In the image of consciousness

(What follows is a vague, messy shadow of an essay. Maybe it’s the point. But as an excuse, consider it an impressionist work instead.)

The computer is a projection of the human mind. It is the physical and external manifestation of philosophical-mathematical thoughts, a machine that runs on theories of representations, logic, and physics. With 21st century computers, much of the machinery has been hidden, such that when the ordinary user taps on her smartphone—a contemporary computer—to create a document, share photos, and communicate with a friend, what is left is a deceptively simple, enchanting experience.

The human mind thrives on stimulus, just as the computer feeds on input. Both possess memories, perform logic, and visualize data. But for both subjects, it is perhaps the first attribute, the capacity for storage of information, that is the most valuable. It is where the treasure lies. It is how value, to put it in utilitarian terms, is retained.

However, especially in this aspect of memory, there are serious limitations in the computer as an analogy for the mind. Computer memory is rigid: unless running software instructs certain pieces of data to be transformed, the data will stay as is, even after years of storage. Whereas human memory is fragile: it is widely known that older memories are less reliable. Rare is the person whose powers of recollection is gifted with perpetual integrity.

It does not, however, make human memory a lesser kind of memory. It is not about a deliberate, degrading kind of corruption; it is about a natural, organic alteration. The value of human memory lies not in precision, but in its capacity for emotion, and imagination.

I have a chronic disease. Others call it nostalgia. It manifests in me as a tendency to fall into episodes of captive reminiscing. Memories are powerful, and I have always found them attached, clinging on, hugging closely, to deep emotions, and in my trips down memory alley I inevitably get waylaid into chains of recollections that take hours for me to crawl back out of.

In one of these attacks of nostalgia, it once dawned on me that memory is not serial, nor linear. Memory, human memory, is hyperlinked. They are interconnected many times over, not in random fashion but through their major themes. The memories that make up so much of our identities is a constantly evolving web; a fluid constellation of chained thoughts; a golden tangled mass of knitted pictures.

I could, on a lazy Saturday, choose to recall an old weekend at a northern beach. This memory would present me with underlined connections to other beaches of my memory: a childhood seashore visited with cousins, perhaps. I would follow it. The sand is nothing to write home about; it is not pure, not pristine, not fully white. I would remember what we had for lunch instead. There was tea, of course tea, because it would be refreshing, like beaches in general.

An experience of following the train of thought in nostalgic transit, like this, is the same experience as clicking through the Internet. (Conveniently, it is called surfing.) The computer, in more ways than one then, has truly taken inspiration after the mind: the mind has given its own image towards the creation of the Web, www, which is a thriving, living network of memories.

But before we begin to take the Internet as an eternal existence, let us not forget that it can be just as fragile as human memory is. It is still young. And yet, its fringes and nooks and corners are already full of lost significance. Back in the dot-com era, they invented a funny word for it: cobwebsites. It is true, though, that the Internet lives above a physical layer that is just as breakable as any material on earth.

And the day will come, we do not know yet when, or in what manner: when the Web will crumble and all its contents of memories and discontents of emotions will be lost. To spin a few words, it will be a breathtaking journey from data to dust.


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