What we forget may play as
large a role in our lives as what we remember. Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence,
Paths, Dangers and Strategies (2014) outlines the cognitive limitations of the human
brain. Paying attention to our brain’s capacity to remember, how it remembers,
the speed of remembering, and the capacity limits of memory is useful in placing
amnesia into context.
We can’t understand how
and what we forget without understanding something about the architecture of the
brain where our memories are stored. This is summary drawn from Bostrom’s
The speed of at which our
brain makes calculations—what Bostrom’s calls computational speed of our
biological neurons—is painfully slow. As it is natural to us, it doesn’t seem
slow. But when we compare that with reading this essay on a computer housing a
microprocessor operating at 2 GHz, our brain (and everyone else) plods along at
200 Hz. Our computational brain operates seven orders of magnitude slower than a
computer than costs less than a thousand dollars.
The other slow lane where
we find the operational limitations of the brain is the speed of axons
communications within the brain. We limp along at 120 m/s while an electronic
processing core communicates at 300,000,000 m/s. Our brain’s incredibly limited
communication speed means we are way out of our league on the electronic
expressway. This is the slow lane speed at which we take processing our
information. If you owned a computer that operated at this slow speed, you’d
return to the shop and demand your money back. We don’t have that
All the computation in the
brain occurs inside slightly less than 100 billion neurons. Whether you are the
village idiot or Einstein you have roughly the same number of neurons. Forget,
for the moment, all of the hype about cognitive enhancements; no matter what you
do to enhance the speed of a horse it will never win a Formula One
The brain not only makes
calculation and processes data input from the outside world; it also has a
storage capability. Unfortunately for us, this capacity is as limited as our
computational and communication operating speeds. Bostrom observes our brains
hold between 4 and 5 chunks of information in memory as working memory at any
given time. Long-term memory is also limited but as Bostrom notes it is unclear
whether we use it up during a normal lifetime due to the slowness of processing
information. The accumulation of information is slow, subject to errors,
miscalculations, and mistake for a number of reasons including old of date
cultural filters, multiple biases, chemicals, drugs, alcohol, and propaganda.
Our brain memory storage capacity is at the level of a moderately priced
Amnesia is used to describe deficits
in memory resulting from brain damage, disease or psychological trauma. The loss
of memory can be either loss of short-term or long-term memory. An unfortunate
suffers from the loss of both. The causes can be biological as the case with
brain structure irregularities or chemical protein processing. While the medical
side of amnesia is of great interest, there is a cultural component of amnesia
that is less well understood and discussed. It may be the function of culture is
to create amnesia among a population, creating a system of short and long-term
memories that have a degree of uniformity, consistency, and
The educational system in
most countries is the primary delivery system. Students are taught to ‘forget’
or ‘ignore’ contrary information. Students are rewarded with high marks when
they demonstrate they recall specific information on their examination. The
examinations are designed to test their memory and understanding of historical,
cultural, and normative information. In Tokyo
Joe, one my early novels, the plot revolved around the
Ministry of Education in Japan seeking to erase from public memory the role of
the 731-Corp during World War II. That unit in the Imperial Japanese army, while
based in China, carried out biological research including subjecting them to
disease on prisoners of war. Recently in Thailand, a former prime minister’s
name was eliminated from school history books.
In an authoritarian system
the teacher’s role is a conduit to transfer knowledge and information to
students, and the students’ role is the passive receiver. The process is memory
formulation based on the orthodox cultural narrative. Not even the slightest
variation from the narrative is sanctioned. The student who challenges the
teacher’s conventional story may expect to receive severe punishment. In such a
system, amnesia is the goal. The schools aren’t the only actors in memory
formulation or manipulation. The media, government, civil service, courts and
other officials work to reinforce the cultural message taught in the schools.
This social modeling gives ‘culture’ the seamless feeling by instilling a shared
set of social signaling and preference. When a small gap opens, it is quickly
shut down or isolated from the mainstream.
The problem in the
post-digital school system is that teachers find themselves in competition with
other information sources. Social media along with the search functions on the
Internet allow for leakage into the state authorized information system
disrupting the social and political modeling and design matrix . Outsiders, in
other words, are tampering with the collective cultural memories of their
citizens. The reaction is fairly predictable from criminalization of expression,
to censoring websites, and consolidating forces to fight against unwanted
memories from being spread in the population.
In Thailand following the
May 22nd coup, the military government has sought to implement techniques and
training—including the so-called ‘attitude adjustment’—with the purpose of
erasing specific memories, altering other memories, and redesigning
memories. Such a goal requires the official monitoring and control.
Such a course of action is not surprising. Traditionally cultural authorities
under the watchful eye of governments and religious authorities have established
and updated the mental content of people under their jurisdiction as if
education and normative social values were a proprietary operating system,
self-contained with only authorized by approved social engineers. In a closed
system, whether software programming or cultural programming, what is created is
deemed propriety—it is owned by the State, which uses laws, propaganda,
education and media to exclude others from the process. By contrast, in an Open
Programming Model, an innovation of the digital age, hundreds or thousands of ad
hoc individuals are encouraged to improve, revise, amend and alter the original
program. Cultural authorities and governments that strictly control the kind of
attitudes, values, wish to appoint their own trusted engineers to ensure the
‘right’ thinking processes remains pure.
Access to information is
not open-ended. Controlling memories about past events, personalities, successes
and victories form a core collective memory shared by citizens. A political
culture seeks to establish a commonality of interest and purpose among people.
It may be self-serving for a powerful elite who benefit from manipulation of
collective memory or it may allow the authorities a basis to call upon citizens
to sacrifice to the larger good.
Amnesia, in this cultural
sense, is programmed by political forces on behalf of governing institutions.
These institutions depend for their legitimacy on how people they govern
remember, forget, access, acquire and store information in their memory. In all
social, cultural and political systems people are taught to submit to the
unwritten understanding that their memory isn’t exclusively theirs to develop.
They learn to submit or yield to the cultural imperatives of the memory palace
of their country. Freedom, as developed in the West, has been a fight to bring
the right of debate, challenge and consent to balance the calls for submission.
The Internet has accelerated the idea that consent should prevail over the
absolute power to force submission. No democratic system can exclude ‘consent’
of the people. No authoritarian system can rely on submission and repression to
Waking up happens when
significant numbers of people discover the amnesia induced by their culture is
not from nature. Memories instilled from the official cultural channels are
man-made, produced, distributed, and monitored for the benefit of the system.
Once that insight is glimpsed the cultural memories become unstable and the
authorities, in Thailand and many other places, have doubled-up on their
attempts to gain control of what information is stored, rewarded, prized,
prohibited and criminalized.
Around the world from the
Middle-East to Africa and Asia, the collective amnesia is wearing off. People
are waking up. You see them being reborn on social media. They discover their
memories were products of submission and not choice, that what they recall are
memories of others. The massive impact of this awakening is playing out inside
millions of lives, and no one can predict what new processes of remembering will
take their place.
Nor can we predict how our
cognitive capacity may change over time, or how it may be marginalized with a
superintelligent AI. Bostrom’s Superintelligence may be the most
profoundly disturbing book you will read. In the world ahead, our grandchildren
and great-grandchildren may look back to our time of repressive governmental
regimes filling our memories with nonsense and conclude that at least in our
lives, compared to their own under the control of an AI superintelligent entity,
we stood had a fighting chance to gain choice in modeling the content of our
memories and thoughts. Perhaps only then will we have looking back understood
the true meaning of freedom.