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Porous Memory and the Cognitive Life of Things

John Sutton

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Cognitive science and the prehistory of cyberculture 
Recent prehistorians of sound recording have recovered an exotic European fantasy of the early 1630s. A pamphlet called Le courrier veritable told Parisians of a strange sponge discovered by a Captain Vosterloch on a voyage to the South Seas. Local people used these sponges to communicate across long distances: a message spoken into one of them would be exactly replayed when the recipient squeezed it appropriately (Marty 1981, 10; Levin 1995; Draaisma 2000, 85-6).

These wondrous sponges, then, were unique cognitive tools, soaking up sound, embodying particular acoustic signals in an unusually porous medium. They are strange objects to have had this cognitive and cultural role, even in an imaginary space of early modern European fantasy. As a cognitive artifact, the sponge was more commonly a figure for the effacing of memory, so that Confession, for example, could be described as "that happy Spunge, that wipeth out all the blottes and blurres of our lives".

Sociologists and historians describe for us the complex social life of things, the peculiar fetishized or mundane biographies which certain objects accumulate (Appadurai 1986). But some things, natural as well as artificial, also have a cognitive life. In use, these sponges were to act as what Merlin Donald (1991) calls ‘exograms’, objects which embody memories and which combine in many different ways with the brain’s distributed, context-ridden ‘engrams’. In this short paper, I frame two historical examples in the bare outline of a framework for understanding the multiplicity of relations between engrams and exograms. Darren Tofts’ kind of "prehistory", with its "plausible narratives which make links between disparate, achronological moments", and which recognize "fusions between the past and the present, between the present and the present" (Tofts and McKeich 1997, 10, original emphasis), is a natural part of the project. Brief forays into the history of theories and practices of memory can, I hope, be both justified and improved by attention to provocative and puzzling points of contact between new media theory and recent dynamical cognitive science.

The delicious story of message transmission by sponge brings home the difficulty we have in remembering just how magical it is, in a world of flux and mixture, that information can ever be enduringly stored, transmitted without distortion, and precisely reproduced. Our lives are irretrievably tangled with artificial systems which keep their contents ordered and immune from melding, and we trust that our computers won’t creatively blend our files overnight. The media we use to fix, transmit, and reformat information, and to shift or transform representations from one context to another, are often more stable, less porous, than these sponges. But durable information storage is a cultural and psychological achievement, not a given, and it depends on the construction and exploitation of social and technological resources. In writing a paper, for example, I toggle between yesterday’s handwritten scribbles, printed notes from months back, a few words which I jotted down during a phone conversation with a colleague this morning, and the crisp on-screen fonts in which I churn out, obliterate, and rework each version. The process involves multiple feedback loops as I rely on external jottings of yesterday’s work, jottings which are more enduring and less context-sensitive than any traces overlaid on others in my brain. My brain and body can temporarily couple with external tools or media, forming an integrated cognitive system with capacities, characteristics, and idiosyncrasies quite different from those of the naked brain (Clark and Chalmers 1998).

In art, science, and ordinary life we construct, lean on, parasitize, and transform artifacts and external symbol systems. And in turn our bodies and brains are inflected and contaminated by the material supplements and cognitive prostheses, which we incessantly internalize. Marius Kwint, recently urging us to address the sensuous and physiological dimensions of embodied memory, puts the point thus (1999, 4): 
    human memory has undergone a mutual evolution with the objects that inform it; …the 
    relationship between them is dialectical. Not only does the material environment influence the 
    structure and contents of the mind, but the environment must also have been shaped along the 
    lines of what persists in the mind’s eye. 
Kwint acknowledges that the attempt to fathom such loops must be specific, historically anchored, and insistently interdisciplinary.

So the cognitive life of things takes shape not only in their roles as storage aids or tools at the capricious or agonized disposal of the creator. An abstract artist, to take another example, may work incessantly with a sketchpad, because imagining an artwork "in the mind’s eye" will not successfully allow the perception, creation, recognition, and transformation of the kind of hidden patterns which support surplus structure in the work. Just as the aesthetic appreciation of the layered meanings in the finished artwork may take prolonged interactive viewing, so the initial creation of such hidden regularities may have to be an iterative process of sketching and perceptually (not imaginatively) re-encountering the forms. The sketchpad here isn’t just a convenient storage bin for pre-existing visual images: the ongoing externalizing and re-perceiving is an intrinsic part of artistic cognition itself. The artist and the sketchpad may be so tightly coupled that it’s possible to see them more as a single temporarily integrated system than as an agent operating on a distinct passive medium (van Leeuwen, Verstijnen, and Hekkert 1999; Clark 2001, 147-150).


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