Random access memory

Computers reflect the postmodern condition as much as they create it.

By Marshall Knudson

Green with the buoyancy that belongs only to the naïve, I marched my way into my first autumn quarter clad in a suit of sureness and crowned with an impeccable memory. I used to laugh at that dry, almost Bertrand Russell–esque quip, “everyone has a photographic memory; some just don’t have film,” as if my own roll would last me into retirement at least—and by then we’d be digital. I should have known then that my self-portrait was going to change quite drastically over the next few years.

As a kid, when other boys and girls identified with the contours of their Big Wheels toy truck or the proto-feminine features of their Barbie doll, I was bent into a stoop—foreshadowing, no doubt—absorbing the facts and figures of my history books. I could recite the years of the Great Depression and the casualties at the Battle of Gettysburg as readily as other kids could recite their ages and phone numbers.

So when I cracked open my first text in Sosc and peeled back the pages with earnest pleasure, little did I imagine what a transformation of my faculties was already taking place, creeping like a shade behind my neck.

But like most degenerative processes, the changes came slowly and haltingly. One moment I became aware that I was speaking to a friend whose name I couldn’t recollect, next I was stuck in a classroom, absolutely unable to account for what it was I had ostensibly read the night before. Telltale signs, I thought, of too much stress.

Yet stressed out or not, I started to realize the roots were far deeper, coiled like a parasitic worm in the belly of its host. Ping-ponged back and forth between my native village and this scholarly cloister, I felt that I was straddling two islands in a growing river of confusion. The more I read, traveled, talked, and wrote, the more I forgot what thread knit together all these disparate strands of my life into a final pattern. Heavy doses of old-school academic criticism and heady infusions of postmodern culture brought me from a lively trot to a dead halt.

I was another casualty of the postmodern, liberal artsy pathology. My friends asked me if I felt alienated, but I told them that alienation presupposed I had a coherent sense of self to begin with, rather than a wild bricolage.

Stop “other”-ing me, man, I might have said, if I had had the luxury of a discrete, non-normative identity, if I had shared an imaginary unity with an imagined community. But I didn’t have any of that. I knew where I was from, but I wasn’t quite sure why, and I knew where I was, but only with the help of MapQuest.

I lacked a plausible autobiography, and I felt empty and fragmented enough to try to create one by arbitrarily choosing an author—and strangely, in a way selecting a culture—with which to organize my life and my outlook, and anchor my failing memory. I wanted to accede to Polonius’s advice, “This above all: to thine own self be true,” and follow the motto of the Temple of Delphi, “Know thyself,” but knowledge, truth, and self were all concepts too porous to float for any length of time in the tempestuous waters of my mind.

If life was like a series of texts intersecting with other texts in dubious battle, then perhaps my computer knew me better through my writings than I knew myself in the reflections of a mirror. Then, my hard drive crashed, and I lost my rock. All my music and documents, all record of and all provision for my life as a constellation of sound bites and sentences: all gone.

There were tears, but as I wiped my eyes I saw with new clarity that for what I had lost, I had also gained. No longer aided by my computer’s prosthetic presence in my life, I stopped worrying about my condition, and realized all I’ve learned over the past few years.

What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, Nietzsche said. I might not remember anything, but think of all the bad times I’ve forgotten. And talking in an obscurantist and deconstructionist style covers up the fact that I’ve lost track of my thoughts mid-stream, or that I never had any to begin with. At the end of the day, like my professor once said, “I don’t have to know anything, really; I just have to know how to argue.”

Marshall Knudson is a third-year in the College majoring in anthropology.