Tuesday, July 04, 2006

What We Really Know

What you truly own is what you can carry in one hand, running flat out, firing an automatic rifle over your shoulder.  Facetiousness aside, there's a point there.  Ownership, as a concept, is pretty contentious when/if the rubber meets the road. 

So that's what you own; what about what you truly know?  What you can remember, running flat out, firing an automatic rifle over your shoulder?  In that case, I know the feeling of fear, my name, my desire to live, my face in the mirror, and not a lot else besides a whole lot of song lyrics (what, you mean they don't pop into your head all the damn time too?).  But I know a lot of other things right now, sitting on a city bus typing this out on my way to the office.  I know I look like a huge nerd with his laptop out on a city bus, for one thing.  And I know I dislike commuting.

I think it's mostly about context.  Psychology's known about the effects of context on memory for a long time, but it's not something that we think about in everyday life.  One of the sideline expository devices in Charlie Stross's Accelerando is a pair of glasses the main character wears, glasses that feed him context about everything he pays attention to.  It's like an implant without the actual hardware; when he loses them, he loses so much of his memory that a lot of his identity goes away too. (sideline question:  how is what you know different from who you are?)  We're not to that point yet -- at least I'm not -- but we're getting there; I often find myself answering questions with the help of the internet when the I'm near a device that can access it, I don't even try to remember meetings anymore, and it's been a long time since I sent a letter through the real mail.  It wasn't until I spent a few days without network access getting my laptop up and running on Solaris (I've switched back to exclusively running Windows now, with Solaris and so on in VMWare, so that's no longer an issue) that I realized the extent to which I rely on my network connection to feel at home on my computer. Even if the job I was trying to do didn't require any network interfaces other than loopback (there's no place like 127.0.0.1!), not having access to the web made everything harder.

Ultimately I 'm not sure the distinction between "what you know" and "what you really know" is important.  After all, the context required for any given set of memories is usually present when you need them (what reason would you have for trying to recall something out-of-context?), and the mind is a flexible thing.

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