Saturday, June 24, 2023

Programmed amnesia

[This is a guest essay by my young associate Gregory, leader of the revolutionary group Mantis, also known as the Army of the Young. To read our exclusive story about the 2044 U.S. presidential election, go to Best, Harry]

No one remembers being in the womb, even though research indicates that fetuses have memory.  The selective amnesia seems hard-wired, suggesting that evolutionary pressure made it advantageous not to remember gestation.  

In a second programmed amnesia, no one remembers being a baby, though all the evidence indicates that babies have memory. Why are no baby memories saved?  

Could the transitions from womb to babyhood and from babyhood to toddler jump chasms too wide to translate?  Do we protect ourselves from memory? A Darwinian might surmise that proto-humans who remembered the womb went mad from grief and confusion, and toddlers who remembered babyhood did the same.  The "fittest" were those who forgot.

Researchers have discovered a third programmed amnesia at age seven, when a child's brain undergoes a culling of the previous six years of memory.  Unlike the total blockades of memory before birth and between birth and age one, this third event deletes some memory but not all.  No one knows the criteria for remembering or forgetting, why the amnesia occurs at age seven or what its purpose is.

Humanity practices adult-driven amnesia as well, spread via social groups often with conscious intent.  For example, when one culture dominates and/or destroys another, the remaining culture usually doesn't want to remember the culture that was destroyed, at least not in uncensored versions.  The state helps by programing amnesia.  In Stalinist Russia people were not allowed to tour the tsars' palaces.  They needed to forget those palaces and a culture that often dazzled.  One of the Dutch party that first explored Manhattan Island reported that the native population were clean, healthy and sane, not filthy, sick, and crazy like people the reporter had seen in European cities (Gotham, A History of New York City to 1898; Edwin G. Burrows/Mike Wallace). That report has gone missing in other U.S. histories.  No one wants to remember it.

Sometimes we rewrite society's memories of events from the recent past, giving them a spin, while individuals having the original, unspun memories are still alive.  This causes controversy among those who remember the original events, as people with different spins grapple with each other to control the rewriting of the memory narrative. Such memory battles occur, for instance, when national leaders die. We can see such battles in history, for instance there is now a post-mortem investigation of the moral standing of the Roman Emperor Caligula, who is generally presented as an insane sadist and profligate, but may have been painted that way by factions trying (unsuccessfully) to restore the Roman Republic. We can expect such memory battles as current leaders die.   

There are cycles of amnesia in our long-term evolution as well.  We have forgotten what human life was like before we adopted agriculture, only 10,000 years ago.  If it weren't for a few fragments of bone and clay, and some vague myths, we wouldn't know we had lived in small tribes as hunter gatherers.  While we've figured out some of the basics, we cannot remember what it felt like to be human for those hundreds of thousands of years.

We can watch the process today as we drift away from life before the current machine age, when there were no cars, phones, planes, TV, internet or AI. We are forgetting what it was like to be a person then.  

Our penultimate brush with amnesia occurs at what we euphemistically call "retirement." My colleague D.L., in his 77th year, says he has impulses towards "purposeful forgetting," which he consceives as defense of the comfortable "Old Man Ville" he's been able to construct. There are aches and pains around the edges, leading beyond to great voids of incomprehensible silence, but within the bounds of Old Man Ville there is comfort, with sufficient energy- even in some areas seeming, at times, more empowered than in his youth. But through the comfort he feels pressure from the memory bank in Old Man Ville's basement, which holds all his memories stretching back to the earliest, blurry ones- enough data to fill a thousand Libraries of Alexandria. He says, "Delete that shit!," in semi-humor, and continues, "I do want to keep my awareness of identities, mine and important others, but why do I need to use and maintain all that storage space? Just to recall the time in 8th grade when a substitute teacher threw me down a flight of steps, or how much I hated bananas? Who cares?"

Do D.L.'s thoughts arise from natural reasoning, or is he exemplifying yet another programmed amnesia designed to keep us from longing for a state from which, through biological design, we've largely withdrawn?   

The final programmed amnesia, of course, is the one that happens either at death or in the period leading to death. For days, weeks or months, or for a quarter-second, we will be conscious without knowing who or what we are or were. We will literally know nothing. The purpose of this final forgetting could be to disolve any remorse about departing whatever it is we're departing, and entering whatever it is we're entering.

Back to the big picture, humanity is about to undergo its first species-wide amnesia since the one induced by agriculture.  In a century or so there probably won't be more than a handful of people in the world who've heard of Shakespeare or George Washington, or any of today's nation-states, unless that data has been coded into their brain implants.  It could be the "end of history" we've been hearing about.  Genetic engineering, AI and machine/human interface will create a new humanity that will not understand much about the old one, except that it was primitive and should be discarded and forgotten.  

Today, as if to expedite the process, we are working on drugs to delete "traumatic" memories, in a bid perhaps to keep pace with our bionic offspring, whose memories will be tailored for maximum efficiency.  The current flooding of quasi-legal marijuana into all levels of Western society seems part of the trend, as the latest research on THC, the active ingredient, suggests that it acts in part by limiting short-term memory (if further research on marijuana is pursued, it should ponder why limiting short-term memory produces a "high").

How should we react to the coming mass amnesia?  We might as well fight it, don't you think?  By "fight it" I don't mean keep it from happening.  I mean let's inject some memory into the future while we can.  

That is the basic mission of my group, Mantis, a.k.a The Army of the Young.  Much thanks to Harry the Human for giving me this platform.   For more of my essays keep reading this blog. To read our report from the future on the 2044 U.S. presidential election, go to:

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