The Memory Theater

Next Thursday at sundown, I and my nonfiction students at Stanford University will shut down our email and Internet access and ban ourselves from texting for seven days. We will live life pre-AOL, dialing back time to 1993, when my students were just outgrowing diapers and I was in college. We each want to experience what life was like before online technology infected every hour of our days. I want to think about memory and how online permanence is changing the way we access and preserve the past.

In the sixteenth century, Italian philosopher Giulio Camillo designed a round wooden building called the Memory Theater. The theater offered the viewer the “eternal aspect of all things.” A man could step into it, stand at its center, and look out toward seven pillars painted with symbols and filled with drawers of scrolls, displaying all human knowledge. The Memory Theater briefly became the rage of Europe.

Today’s scientists discuss the differences between human and computer memory in terms of flexibility and fallibility. A human responds to a variety of prompts with a variety of memories, sometimes producing unreliable ones. A computer needs the correct prompt to reach a certain memory, but it is always reliable.

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