After reading through a summary of M.T. Anderson’s novel, Feed, and Carter Hanson’s analysis of it, “Postmodernity, and Digital Memory versus Human Remembering in M.T. Anderson’s Feed,” I starting thinking about what it means to be human in the first place.
As humans, and only humans, not bionic or even semi-biotic creatures, we have no choice but to be responsible for our own memories and hope for an always-brighter future. The characters in Anderson’s novels, or at least the elite who have the opportunity and means to, have nanotechnology implanted in their brains, often at birth, which keeps them constantly connected to cyberspace. To me, this means they simply aren’t entirely humans anymore, especially in regards to the effects it has on their brains and ultimately culture itself.
Since these characters are constantly viewing a range of information (and advertisements), and their whims can be satisfied by this technology in “no time” at all, temporality does not affect them the same way as it does “full” humans. While some postmodern scholars argue that present time in the postmodern era seems sped up, it still cannot be fully instantaneously gratifying like the world of Anderson’s novel. As humans, the only way we can think of our experiences is through time. Temporality will always be a human concern (at least for those of us without nanotechnology in our brains to relieve that burden from us).
As Hanson mentions, there is a disconnect between mechanical and biological. Humans create technology—technology can only exist because someone has thought of it, used their brains! Humans use technology for their own benefits, but when technology can control human thoughts, several aspects of life will be affected, just as we see in this novel. Technology is not concerned with time, and if it were to control our very thoughts, our creative abilities as humans, then it seems to take over any need to think of time, or perhaps to even think at all. Yet, what makes us human is our ability to think for ourselves in each “present” moment.
Since we will always be concerned with time and its effects, we will always give concern to our past, present, and future. In Hanson’s article, he focuses specifically on the past and the formations of memories. The technology in the brains of Anderson’s characters can store memories to be “relived” later—feelings, senses, and all. They don’t need to use their brains in order to create their own memories since the technology can do it for them in a much more accurate way. However, in doing so, they essentially give up using that kind of thinking—one that defines us as a species.
Postmodern scholars have been very interested in the way in which we create and form memories, often suggesting that postmodern times have caused us to live in an “extended present,” making it hard for us to come to terms with our past both as individuals and a collective society. While forming memories in the postmodern era is much different than it has been in the past, we are still making an effort to do so.
Yes, we may have memories that have been digitized through photos, videos, blogs, posts on social media, and more, but these are all still part of our memories. Hanson quotes Michal Rothberg on the matter: “memory is a form of work, working through, labor, or action.” Each time we think of our past, even if it is by revisiting these archived moments, we are provided with a fresh take on each of these memories every time we interact with their recorded formats. We see them with a different perspective each time, remembering other details or feeling different thoughts about the past. Even with the addition of these formats in our culture that help us to remember, we still must do the remembering on our own. Although with some aid, we are still doing that labor, that work that we are required to do as humans concerned with time.
Even with the help of digital formats to help prompt remembering and forming memories, there are always moments, times, that we cannot or will not be able to archive. While it may feel like some of us are constantly connected to cyberspace and constantly archiving our experiences, it just isn’t plausible to record it all. Unlike those in Feed, we have no way to remember most of our dreams or even all that we do, and I’m not sure that we would want to.
While like in the novel, our interaction with cyberspace can predict the kinds of things we might like to buy online or sites we might like to visit, it is only an extension outside of us, not one that understands our every waking move like in the novel. We can’t record every conversation or the feelings we had in each moment of our past or every mundane task we’ve ever performed. The reason we create memories (and capture those memories through recording them in order to revisit and form memories of them later) is because they stick out to us—they are important in some way. Having all of our memories readily available to us would eliminate that need to work and labor through our thoughts, which is what makes us human.
As Hanson mentions, another aspect of our lives that makes us “human” is that even in this digital age when we can find most anything we want to know fairly quickly, we’re still actively seeking information. Seeking this information, rather than having it readily available to us, like the memories and information that is readily available to Anderson’s characters, means we are still using our brains. While it may take us way less time to find the information we’re looking for than it used to, we are still using our brains for that process of finding information and making connections. These critical thinking skills are the defining feature of human life.
Instead of technology replacing our need to think and remember, I’d be interested to see how technology could enhance our cognitive processes. Since it’s been said that humans only use a portion of our brains, what might it look like if we created technology that allowed us to use the rest of our brains but didn’t do any of the work for us? Just food for thought (to feed your brain!).