Our discussion of the artificial city of Diaspar that is maintained through by the central computer’s memory banks, got me thinking about memory and how we have experimented with memory in the present. I was astounded to discover the extent to which artificial memory experimentation has been occurring in recent medical research. If you had told anyone 50 years ago that before the end of their lives there would be machines that could be implanted in our brains to help restore and improve memory and control physical action, they would have sent you to the looney bin. The concept of a brain chip is something which even I find hard to believe, but there is no hiding the fact that the technology is here and in use as we speak.
For the most part, experimentation with brain chip technology has been centred around medical research, more specifically, in aiding severely paralysed or brain damaged individuals in regaining motor and cognitive function. In March 2005 Matthew Nagel was the first paralysed individual to successfully receive a brain chip implant and with the help of this handy addition:
He can think his TV on and off, change channels and alter the volume all thanks to the technology and software linked to devices in his home (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/4396387.stm)
This is all very new and exciting but I can’t help to feel slightly nervous about a programmed technology that directly interferes with brain function. In 2003 Popular Science released an article about the technology:
Medicine aside, Biomedical engineer Theodore Berger sees potential commercial and military applications for the brain chip, which is partially funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Learning how to build sophisticated electronics and integrate them into human brains could one day lead to cyborg soldiers and robotic servants, he says.
Now doesn’t that just sound like something out of a sci-fi horror flick or what? It would be more than enough if experimentation stopped at the medical and military applications but further research has been done in the hopes that this brain chip could be used for ‘cosmetic’ reasons. Would you agree to getting a brain chip if it promised to insure you never again forgot a name or a face? Some researchers are saying that implants could potentially increase memory recall over 10 times normal functioning. Imagine the educational repercussions if brain chip implants provided instant photographic memory recall to students with the financial freedom to have one installed. Such technology makes the future seem uncertain. 50 years from now will we be relying on computers to think for us? It is a scary thought, but one which is becoming ever closer to being realized.
Ah, government R&D – from Fuller’s portable shelters to virtualised post-tramatic therapy, beyond terrorizing devices of mass destruction military research has led to some fascinating inventions, albeit ones that in this case could hold some horrible implications.
on a lighter note, and to bring the ideas of “cognition” and “technology” into an urban scope, thinking about relationships between people and the urban environment works to position us as the user, with the city itself functioning as a kind of elaborately designed interface.
Scary? Nah I’ll take two!! I can appreciate the hesitation but I can also appreciate the enormousu legitimate potential. I think my primary point regarding this is that such technology really, on a fundemental level, differs very little from our current state of storing information externally and being able to access it on demand. From the perspective of contemporary cyborg theory, we are all already hybrid creatures of organic matter and artificial technology, in so far as our daily life both requires and sort of revolves around our accessing and manipulating external informational technology. In my view, this sort of technology you describe is simply taking out an extraneous step of having to physically go to a terminal to access this information.
My second point, is that what this is is purely information, a set of data, and not what we truly refer to when we speak of “memory”. I am just in the process of reading Jean Piaget’s short book, actually a transcription of a lecture he did, entitled ” Development of Memory and Identity”. To overly generalize his findings, there are essentially two levels at which memory operates: the level of data and sensation, which amounts to a reproduction of experience, and the levels of schematization, the level of conceptual organization wherein in the basic units of experience, the data, are sorted according to increasingly elaborate schemes and structures. What Piaget found is that over time (6 months in his studies) tested memory actually improves, as the elements of memory, what I’ll call the data, are succesfully fitted into overarching narratives and systems of understanding.
So, the point of this secondary tangent, as relates fears of brain washing and thought control (which I do not in the slightest discount): what these chips appear to offer is only a database, a set of raw information, to which we could have access if we chose anyways, and not the superordinate layer of conceptual integration the elaboration of relationships. This is what we really mean when we speak of memory, not what actually happened, but the significance of it for us still in the present, what it represented at the time and how it fits into to notions of history and chronology. Ultimately, I think these conceptual level is where propoganda and blunt attempts at brain washing really take effect, and that no chip or body modification looks to threaten that. In fact, what we already have is this worst case scenario, where various powerful interests already promulgate certain world views, certain key metaphors, certain scientific paradigms or world-views, if we wish to think in those terms. We are already being controlled and limited in our thought patters, but not so much in the information to which we are granted access, but by the unconscious and intrisically linguistic contextualizations of conservative and established organizations.
Anyways great stuff and I look forward to discussing this more as we move into Neuromancer. These chips he pretty much already invented in the Microsofts of that novel.
To build on Jonathan’s first point, all technology ultimates changes the way we think. Rockets, airplanes, cars, bikes, and even shoes change the way we approach space and distance (the difference of perspective that’s becoming a motif in our discussions – planetary, air-level, ground-level, etc). Clocks and watches change the way we view time (before: no sense of regularity, no precision; after: hyper-predictable). The internet changes the way we view information. Writing itself, and print, and language, directly modifies the ways in which we think and approach the world: a literate person thinks differently than an illiterate person, and a person with language thinks differently than one without. All technology alters our minds, and all technology can be manipulated – religious texts, propoganda pamphlets, political manifestos, websites, commercials. Brain-chip technoogy is just (potentially) more transparent about it, but not qualitatively different.
I probably came across like somewhat of a luddite, and with a penchant for conspiracies, though I didn’t mean it that way. “Horrible implications” is an overstatement, but I think some reservations are merited; if the military were designing new clocks and bicycles, or upgrading Esperanto and re-modeling the volkswagen, I’d be less inclined to raise alarm. I think though, that the field of computer/cognitive science is qualitatively different from other areas of design; the US military is pioneering research biomechanics, for example – and while using a prosthetic limb would directly modify my interaction with the world, neuro-implants designed by a private organization with a propensity for violence could modify things in a very different way. Granted, propaganda, manifestoes, websites and advertisements do this too – I think its the invasiveness of the technology, the fact that its signal originates from within your head, that puts the designers of it in what might be a very powerful position.