Monday, 10 February 2020

Reveries of libraries, the thirty-first: Your Back-Up Brain

Where exactly all that learning goes at night and how it’s still there, apparently, the next morning, doesn’t bear thinking about.

Learning, as we find, is not loaded each morning via a chip in our temple, nor even via the classroom alone, but by every trick and trip that we are treated to by life.

It seems, in fact, that the more you try to think about all that learning, or retrieve it at will, the more it eludes your efforts, secure but unsummoned somewhere in the mind.

Even at this very moment the sounds we hear and tastes we test are being matched with a lifetime of similar sounds and tastes, so symphonic and so culinary, and that’s just the ear and mouth.

How memory can, at a simple word, suddenly trigger sullen learning to life, string without effort great lengths of information previously dormant in the upstairs front room, surprises us individually more than anyone else in the general vicinity.

How I remember the rain on the back beach is not how you or he or she or any of them remember the rain as it came down so thrillingly (or not), with no choice but to survive the interruption, though the pelting on the hood was delightful.

Or a whole speech, or the names of towns along the Australian coastline in order, or a family story embroidered over time, just at random are recalled at an instant, we know not how.

Who knows how much of all that learning can be summoned by a trigger or how much in fact is there all told, just waiting to return to words, much of it untold.

Even the other languages we learn seem to be a backup template, so that words of Italian and whole grammatical structures return fully to life after a few days back in Italy, language we thought forgotten, common idioms that hadn’t crossed the stage for a bow in how many years: dieci, venti, trenta.

Yet you would want a backup brain.

Perhaps true humanity is simply the gift of having our own memories coming and going, when they will, not just as an upload we must then interpret and synthesise, again, and why?

That our minds are not gigabyte cities that grow with each year seems perfectly obvious to most of us; are rather self-regulating mysteries that one second involve racking the brain, the next swapping yarns as if everything is one endless red thread running through the labyrinth up top.

You think that the quantities are uncontainable and you will improve the world by inventing machines to contain even more of all the learning you have gained.

Such questions as, can such a backup brain be sustainable, or do we really want to be flooded with a year of emails in one minute, or even will it work, seem peripheral to those on the track of backup.

In this we intuit the intention to edge ever more closely to an omniscience that, by its very definition, cannot be achieved.

It is difficult to think of omniscience as an ideal, given how much of everything we already know we’d rather forget.

Omniscience is the blockbuster that, in the shop window downtown, with a title like that, beseeches us to find a little more humility, a little more of something new, maybe.

And then there is the library, a backup brain that takes all the strain out of knowing everything, resting on its laurels yet hard at work, even as more learning is added.

The very selectivity of a library would, you’d think, be a sign that omniscience isn’t everything; lumber goes to the pulper or the antiquarian, while the fresh folios are added if they help us breathe.

As backup brains go, the library is preferable, given we can use it on our own terms, marvel at availability of its memory bank, and can get inside someone else’s thoughts, making them our own.

The library reminds us of the things we never knew about, sends us to the thousands of people who are not us and our fixed ideas, and survives the great outage of the month after next month.

Plus, the library sleeps at night, a backup brain with time on its hands and the special gift of downtime, where it can dream deep between such theories as fast forward, steady state, and entropy.

It’s down to us with our friendly mind, figuring out with the help of petitions, where a backup sounds like simple life-support, not a way of life.

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