Richard Thieme's Islands in the Clickstream:

Memory Storage

The story making the rounds this week about the decline of President Reagan is poignant. The worst terrors of Alzheimer patients -- rage, paranoia, uncontrollable outbursts -- are not in evidence, but we do have an image of a man looking into a mirror and not knowing that the man looking back had been President of the United States.

When Alice was underground, the caterpillar asked, "Who are you?" and we might imagine the face in the mirror asking the President the same question.

And what is any self, after all, but a momentary arrangement of information and energy, a "dissipative structure" like a whirlpool that holds its shape while exchanging its atoms? Where is that self, when our memories have been "lost in time like tears in rain," as Roy says at the end of the movie Bladerunner, just before he dies in the rain under an acid sky?

Bladerunner is a dystopian view of the next century, an inquiry into the blurred boundaries between humans and machines. Roy is a replicant, a machine so human it develops an instinct for survival. Driven by a fear of mortality, some rebellious replicants need to be "retired." Deckard is the "blade runner" given the task of killing them.

Deckard is asked by Eldon Tyrell, who dreamed up the code for the replicants, to run an "empathy test" on Rachael, an employee, to determine whether or not she's human. Deckard concludes that Rachael is a replicant, but it takes him a long time.

"She doesn't know, does she?" he says. Then, "How can it not know what it is?"

Tyrell explains that implants of false memories supported by faked photographs convince Rachael that she has lived a normal human life. The illusion of memory and the seamless interface of an artificial and a real self enable her to live a lie.

Later Deckard sits in his apartment, surrounded by photographs, and wonders if he too is a replicant that doesn't know what it is.

Memories are internal representations of experience that no longer exists.... so how can we know if they're real? Biography morphs into history, history morphs into myth. History, in fact, is our corporate myth, as biography is our individual myth.

So how can we know what we are? How can we not know what we are?

My brother called not long ago to ask about a childhood incident. Our parents are long dead, and we're the only two people on earth who remember that event. That shared memory makes us family.

As he talked of what he remembered, I said, "I don't remember it that way." Our memories were contextualized differently, skewed to fit the interpretation of life congruent with our individual stories.

That memory file had become corrupted, but had it ever existed in a pure form? Our beliefs determine our perceptions and our memories, and we gather evidence for our beliefs throughout our lives, turning our life stories into self-validating circles.

Those chemical traces in the brain caused by photons and other vectors of energy that we call "events in our lives" might be convertible to digital storage. Then we can save our memories, i.e. ourselves, and download ourselves into new bodies, ensuring the same kind of immortality we'll derive from teleportation, the creation of a copy from source code while the original is destroyed.

Who exactly will it be then that remembers my life? And when we pool our memories to form a tribe or community or nation, who will it be that remembers our history?

My first office computer was a Zenith running on CP/M. I used WordStar and its thousand-and-one commands to keep records for the church I served then as an Episcopal priest.

Parish records had been kept in a book, and when someone died, a line was drawn through their name. Their name and maybe the person was still there, somehow, "in the book of life" (to use an archaic print metaphor), but different -- the way I think many people vaguely imagine the self to persist after death.

When the records were computerized and someone died, however, I hit the delete key. The person vanished without a trace. There were no undelete keys then, no way to restore a lost file.

The first time it happened, it felt like a chill wind blowing through my soul.

A biblical scholar, Joachim Jeremias, thinks the words of Jesus at the last supper were misunderstood. He did not say, "Do this in remembrance of me," in Aramaic, but "Do this so that God may remember me." At his last meal before execution, he suggests, the condemned man implores his God not to delete him from long-term memory.

We still distinguish between people and machines because it's convenient. We may have artificial hearts, wear contacts, have hair transplants, plastic skin and artificial joints, but we think we are somehow separate from all that. We still locate ourselves in our mental activity. The genome project promises to map that mental activity -- the source code of our memories, temperament, modalities of perception -- and then we can make up digital pictures to support our memories. Maybe we'll make the pictures first, then invent the memories to match, the way news media do.

Deckard's question -- how can it not know what it is? -- is a simple inquiry into the nature of the landscape in which we live. There is always a lag as human cultures take their sweet time catching up to human experience. The Vatican only recently apologized to Galileo, after all. But soon enough our civilization, like President Reagan, will look into the mirror and not know who or what it is. The familiar names of our nations will join those of lost tribes -- Philistines and Jebusites, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union -- and we will evolve a bold new way of understanding what has happened on our planet.

When the caterpillar poses its koan, "Who are you?" to our replicants and clones, perhaps the simulated face gazing back from the digitized mirror will have an answer.

Islands in the Clickstream is a weekly column written by Richard Thieme exploring social and cultural dimensions of computer technology. Comments are welcome.

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Richard Thieme is a professional speaker, consultant, and writer focused on the impact of computer technology on individuals and organizations.

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