“The Palaces of Data” from TechGnosis

Posted by – March 20, 2015
Categories: Excerpt Metaphysics & Unexplained Phenomena Spirituality & Religion

by Erik Davistechgnosis

This excerpt is from TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information, a book that investigates how technology intersects with our religious imagination.


The Palaces of Data

Imagine arriving at your local shopping center. Park the car, slip in through the whooshing automatic doors, and start exploring the place, picturing the stores and escalators and displays of goodies as clearly and distinctly as possible. Then imagine that this structure you’ve carved out of mindstuff is actually a database. Stick a mental Post-It note on the most striking objects you pass, associating each thing—a purple pair of Reeboks, a popcorn maker, a stuffed unicorn—with some bit of pertinent minutia. Perhaps you organize your data by venue: business contacts at Brooks Brothers, mental snapshots of your travels in the multiethnic food court, lovers’ birthdays and phone numbers in Victoria’s Secret. But in any case, you should inscribe this virtual mall in your imagination so vividly that you can move through it as surely as you pad around your own home. And by mentally “clicking” on each storefront and commodity, you can also recover the information you stored there.

This, in a cheap American nutshell, is the ars memoria: the ancient mnemonic technique of building architectural databases inside your skull. A few Roman writers gave compelling technical descriptions of these “memory palaces,” considering them a vital and practical aspect of the art of rhetoric (the rhetorical term topic derives from topoi, the “place” where one might lodge an argument or idea). Memory palaces could be based on real spaces or imaginary ones; some believed the best palaces combined the two modes, so that simulations of actual buildings were infused with impossible properties. Though it’s tough to believe this rather baroque system worked very well, the prodigious memories of the classical world suggest otherwise. Seneca, we are told, could hear a list of two thousand names and spit them back in order, while Simplicius, a buddy of Augustine, got a kick out of reciting Virgil’s Aeneid off the top of his head—backward.

We are as chipmunks to these mighty elephants of recall. Having externalized our memories, we squirrel facts away in written texts, iPhones, and the cloud rather than swallow them whole. And yet with the immense honeycomb of cyberspace—the supreme amputation of memory—we spiral around again to the vision of memory as a space of information, a three-dimensional realm that’s “outside” ourselves while simultaneously tucked “inside” an exploratory space that resembles the mind. From this perspective, Saint Augustine’s paean to memory in the Confessions suggests not only the realms of the artificial memory but also the evanescent grids of Gibson’s cyberspace: “Behold the plains, and caves, and caverns of my memory, innumerable and innumerably full of innumerable kinds of things.” Augustine calls this an “inner place, which is as yet no place,” piled high with images, information, emotions, and experiences. “Over all these do I run, I fly,” he writes, sounding like one of Gibson’s console cowboys. “I dive on this side and that, as far as I can, and there is no end.” [1]

The closest that many of today’s online spelunkers come to these endless associational flights of recall is surfing the World Wide Web—a technology that was invented because of an irritating quirk of one man’s memory. As a visiting scholar at CERN, Tim Berners-Lee had to master the European physics laboratory’s labyrinthine information system, but he wasn’t particularly hot at recalling what he terms “random connections.” So he whipped up a personal memory substitute called Enquire, basically a hypertext system that allowed him to drop words into documents that acted as specific links to other documents. To share the system with other researchers on the network, Berners-Lee cranked out and distributed the expanded protocols for what he came to call the World Wide Web. The rest, as they say, is history. In a 1997 Time interview that took place at MIT’s computer science lab, Berners-Lee describes the intuitive, neural structure of the Web’s hypertext by referring to his cup of coffee. “If instead of coffee I’d brought in lilac,” he says to the interviewer, “you’d have a strong association between the laboratory for computer science and lilac. You could walk by a lilac bush and be brought back to the laboratory.” [2] The icons and hyperlinks of the Web thus simulate the associational habits of memory, habits that lend the imagination its intuitive capacity for leaps and analogies.

This is not to say that Augustine would confuse a few hours of Web grazing with the rich and penetrating introspection that he believed brought one closer to God. On the other hand, if he had been an adept of the ars memoria, he would also have regarded the art as a perfectly pragmatic intellectual tool, a techne that transforms the imagination into a psychic file cabinet as functional as any desktop metaphor. In fact, the orator Cicero’s technical specs for memory palaces seem almost tailor-made for code jockeys toiling over corporate websites:

 One must employ a large number of places which must be well-lighted, clearly set out in order, at moderate intervals apart; and images which are active, sharply defined, unusual, and which have the power of speedily encountering and penetrating the psyche. [3]

Using the media metaphors of his day, Cicero wrote that “we shall employ the places and images respectively as a wax writing-tablet and the letters written on it.” [4] For Cicero, these “images,” or simulacra, functioned similarly to the icons of today’s Web—compressed but memorable graphics that open up a store of data and that supplement, without replacing, the more abstract inscriptions of text. Though simple icons like anchors and swords were apparently employed, the anonymous author of Rhetorica ad Herennium insisted that the mnemonic emblems must be “active” and “striking”—gorgeous or ugly as hell, fantastically garbed or dripping with blood.

No wonder Aristotle warned his readers that memory palaces could leak into the dreams of their creators—adepts of the art were trafficking with the fierce phantasms of the unconscious. Though the classical rhetoricians seem to have deployed these simulacra for purely instrumental purposes, the ars memoria eventually took on a more spiritual and occult import. Medieval theologians employed the art to “remember heaven and hell,” lodging the Church’s innumerable array of vices and virtues within Byzantine psychic architectures, probably not unlike Dante’s poetic maps of the afterworld. Though intellectual heavyweights like the Jesuits continued to use the mnemonic art well into the seventeenth century, modern thinkers stopped using such loosely associational networks as they invented more rational ways to organize fields of knowledge—part and parcel of their wholesale rejection of the productions of the imagination.

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About the Author

Marina is the Marketing & Digital Programs Coordinator at North Atlantic Books. After living in New Orleans and Amsterdam, and exploring a couple of continents, she returned to the San Francisco Bay Area to work at NAB. She's passionate about astrology, nonfiction books, and sustainable living, as well as all things metaphysical.