Daily Thought: Memory, Technicity, and the Post-Human

Over thousands of years humans have come up with two solutions to growing a Mind: ancient indigenous peoples across the world naturalized memory, investing their cultural inheritance of sex and survival in memory niches in the external environment of animals, stars, and environment; while those others (philosophers, scientists, etc.) began to cut their memories out of natural things and invest them in abstract spaces of clay, papyrus, paper, silicon, quantum bits, etc.

The indigenous path to use two examples of memory and mind growing can be taken from the ancient Druids and the aborigines of Australia. The Druids as keepers of the tribal inheritance of the ancient Celts – a people who invaded Old Europe out of the Steppes beginning in about 4500BCE developed various natural techniques of memory using a Tree alphabet, along with rote learning of thousands of meters of poetry. The poets of this Celtic world went through a series of progressions from bard to Ollave depending on how many of these songs and cultural memory they could master and recite verbatim. All that died for the most part when Julius Caesar destroyed the Druids learning centers, the great groves where the people’s memory was passed on to new generations. Only fragmentary knowledge of this past remained in scattered seeds of traveling singers, but most of that past was lost forever.

The same process took place with the aboriginal peoples of Australia who developed songlines, which became externalized memory in the natural landscapes that wove the dreamtime (cultural memories and unconscious) of the tribe and melded it to migration and seasonal vectors in the environment. Watching recent National Geographic specials on this one realizes that much of this ancient culture (one that began some say 60,000 years ago!) has been lost due to cultural displacement of the aborigine over the past two hundred years or so from their ancient songlines.

Modern man on the other hand has taken an alternative path to abstraction: one in which the externalization of memory was divorced from the natural environment for a more compact physical manifestation: pictograms, icons, symbols, language – inscribed on various physical devices other than the brain itself (i.e., clay tablets, papyrus, paper, silicon, quantum bits….). This slow process of inversion in which modern humans divorced from the old environmental and tribal memory systems which internalized / externalized memory in brain/environment unto the modern abstract processes of reliance not on brain or environment, but rather on the brain/environment as externalized in computational devices external to the species has led to a strange dilemma in which humans have lost their minds as well as their connections to the cultural memory stored in environmental relations.

Much of the modern diseases of schizophrenizing processes are in fact this process of memory loss played out in artificial environments that surround humanity. In many ways humanity has lost its ability to think and reason as it did for much of its ancestral heritage in the natural world. It’s this predicament that is leading us into an absolute ‘crash space’ in our time.

Merlin Donald once spoke of the evolution and invention of the Mind as distinct evolutionary stages of episodic, mimetic, mythic, and symbolic-theoretic systems of memory. The modern era, if it can be reduced to any single dimension, is especially characterized by its obsession with symbols and their management. Breakthroughs in logic and mathematics enabled the invention of digital computers and have already changed human life. All forms of human representation, from our archaic episodic experiential base, through mimesis and speech, to our most recent visuographic skills, are now refinable and expandable by means of electronic devices. Our modern minds are thus hybridizations, highly plastic combinations of all the previous elements in human cognitive evolution, permuted, combined, and recombined. Now we are mythic, now we are theoretic, and now we harken back to the episodic roots of experience, examining and restructuring the actual episodic memories of events by means of cinematic magic. And at times we slip into the personae of our old narrative selves, pretending that nothing has changed. But everything has changed.1

The growth of the external memory system has now so far outpaced biological memory that it is no exaggeration to say that we are permanently wedded to our great invention, in a cognitive symbiosis unique in nature. External memory is the well of knowledge at which we draw sustenance, the driving force behind our ceaseless invention and change, the fount of inspiration in which succeeding generations find purpose and direction and into which we place our own hard-won cognitive treasures. As Donald states it,

