels?
  • Is it correct to say that modern people read better compared to fifty years ago? Can we legitimately use technological improvement as a reliable yardstick for human development?
  • What about the natural skills of old? In downloading our life into a memory device, are we dumping away a part of ourselves?
A Technological Illusion
I am quite critical of people who determine human progress only in terms of technological achievements. Though modern devices are better designed, the human mind has not kept pace. It is amazing to see how more and more people are increasingly reliant on electronic gadgets and devices to manage their lives and appointments. For the tech-savvy busy executive, doing without an electronic diary to keep track of our appointments could lead to many disappointments. We use computers at our workplace. We prepare sermons using Bible software. We communicate with one another through the Internet. Technology has changed our way of life for good. Such reliance however, has its repercussions. Why is it necessary for some people to send reminders to themselves (sometimes a double reminder) in order to keep their appointments? Why must people insist on reading each other’s email when they bump into each other face to face? Is the convenience of sending an SMS preferable to speaking on the phone?

Human progress is always related to learning. We can learn either of what to do, or what not to do. We can benefit from both mistakes and triumphs, though more often than not, it is the former that teaches us more profoundly. St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) believes that learning is remembering. The process of learning involves gathering them together (cogo), from dispersed places in order to do, to agitate, to make and refer frequently to the things we have learnt. Gathering them together into a device is different from gathering them together in the human mind! Hogging electronic data in our memory devices does not mean anything to us as persons if the owner of the device has not learnt or remembered anything. The Old Testament books and the prophets consistently gave the same warnings to Israel.

  • "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy" (Exodus 20:8)
  • Israel is called to "remember all the commands of the LORD" (Num 15:39)
  • "Remember the LORD in a distant land, and think on Jerusalem." (Jer 51:50b)
  • "Because you did not remember the days of your youth but enraged me with all these things, I will surely bring down on your head what you have done, declares the Sovereign LORD. Did you not add lewdness to all your other detestable practices?
    " (Eze 16:43)
If we do not remember how can we obey the LORD and not sin against him? If we claim we love God, should we not remember the Word? For Christians who are technologically versatile, beware not to let the devices do the 'remembering' for us. Simply saying we ‘own’ it, does not mean that we have learnt what was in it. We need to use it. We need to remember and creatively apply what we learn into our daily lives. The power of technology to make things happen remains an illusion as long as no human good comes out of it.

Spiritual Amnesia
Will the overdependence of technology to manage our lives eventually contribute toward an acute form of spiritual amnesia? Will a net technological gain in assets result in a liability of losing our memory prowess in our balance sheet of life? The Economist on Dec 19th, 2007 ("The Battle of the Books"), made an interesting comparison between Islam and Christianity. For Muslims, the ability to recite the Koran forms the ‘backbone of Muslim education.’ For Christians, I wonder if the lack of willingness or discipline to memorize and to recite Scriptures will lead to a demise of Christian education? The article highlights deep concerns about biblical illiteracy in the West.
“A Gallup survey found that less than half of Americans can name the first book of the Bible (Genesis), only a third know who delivered the Sermon on the Mount (Billy Graham is a popular answer) and a quarter do not know what is celebrated at Easter (the resurrection, the foundational event of Christianity). Sixty per cent cannot name half the ten commandments; 12% think Noah was married to Joan of Arc. George Gallup, a leading Evangelical as well as a premier pollster, describes America as ‘a nation of biblical illiterates.’”
There is however a more optimistic perspective here that claims Christianity has an edge over Islam. I am not sure I can agree with all the contents there. It seems to me that the article from the ChristianPost have committed the technological illusion error. Distributing Bibles in technological format does not mean the receivers actually read them. Firstly, they might be attracted initially to the novelty, only to dump them later. Secondly, are we cheapening the Bible by putting them into cheap, disposable devices? It might be too simplistic to equate biblical illiteracy with technological misuse. The cause for illiteracy is far more complicated than the technology factor. What if, one day, when there are no more printed material, when everything becomes digitized, and the whole world suddenly experiences an irreversible electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) that virtually wipes out all digital forms of information? In the movie ‘Six Days and Seven Nights,” there was a scene where a stranded couple on a remote island was not able to ask for help because their cellular phone could not connect to any wireless signals. In the Matrix Reloaded, the ship Nebuchadnezzar used a similar EMP technique to destroy the electronic enemy. The effect was dual. It destroyed their electronic defenses as well.

As a technology user myself, I am not against the use of devices to help us manage our many responsibilities. What I am concerned about is not with the increasing use of technology, but the decreasing emphasis on cultivating the use of our ability to remember. I remember a story I heard about Christians in one village China a couple of years ago, who had only one Bible to share. They tore out the pages and distributed them around so that after memorizing what they received, they can exchange the pages they have with the next person. In the West, we are flooded with technological gadgets that not only contains the entire electronic Bible, some even have multiple Bible translations in different languages, all within one small electronic device! Will the Christian living in a rich technological society simply not bother to remember God’s Word in their hearts simply because it can be available in a flash? (Flash is a pun and has a double meaning. It can mean ‘quickly’ or refer to computer memory sticks called ‘flash memory.’) Will our next generation update the Ps 119:11 to read:

“I have hidden your word in my ‘Cellphone’ that I might not sin against you.”?
Perhaps the cellphone does a better job about not sinning than the owner of the device. Not only are we in danger of under-utilizing our memory, our ability to remember becomes diminished. Even those little memory capacity that remains will be relentlessly bombarded by the multiple demands for consideration. The temptations to become impersonal are many. A personal email gets saved onto our computer disk drives for future reference. An excellent web page does not go beyond a bookmark on the Internet browser. As we rush from one task to another, a friend’s plea for help simply gets forwarded to an email list, or left unanswered until a later time.

Amnesia is no longer a medical disorder that can be simply blamed on the aging process. The negative exposure to technology can affect both young and old. The spores of technological addiction finds a ready and lush spot in our restless hearts. As the spores germinate, they consume the nutrients called ‘attention’ within the human heart. Subsequently, the soul gets deprived of the needed meditation on things that mattered most to us, influencing our disposition to shape our ability to love the people around us. As the addiction grows, the capacity for attention decreases to the point that the weeds will finally and completely choke the seed from growing. This competition for attention is perhaps one of the most critical battles for the human soul. In terms of memory, let not our dependence on technology turn us into memory couch-potatoes.

Under what circumstances will computers do a complete memory dump? Answer: when the computer program or operating system reaches a point of non-recovery and crashes. May that not happen to us. If we do not use whatever is in our device (there'll be memory leakages over time), or what is in our heads, the results are similar. We’ll lose them.

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