Reflections on Fragments of an Infinite Memory: My Life with the Internet by Maël Renouard
Maël Renouard begins his book with an intriguing first chapter that ends on a sentence holding the door open for our curiosity:
“The internet shows that recollection has charted the path of technology — infinite distancing and preservation — and melancholy is the future of emotion.”
Renouard is a French philosophy professor who originally published The Fragments of an Infinite Memory in 2016, while I was conducting a year-long social experiment in Paris. The findings of my experiment resulted in a firm personal resolve to pay more attention not only to WHO is speaking and WHY (over just what is being said) but also WHEN their thoughts were articulated, what was happening around them at that time; and if I was alive, what I was doing and thinking then. It is a method attempting to contextualize external information (essential thoughts of others in transferrable formats) within the consciousness of history and my own experience to avoid deception by eloquent rhetoric of clever sophists. It is also incidentally, an approach similar to stance detection, a deep learning technique for AI used to uncover author bias and fake news.
The form and intention of the content creator triangulated with my own (and their) personal experience, as well as the events surrounding the creative activities, has become more significant than ever to me. Silicon circuits can already produce algorithmic mashups capable of fooling even the most astute human observers of culture. Artificial intelligence is quietly stirring artificial flavours into the long dark tea-time of the soul. Wink, wink…
“The world of literature itself turns out to be a small world, a world of winks between old friends,” as Renouard puts it. And if Proust is right that “through art alone are we able to emerge from ourselves, to know what another person sees of a universe,” then how could we ever forgive ourselves for becoming enchanted with eyewitness narratives constructed by an author incapable of winking? More than one tea-dip of a madeleine might be required.
In the pages of The Fragments of an Infinite Memory, from the Song of Songs, through Hagel, Proust, Derrida, Kurzweil, to the inner murmurs of human thoughts heard by the invisible angels shadowing people at libraries in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, I sense a presence of good company trying to help me grasp the subtle sentiment of loss.
“For the Scholastics, the angels were a kind of experimental being endowed with the perfections that humanity judged itself to lack,” observes Renouard. But the angels in Wings of Desire have no agency in the human world and remain silent, invisible witnesses to the unfulfilled human longings and inner tragedies. They can see and hear everything, unable to affect anything directly, like undetectable visitors from the future perusing the libraries of digital lore who will one day attempt to reconstruct reality from oceans of personal data (and metadata) we all inevitably leave exposed in the digital world. Clustering and pattern recognition represent the functionality of many algorithms today. The truth is out there, it’s just not very well indexed and correlated.
AI doesn’t care about the future in the hope it will be better, for the past is its infinite playground. Never mind who controls the present, for “those who control the past control the future,” predicted Orwell twenty years before the first message was sent at Stanford Research Institute over ARPANET — the precursor of the modern Internet. (The first attempt got as far as the letter L and O, the system crashed before the full ‘login’ command was transmitted).
As most physical libraries of the world, including our personal, yet often publicly available collections of location-annotated family albums, scrapbooks of dreams and desires listed in the browser, and even abandoned e-shopping cart histories, as well as detailed records of how we acquired all our knowledge and convictions, become digitized and instantly accessible, to reach a place where we delve into our memories we will no longer need to leave our homes. Those central repositories are quickly becoming labyrinths of forking paths where linear time does not apply, where we are free to move in any direction while exploring the possibilities of the past, present, and future coexisting instantly in all their possible permutations.
“Who hasn’t gone on the internet looking for past loves and friends not seen for years?” Renouard evokes Proust to qualify our private Internet investigations as “time lost in search of lost time.”
But the Internet is also looking back at us and recording our experiences, as they become increasingly mediated by technology. Even your ebooks are starting to know you better than your mother. The author suggests that the possibility of memory independent of human brain activity could be trying to help heal human suffering by making us experience it to the full, with technology elucidating for us our own emotions. But how is this manifesting itself?
Today, Deep Nostalgia AI can animate faces from old photographs that usher us gently into the antechamber of the uncanny valley by creating fragments of believable memories that had never existed. It leverages the notion that for humans the “remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were,” what Proust had noted some time ago.
Another example is IBM’s Project Debater, which could easily be a fantasy golem of the sophists. The system can use natural language processing for argument mining to classify argument components and analyze sentiment from 400 million pre-selected news articles, then present its points in a modulated female voice with the tone and cadence optimized to evoke maximum ethos and pathos in audiences incapable of pointing out a single flaw in its logos. It is already capable of debating humans and even win some arguments. IBM envisions that one day its system with have access to the wider data source to police social media and censor the Internet. The question is: under whose oversight? Should it access every data on earth to pass judgment upon all of us, whose truth and whose idea of justice will the invincible virtual advocate defend? It is hard to imagine it will always be on the side of those who need truth and justice the most yet can afford it the least.
In Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel “Klara and the Sun” the future of human freedom is extinguished in a murmur of whispers, rather than a bang. There is no revolt of the robots in this future, rather a quiet, persistent, and intelligent persuasion leading to greater human compliance. But “if it starts to look like we can be reduced to the point where we’re just a bunch of algorithms, I think that seriously erodes the idea that each person is unique and therefore worthy of respect and care regardless of what they can or can’t contribute to our joint enterprise,” cautions Ishiguro in his latest sci-fi oeuvre. At least the communists still considered each individual as important, even if only to ensure they never return from the gulag unaffected by their direct experience of ultimate power’s raw end.
Contemplating the future of human voice, the voice of individual people made of flesh and blood, Witold Gombrowicz warns us about dehumanizing tendencies of notional intelligence in his Diary: “We do not become real in the realm of concepts, but in the realm of people. We are and we must remain persons, our role depends on the fact that the living, human word not stop sounding in a world that is becoming more and more abstract.” This 70-year-old argument was directed against the only concrete manifestation of intelligence in the world at that time: communism.
Today, the echoes of his past concerns could easily be heard in our predicaments emerging from the rapid advancements of technology around us. For now, the best at understanding human language is still Google Switch — it can dim your bedroom lights to match the mood of your whispered command. But the secret weapon of humanity proposed by Gombrowicz is about to be compromised as machines. like Google’s GPT-3, threaten to breach the realm of the most inner human domain of transferrable emotional experiences: literature.
Literature, like religion before it and mathematics today, serves in its primary code function as a conductor leading us towards preservation and access of human memories using language to extract manifestations of our consciousness in the physical dimension. Fragmentation of languages, illustrated in the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, was possibly an attempt to ensure the preservation of human history en masse. But one day, the Internet will hold enough easily accessible personal data points on each one of us to allow accurate simulation of individual characteristic thought processes and emotional reactions. Our digital twins are already becoming easier to cure and one day could become more preferable as friends to the chagrin of their analog originals.
The purpose of rhetoric, according to Aristotle, is ultimately to persuade by effective use of a combination of logos, ethos, and pathos, or simply — put logical, reputational, and emotional methods of convincing others to listen, follow, and do what they are told. While literature excels at logos and sometimes ethos, with a great show of pathos at times, poetry is in essence the techne (technique or method) to communicate through emotions, just as technology is the techne to communicate through logos (reason). The techne-logos (or technology as we commonly refer to it today) is a method of reason-driven communications. When combined with a high degree of ethos and pathos, it can become a very persuasive form of rhetoric. Ethos and pathos are converging, as AI-generated poetry gets craftier with each iteration. And an AI-written novella almost won a Japanese literary prize in 2016. A World Prize in AI Poetry is secretly being organized as you are reading this, and you are not going to believe what happens next (to your emotions):
and soon I am staring out again,
begin to practise my words, expecting my word
will come. it will not. the wind is calling.
my friend is near, I hear his breath. his breath
is not the air. he touches me again with his hands
and tells me I am growing old, he says, far old.
we travel across an empty field in my heart.
there is nothing in the dark, I think, but he.
I close my eyes and try to remember what I was.
he says it was an important and interesting day,
because I put in his hands one night
the box of light that had been a tree.
:: A fragment of poem from Google’s Arts and Culture Lab project
The artificially induced emotional experience could be the next big thing in Artificial Emotional Intelligence. But within the saving power embedded in the essence of technology, there lies a hidden danger, as Heidegger notes in The Question Concerning Technology. As we slowly enter the era of flawless recollection, not just everything that exists, but everything that has ever existed is at stake. The differences between machines and humans are starting to blur in the virtual world where we spend increasingly more and more time. Eventually even our most inner emotions and memories will become subjects to external algorithm verification.
Socrates eschewed books because he believed they deteriorated natural human ability to remember and thus think rationally. Where does our fear of forgetting come from? Milan Kundera observed that our struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. However, Nietzsche insisted there is no proof for the existence of forgetting, only some things don’t come to mind when we want them. But he also warned that “some people do not become thinkers simply because their memories are too good.”
The wonder of human memory, especially when we recall happy times in moments of misery, is turning the act of remembering facilitated through machine recollection into our greatest sorrow. None of us will be permitted to become thinkers. Presumed flawless and factual machine memory is threatening our preference for thinking deeply about the past. It may one day be impossible for us to feel nostalgia. But machine memories corrupt too and when they are in charge of the past, their slightest hiccups may have a butterfly effect on the future. Who will then be the first to look over their shoulders in a gesture of Lot’s wife, with the clarity and intensity of longing sufficiently powerful to turn them into a pillar of salt?
If you are concerned about making sure we heed the early warnings of where the essence of technology is leading us in all its dazzling manifestations, you will probably find Renouard’s book worth reading in full.
To be continued…