By Ryan

In Roman thought, there were five canons of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery.  Invention dealt with the process of developing thoughts that were worth expressing, arrangement with the organization of said thoughts, style with the form and structure those thoughts would be expressed with, memory with the ability to recall the previous thoughts and their arrangement and style, and delivery concerned actually expressing those thoughts in speech.  Most people are better at certain canons than others: some have excellent ideas but struggle to arrange them, format them, remember them, or express them; some have weak or uninteresting thoughts but are really good at either arranging them coherently or delivering them forcefully.  But what about those who are exceedingly good at remembering their ideas and their arrangement?  What value exists in memory in an instantaneous society that relies heavily on technology for recall?

Let me be more concrete.  I have an excellent memory, the kind that recalls details and nuances of situations that themselves have been forgotten by other folks.  (I’m not bragging, it’s just true, and it’s not even worth bragging about, as I’m attempting to prove.)  Thousands of years ago, this trait would have made me very culturally relevant, as those who could retain loads of information were indispensible in a preliterate age.  But, as time went on, and people started keeping track of things and developing things like maps and guidebooks, memory became less important.  However, being able to recall the way certain thoughts were arranged, structured, and presented in the past remained important, because it allowed people to remember the specifics of how certain events unfolded and the human response to those events.  This was certainly advantageous at one time.

Now though, in what some are calling a postliterate society, where written words are becoming less essential and orality (specifically, Walter Ong’s secondary orality) is reemerging as the go-to form of communication in developed societies, memory may be more useless than ever.  Because we spend so much time projecting our thoughts through various electronic means—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs—remembering the details and nuance of events is as simple as recalling them electronically.

Let’s consider an example: say that five to ten years from now people begin discussing and reevaluating the life of Michael Jackson, realizing that the outpouring of love for the pop star has largely overshadowed what some people remember to be a pretty deranged and morally questionable life.  When the MJ defenders are confronted with this, they may argue that this is not true, and perhaps they say that much was made of his shortcomings in the media coverage and public response to his death.

Now, fifty years ago, we would have some newspaper and magazine articles to look at, but we couldn’t really settle this debate without the assistance of people with memories of the incident recalling reactions and responses that happened at the time.  Ten years from now, we’ll simply have to search YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and the blogs, and we can easily start to see a definitive picture of what the popular response to MJ’s death was, and this will certainly hold more weight than the collective memory of those involved with the debate.

Of course, there will always be those who claim, “I remember how it was—I was there,” but this sort of response is becoming less relevant and, certainly, less trusted than recorded electronic sources.  This is not to say that human memory is unimportant, but rather to pose that maybe it is less important than ever before.  This sort of change happens all the time in human history, it just usually doesn’t happen so quickly.  That is to say, I can remember a time when memory mattered.