The Rest of Us—Machine, Memory, Intelligence

Feb 2, 2019 18:22 · 753 words · 4 minute read Rest of You

“...it is not the intelligence that is a filing cabinet; it is the filing cabinet that is an intelligence.” Gaston Bachelard

The discussions had during our first session of Rest of You brought to mind a piece by Freud that I’ve always found interesting as it relates—prophetically, if also incidentally—to computation. And by computation I mean exponential increase in storage and processing power, graphical user interfaces, the omnipresence of the personal computer, etc.

In this short piece, titled “A Note on the Mystic Writing Pad,” (1925) Freud reflects on apparatuses we use for recording information as a means of extending our memory, from the standard pad of paper to a chalkboard. He ultimately finds both inadequate: “Thus an unlimited receptive capacity and a retention of permanent traces seem to be mutually exclusive properties in the apparatus which we use as substitutes for our memory: either the receptive surface must be renewed [i.e. a new sheet of paper must be produced] or the note must be destroyed [we must erase and/or write over the previous note with another].”

Freud’s solution to this problem is hypothetical, an exercise in imagination. He proposes something he calls the mystic writing pad, which can “provide both an ever-ready receptive surface and permanent traces of the notes that have been made upon it.”

The computer as it is known today, with its near-infinite (especially owing to cloud storage) encyclopedic capabilities, with the speed and efficiency with which it can fetch data (whether grep-ing in the command line or searching in a GUI equivalent) functions a lot like this mystic writing pad. And in this way, the computer is a positively revolutionary mnemic system. But! The computer is no magical or mystic artifact, but a deeply secular machinery of bits and pixels, folders and files, searchable by regular expressions and broken down into a finite number of data types.

It is a machinery, moreover, built by humans and designed to conform to their habits, inclinations, and needs (while also shaping these same habits, inclinations, and needs, but more on that later). It is a machinery that, for the most part, is operated chiefly by humans. The computer, therefore, despite its seemingly magical properties of tremendous storage and speed, also reproduces, mimics, or enables several other properties we might consider uniquely human—properties such as, for example, forgetting and repression.

Just as there is a hygiene of the mind—we might forget or repress memories too painful, distracting, or bothersome to carry with us in consciousness—so too is there a hygiene of the machine—spam filters intercept mail that algorithms determine are unwanted, files are nested in folders which are in turn nested in folders, soon to be forgotten and absent from view or consideration, all in an effort to maintain the cleanliness of our workspace—which is after all merely a ~15” rectangular window of light.

Now, if any of this sounds confusing, that’s because it is. You might be asking, for example: Well, isn’t it the human operating the computer the one who is nesting all those files and folders? Isn’t that just human behavior? Isn’t the content “repressed”, filtered into the spam folder a whole lot less meaningful than the memories repressed in the human system?

What I’d like to suggest is that the answers to these questions are less intuitive than they may seem at first blush.

One thing I’d like to explore in this class is the dynamic whereby the machine, as a particular kind of intelligence—both a reflection of human intelligence (or intellectual capability) and a deviation from it—trains, changes, molds, or even reveals about human intelligence and human capability.

A Bachelard quote that often occurs to me: “…it is not the intelligence that is a filing cabinet; it is the filing cabinet that is an intelligence.”

The computer and computation is not merely an extension of human faculties. The truth is probably a little weirder and less intuitive than that. The computer is more mystical (however secular its parts) and less straightforward than a mere prosthesis. We don’t merely outsource our memory to its storage (family photos, to-do lists, correspondences, code, text). It in turn comes to order our memory and the processes by which we interface with our memories, mediating the already opaque ways in which consciousness and unconsciousness interface with one another.

This dynamic of mutual constitution between technology and us is the subject of much research in HCI, IxD, and ethnomethodology.

In this class, I would like to explore it in a more practical—read: applied—context.