Thursday, 25 March 2010

717 - Memory, Nostalgia and Civil Rights

Imagine if the memories of Whitley Bay submitted by you and I to Francis Frith were manipulable, erasable, through targeted pill use or disruptive stimulation. We could forget the Dome ever was, our trip to the seaside having been prevented from forming. That kiss-me-quick under the wurlitzers? The dodgy B&B we stayed in? Gone. Or last week's return trip - how downbeat, compared to the childhood memory, how disappointing. You could lift it, replace it with happier times (though the physical buildings, and our bodies, would still degrade).

Well, they are, just about. A report on Radio 4 this morning described one recent experiment where memories of traumatic images from old public information films were prevented from 'developing' - it takes six hours for them to set in place, it seems - by having viewers play Tetris after watching (the cognitive processes used are so similar, the brain 'forgets' to remember the film images). The Today programme interviewed Anders Sandberg and AC Grayling afterwards. Both agreed that such technologies are useful for dealing with disfunctional memories - induced, for example, by post traumatic stress - but they raise profound questions about what it means to be human.

We are our memories, bad as well as good. Or is that actually true? Perhaps we can 'dress up' in fresh memories, the way you'd wear a smarter dress if you had the choice. Why, in a meritocracy, let a shoddy past hold you back?

This is why, in a blog dedicated to Whitley Bay, I've spent so much time getting my thoughts straight about communal and personal identity. It really does impact on the real world. Whitley, a nostalgia-buff's wet dream, has a stronger identity than most, and one, perhaps, more often let down. The seaside town's journey to find a new identity offers a perfect case study for reflection on the kinds of questions raised by neuroscientific and biotechnological research into identity formation. (Perhaps a bid could be prepared for some of the new seaside town regeneration money, also announced today on the programme, to fund a research project into nostalgia and its cure.)

I call the creative use of fresh and manipulated identities storying, because I believe stories, in all their beauty, are both the outcome, and the best tools by which we may get a handle on our identies. The potential is huge, but scary, and I suspect attempts will be made to control such technologies, not always for the best of reasons.

I reckon I'm pretty much on the money, too. The joke in the interview was that our grandchildren will look back at us as Neanderthals, exclaiming, as James Naughtie put it, 'They didn't know what pill to take!'. More pertinently, Sandberg explained, our right to control what goes on cognitively in our own heads should be "considered one of our basic liberal freedoms".

Storying is a civil rights movement.

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