This is the second in a series of guest blog posts by Dr Sebastian Groes and Nick Lavery of the AHRC Science in Culture Theme Memory Network. The series reflects on a number of events held by the Memory Network at The Cheltenham Festival.
If we could predict the future it would be memory: ‘Memory, Prediction and the Invisible Future’
The ‘Memory, Prediction and the Invisible Future’-event at The Cheltenham Festival started from the perhaps counterintuitive assumption that memory is not just for looking backward, but that it is a tool we need in order to predict the future. From an evolutionary point of view, individual memory probably evolved for us to plan ahead: in order to make choices (like, say, whether a hunt of an animal is likely to result in food for the tribe or whether a traffic jam yesterday will makes us change our route today), we need memory as a database that allows us to hypothetically predict outcomes accurately and successfully in the imagination. On a collective level, we used to think that the future was simply an extention of the past. The world would continue much as it used to in the past. After the Industrial Revolution we thought we could even make our future lives better; we could make progress, and much of the effort to create progress depended on taking away risk. During the twenty-first century, however, much of the linear, causal models of thinking were undermined and made way for new theories that focused on the many uncertainties and instabilities at the heart of the universe. Now we find ourselves in an increasingly unstable world, with climate change, globalisation, an unstable economy and the technological singularity (meaning the nature of technological revolutions we live through makes it impossible to predict the form and content of lives in, say, the next 20 years. In 1985, no one could have predicted we’d all walk around with a pocket-sized computer that allows us to ring, navigate cities, tell he weather and give us any information we desire).
In the twenty-first century, our ability to use memory to predict is, paradoxically, enhanced because we have increasingly detailed models to calculate the future, but we also realise there are many contingencies and chance factors build into our world that make is increasingly difficult to predict the future as well. One key book that explores such instability is Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan (2007), which shows that the complexity of the financial world is now very instable: a seemingly minor event can trigger huge consequences on the other end of the world, whilst more and more often highly improbably events actually do take place.
Thus, one might argue that the role of memory and history is becoming less strong in our contemporary culture: our knowledge and the databases of the past (both at the level of the individual as well as socially at a global level) are less useful because simple, linear causality is undermined. This makes our world deeply fragile and our lives profoundly precarious.
Caption: Sebastian Groes, Jessica Bland, Kevin Fong, and Rob Stevens demonstrating eye-tracking technologies with the help of Nick Lavery
The Memory Network had put together a diverse panel, including the director of a company that specialises in the analysis and prediction of the behaviour of consumers, Bunnyfoot. However, first technology futures analyst at Nesta, Jessica Bland opened with the claim that ‘the future is not always about prediction; looking forward is about imagining plausible future scenarios in order to help us understand and debate things today’. ‘She described her work on the potential humanitarian uses of drones as a way of ‘shifting that future that we can imagine’, suggesting a correspondence between a changeable future and a past left unfixed by the plasticity of human memory’. Bland concluded that ‘we don’t have to remember things perfectly for memory to be a useful thing in our life in the way that we don’t have to predict the future perfectly for it to be a useful thing in our world’.
Kevin Fong introduced himself as a ‘prediction nihilist’, asserting that while ‘we tend to remember the good decisions we made that were predictive’ our ability to predict what we are going to need as a society is ‘near zero’. He took from the example of Robert Falcon Scott’s Arctic expedition, whose failure belied the vital importance of Antarctic research in the study of climate change, the idea that ‘in our forays into the unknown continents of the body and the mind, we don’t know where we’re going’, and that our focus is not about looking to the future so much as ‘grappling with the present, trying to mitigate the consequences of the thing we did recently and hoping that somehow that will move us forward’.
Rob Stevens, founder of Bunnyfoot, also showed how eye-tracking technology is used to predict consumers’ behaviour by doing an experiment with Memory Network adminstrator Nick Lavery. Nick was equipped with eye-tracking goggles (glasses that measure eye positions and eye movement) asked to find the letter ‘P’ in two versions of the alfabet: one which was chronologically ordered and one randomly scattered across the screen. There result is evident in the film below:
Stevens elaborated on his notion of the brain as a ‘memory-based prediction tool’, using a demonstration of his work with eye-tracking technology to show the importance in perception and prediction of existing mental models, and tracing the vital function of memory from the survival and evolution of single-celled organisms to his current work in advertising that plays on disjunctions between the firing of our memories in the neo-cortex meeting sensory input coming the other way, from reality.
Discussing their own future predictions, the panel balanced a measured understanding of this ability with a sense of optimism over humanity’s relationship to technology. Jessica Bland summed up the panel’s discussion of prediction and memory by pointing out that ‘if we could predict the future it would be memory’; while the fundamentally plastic, human nature of memory imposes limitations on our ability to predict, it will also play a part in mitigating the consequence of, and shaping our response to, whatever we will encounter in the future.’
This is one of a series of guest blog posts written by AHRC Science in Culture Theme Award Holders. The Science in Culture Theme is a key area of AHRC Funding and supports projects committed to developing reciprocal relationships between scientists and arts and humanities researchers. More information about Dr Sebastian Groes’ Research Network ‘The Memory Network’ can be found here. Videos and audio of all the events will be posted on the Memory Network website shortly. The Memory Network would like to thank Sarah Smyth and Rose Stuart for co-organising The Memory Network at Cheltenham events.
Follow us on twitter at @AHRCSciCulture for updates from the theme.