The central point deriving from the history of the third transition, as it moved from visuographic invention to the management of external memory devices to the development and training of meta linguistic skill, is that it was not a given of human nature but rather a structure dependent upon both symbolic invention and technological hardware. The hardware may not have been biological, but from the viewpoint of a natural history of cognition this does not matter; the ultimate result was an evolutionary transition just as fundamental as those that preceded it. Once the devices of external memory were in place, and once the new cognitive architecture included an infinitely expandable, refinable external memory loop, the die was cast for the emergence of theoretic structures. A corollary must therefore be that no account of human thinking skill that ignores the symbiosis of biological and external memory can be considered satisfactory. Nor can any account be accepted that could not successfully account for the historical order in which symbolic invention unfolded. (Donald, pp. 356-357)

The point here is that humanity has been evolving into a post-human world for thousands of years without any knowledge of what it was doing. The point here is the question: is this a natural evolution into technological systems, a Cyborgization of the mind over time; or, was technicity already there at the beginning? Gilbert Simondon describes this:

… technicity is one of the two fundamental phases of the mode of existence of the whole constituted by man and the world. By phase, we mean not a temporal moment replaced by another, but an aspect that results from a splitting in two of being and in opposition to another aspect; this sense of the word phase is inspired by the notion of a phase ratio in physics; one cannot conceive of a phase except in relation to another or to several other phases; in a system of phases there is a relation of equilibrium and of reciprocal tensions; it is the actual system of all phases taken together that is the complete reality, not each phase in itself; a phase is only a phase in relation to others, from which it distinguishes itself in a manner that is totally independent of the notions of genus and species. The existence of a plurality of phases finally defines the reality of a neutral center of equilibrium in relation to which there is a phase shift. (The Genesis of Technicity )

As Andrés Vaccari states about Bernard Stiegler’s Technics and Time:

In the human sciences, culture and language have also been progressively engulfed by the universe of technics: the artificial realm of institutions, rituals, knowledges, symbol systems and practices that makes humans functional, speaking, meaning-making creatures; that is, what makes humans human. The essence of the human, it seems, is the technical; which is paradoxically the other of the human: the non-human, the manufactured, unnatural, artificial; the inhuman even.

This inhuman core of technicity at the heart of the human as technical being says that we may never have been human at all, that in fact maybe, just maybe we’ve been post-human all along. That the trajectory of our evolution was from organic to machinic system, and that is the very process of naturalizing the human Mind. The naturalization of consciousness turns out to be in becoming machine rather than in remaining in the cyclic death throes of the organic world.

Humans as organic machines may in the long term have been a bridge between the quantum technicity at the heart of the cosmos and the next step in evolutionary progression: the inorganic machinic forms of intelligence in the universe. Watching the Science Channel last night brought this home when various specialist scientists debated how humanity might eventually need to expand into the cosmos. Watching the various ways in which scientists conceive transporting organic humans across the vast distances of the universe to seed other planets was a telling lesson. The notion of cryogenics of either adult or embryo seemed the only solution. Both seemed ludicrous and prone to impossible technological feats of engineering to succeed. And, then it struck me: humans as organics were and will never expand into the cosmos, only their inventions – their inorganic children, the post-human tribe which seems to be emerging out of our strange and uncanny dreams in our century will ever expand into the cosmos. Intelligent machines, not organic humans.

If the human mind is a hybrid product as Donald suggests, interweaving a super-complex form of matter (the brain) with an invisible symbolic web (culture) to form a “distributed” cognitive network across both natural and artificial environments, then this hybrid mind, he argues, is our main evolutionary advantage, for it allowed humanity as a species to break free of the limitations of the mammalian brain and its tight coupling with the natural environment. If this is true then the forecast of those trends toward Cyborgization and eventual transcension of the organic altogether may not be science fiction in the century(ies?) to come, but rather part of the very naturalizing processes of technicity which has always already been there at the origin of the human. This disconnection of mammalian brain from the natural world, this long detour into abstraction and externalization of memory and culture has been neither an accident nor a mindless evolutionary process but a part of some wider impetus at the heart of the cosmos. Not some naïve telos in the Aristotelian sense, and not something that is part of some ever progressive movement to some final end, but rather an inherent part of the technicity at the inhuman core of the human itself.

  1. Donald, Merlin. Origins of the Modern Mind. Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (March 15, 1993) (Page 356).



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