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A machine that walks in the corridors of memory

Andreas W (3-4/2010)

Andreas W vs.Timo Toots and MEMOПOЛ-I
 
At first I felt that this text should deal with machines and the way they affect people, or more precisely, with what we think about communicating with machines. Already a long time ago we accepted the fact that the world will not only become filled with machines, but that it is also satiated with them. For over a hundred years we have been living side by side with machines; more machines than we can possibly imagine are coming off the production lines every day. No matter where we look, we can always see some more or less functioning machine standing there, doing something. We should be accustomed to them to the point of tediousness. But we are not. MEMOПOЛ-I is a machine that can demonstrate that we are not used to machines at all. And perhaps it will also show us why.
 
Yet, regardless of everything, the relationship between our species and machines is only the surface of the problem here. Below that surface the question of memory reaches far deeper into the constantly increasing databases of electronic memory than MEMOПOЛ-I is able to delve.  
 
I will sum up briefly what MEMOПOЛ-I does, so that it is clear what it is. A person inserts an ID-card into the MEMOПOЛ-I and the machine tells everybody in the room in a loud clear voice what it finds out about this person from the card. There is quite a lot of information, starting with annual income, prescribed medicines and the person’s presumed date of death (calculated using average life expectancy).
 

Usually, we do not like to be so well remembered.To be just remembered is one thing, but when it turns out that there are really specific details written down somewhere, and these can be publicly accessed, we get annoyed and disgruntled.We have an intimate relationship with our memory and personal data, and in our opinion it would be better if no one else could access it.

MEMOПOЛ-I
 
This panic over data is actually quite understandable. In the field of activity of the human species memory is directly associated with power and control mechanisms we can use to direct others by knowing something about them. Things are fundamentally different in the animal kingdom, but this, of course, does not help us. The purposefulness of animal memory quite unambiguously corresponds to the general definition according to which memory is the organism’s ability to gather, store and activate information. In other words, this means operating with experience, applying that information in various situations an animal might find itself in.  
 
Experience stored in human memory is actualised in a fundamentally different way. Apparently, we should talk about the idiosyncrasies of chrono-aesthetic thinking (after Jüri Allik and Endel Tulving). In a way, this means explaining the basic things again, but I’m afraid this knowledge is still not a self-evident part of education in humanities (although it could be). In short, the human species differs from all other animals not so much because of its linguistic abilities, but rather, because of chrono-aesthetic thinking or ability to create the notions of future and past around one’s self, along with the habit of notionally relocating oneself in these categories. No other species is known to do such operations with the abstract sense of time.  
 
Remembering ourselves in time is what secures our personal continuity. However, the fragmented and unsteady registers of human memory cannot really cope with what we expect of them. Memory errs, part of it will be erased and part of it obtains an emotional nuance, which changes the character of memories. And so on and so on.  
 
Overestimating chrono-aesthetic operations might be what has driven the human species to attempt to write everything down more and more extensively. The memory registers of machines do not mix things up. But they do erase things, and they are not on best terms with context sensitivity either. Anyway, people have currently trusted the transmission of their data and knowledge in the care of machines, instead of doing it themselves. (It should also be noted: I would like to completely leave out the questions about saving and storing scientific knowledge and work here. In the case of MEMOПOЛ-I we should only talk about the existence and availability of personal information that describes an individual. MEMOПOЛ-I is about personal relationships, not generalisation.)
 
In any case, although people have decided to trust the personal histories of individuals in the care of machines at a social level, they actually do not trust the machines in remembering that information at all. We do not wish to be accurately remembered, that is, to be accurately written down, because accurate remembering requires careful observation. This brings to mind an episode from The Bourne Identity (2002), a movie where memory and the problems related to its loss were anyway in the centre of action. The girl, who finds herself in an extremely inconvenient situation, did not lose self-control when seeing her anonymous companion, who alleged that he did not remember anything about himself, get involved in a violent and masterful fight and eventually kill a man who had unexpectedly jumped in from the window with a machine gun. She lost self-control when it turned out that the intruder had had a photograph of her and his amnesiac companion, clearly taken only a day before. It was the realisation that the all-seeing eye had been watching her without her knowing that caused her to physically collapse. Yes, we are very afraid that someone might know or remember something about us we don’t know or remember ourselves.
 
MEMOПOЛ-I startles us in a rather unnerving way precisely by remembering our person too precisely. This remembering and all the extracted data make us clearly aware of the presence of the all-seeing eye. In fact, there is nothing classified about the data revealed by MEMOПOЛ-I. Generally, this information is entirely public. However, the covers of the imaginative folder open with a startlingly loud clap in front of us, and we do not wish to know what else that damn machine could drag out into the light, should it dig deeper. Obviously, we are not worried about what it extracts, but rather, about what it doesn’t.  
 
The technical realisation of the entire machine could be much more basic. But it is very good that it isn’t. It is the design of MEMOПOЛ-I that makes it perfect. As we know, machines that look like this (and manage such personal information) always belong to state structures. Such devices are industrially manufactured and are not sold to private persons. If they are at somebody’s private disposal, we automatically start suspecting them of dangerous abuse. We are instinctively affected with fear. We know very well that such machines are always in the possession of power; they do not belong – or they must not belong – to the personal or private sphere. As a society we cannot allow private persons to manage memory machines, because we are (often rightly) convinced that a private person is not reliable enough. Only a system that is based on mutual control and consists of several participants observing one another seems suitable to manage our personal information.  
 
This belief is actually rather arbitrary, but to a certain extent these things really work. Through hardships and problems human culture has managed to create some violation-control mechanisms. And here we have a personal machine belonging to an artist, gathering official data as effortlessly as someone would pick mushrooms. Something is clearly wrong. We would like to put up a sign: “Private property. No trespassing!” But we cannot, because this property has been trespassed for a long time, and constantly. The all-seeing eye takes an ever clearer and unnerving shape. Perhaps we should break our ID cards in two? But what good would it do?
 
The emerged problem has no solution, and there is no other way to soothe ourselves than to focus on the technical realization of the machine. The rear of the device (which cannot be accessed in the exhibition space) would greatly surprise the viewer. Seen from behind, the high-technology database which seemed to be entirely of industrial origin turns out to be pure illusion: a Max/MSP patch projected on the screen from a laptop computer by means of two beams. The data grabber’s core turns out to be a MacBook – a machine of the personal sphere, private, small and white (although it is clearly industrial and high-technological, it has a different reputation). We do not suspect a MacBook of abuse; it seems somehow easier to accept, even when it goes after somebody’s personal information. But technically, it doesn’t matter which processor in which shell navigates between different databases, because the information about us is out there anyway, and we still don’t know where it ends and whether it is exhaustible at all.
 
Where could MEMOПOЛ-II or a model with an even bigger number reach? Into the depths of memories, to a place we don’t even access ourselves? Into the cut-off solitude of isolated brains? Technically, this cannot yet be done, but if Timo would succeed in building something like it, it would be called illegal and chopped up with an axe, and the artist would have to hide himself for the rest of his life as Salman Rushdie still does. It is pretty amazing how much we are afraid of our own memory.
 
Andreas W is Andrus Laansalu is Andreas W.
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