Random Access Memory – (ランダム・アクセス・メモリ)

Consider for a moment, how many times we might start a sentence with “I remember…” – now whether that’s to dredge your mind to unearth an extant anecdote, confirming that you do recall having eaten two helpings of Tiramisu that morning, or whether you’re vacillating between dialogue options in a Final Fantasy game is quite irrelevant.

Recollection is a natural activity visited often on a daily basis, I could stretch the description further to state that memory is essentially the foundation of our lives, without any ability to retain and recall we’d experience each moment anew, most likely gawping slack-jawed in amazement like I was when they told me they’d released a Lego pirate ship with two decks… TWO!

But I digress, this isn’t where I point out the fundamental requirement for memory and our different capacities for recording a variety of stimuli, I’m sure brighter minds have already done that justice elsewhere, no here I have a narrower field of focus upon something I’d like to talk about.

I remember…

I remember the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Who doesn’t? Well, those who weren’t born then, that’s who. But for those readers joining us from their Millennial perspective, imagine a world of neon and pastel (Naturally they don’t go together, but nobody got that memo back in the day), and a little later, a world of synthetic beats, syncopated piano chords and rap music where everyone’s just kind of pleasant – before bling and bitches became de rigueur.

Anyway, I remember driving around in my parents car as a teenager (No, not, in an early reenactment of Grand Theft Auto), but as a passenger on a journey to wherever we might have been going at the time, probably Slough, and listening to the radio as the miles passed by.

Much has been said of the classic songs that came from that period. As an impressionable youth, I was not spared that susceptibility either – and lo and behold many of the gems of that time filtered through the slightly worn speakers of a brown Toyota Cressida into my mind. Guns ’n’ Roses’ “Night Train”, Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy The Silence”, ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man”, Allanah Myles’ “Black Velvet”, R.E.M’s “Losing My Religion”… I could go on but pasting my iTunes library might be easier and faster, and a damn sight more complete.

The point was, I, who only had £1 a week pocket money and an old Sony Walkman – had no hope of buying albums – because back then, buying an individual track was not even an option, even a CD Single had a raft of useless mixes and obscure B-sides to put up with (some of which were gold however).

So, stymied by the harsh realities of music acquisition – and sat in a boiling hot car on a Summer’s day – I had to find some kind of way of storing those songs. So I committed them to memory.

Even now, on Radio stations across the world there are still DJ’s who mention the song title or band name in such a rapid-fire, zero-punctuation way so as to render them as undecipherable as the lyrics that were to follow – so oftentimes I’d have half-cooked pieces of information to play with. And with no rewind nor pause to lean on, you simply had to hope the next time it played they’d actually give you the name you so desperately required for your mental collection.

The ensuing lyrics were equally difficult to pick out, so much so that I’m pretty sure that period of time contributed to the vast majority of Misheard Lyrics’ archives (Yes, R.E.M’s “Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” I’m looking at you here…). So between the snippets of lines you were able to glean and the hyperbabble from the DJ, you were left with disparate parts of the equation, like the errant Duplo block that somehow always winds up mixed in with your Lego.

So the years rolled on by, layers of song fragments piled on top of each other in the anarchic halls of my memory, held in place largely by determination more than anything else, until something quite miraculous happened: The Internet.

Well, more specifically WinMX, Napster and other early peer-to-peer sharing networks. Suddenly, bestowed with the great power and responsibility that comes with a mouse and a 56kbps connection, I started to see the potential in front of me.

Dusting off my mental archives – I decided to find these songs I’d held close to my heart for so long; seizing the moment I started to write them out. Song name, band name, and for those I only had partial information, segments of the lyrics, whatever I had to hand. I managed to fill three, double-sided pieces of A4 paper. Downloading them all took upwards of three months, due to lack of seeds, rarity and incomplete or poor quality files available. A very different world to the comparatively HQ digital world we now live in – also, please don’t sue me Record Companies…

Even now, years on – I can still remember much of that list, entire song lyrics leap into my head like muscle memory.

These days, like many of you – if I’m in a bar and I hear a cool piece of music that I don’t know. I’ll probably load up Soundhound or Shazam to quickly find out what it is – then look it up on YouTube with a mental note to listen to it later and see if I’ll want to buy it on iTunes etc. This ability would have been something worth killing over back in that sweltering car seat in the late ‘80s.

Not wanting to avoid paying due reverence or anything, but setting aside the technological marvels that make this possible for a second, this phenomena isn’t reserved exclusively for music. We see it everywhere. We could be in a bar with our friends when someone asks “Hang on though, but how exactly do you forge a fingerprint using a photocopier?” (I have suspiciously interesting friends), or “But what is the point of the blue box in Mulholland Drive?” (That’ll open a cash-and-carry-size can of worms) and within measured moments we’ll have Wikipedia, or IMDB open to ferret out that information.

Now, somewhere in the foggy nepenthe of your mind’s archives – that answer lies buried beneath the gunk of everyday remembrances. Like a VCR cassette tape with no label lurking under a bed. You know it’s there somewhere, but quite where, who knows?… And in the middle of this dilemma of Mnemosynian proportions – you are painfully aware that speed of response is tantamount to the degree of knowledge accorded to you, the speaker. Suddenly, time is of the essence:

“Who steps forth to claim these facts as their own?” Intones a voice from deep within the waters of the Lethe. “I see, and does he have the necessary digital dexterity to back up that claim?”. 
“…well, then he is found wanting, and may go forth, in the name of rented knowledge”.

So with blessings of the gods in hand, and the answer dispensed for the eagerly awaiting crowd – the tangent of the conversation continues, drinking, and by extension – normalcy – resumes.

This got me thinking.

In spite of the vast wealth of the information age – we remain informationally poor in a number of ways. Namely knowledge. Knowledge is exactly that, things that you know. Not things which you can vaguely recall or read on a buzzfeed article once, something you can bring forth without a third party accessory, stories you can tell. We have unparalleled access to the most complex forms of information imaginable, literally at our fingertips as they flit over our smartphone screens. But rarely do we condition that with a sense of reverence. Facts have become like water, all too disposable despite the immense weight that ocean holds.

We have become slaves to the phenomenon of Random Access Memory – we borrow facts, we do not own them. Ownership, true ownership is equivalent to having digested each piece, not simply devouring them boorishly.

Committing something to memory – and commitment to memory have become oddly asynchronous, and much like the fragments of song names and misheard lyrics from music I’d taken pains to internalise all those years ago, they remain curiously discordant. We are so used to temporarily renting from the libraries of the learned, that we pay little attention to the whys and wherefores, a little like omitting to turn in a bibliography with your thesis.

Even within the Millennial groups who were born with this technology there will be those who are deeply respectful of the information they borrow – I’m not suggesting that they are an irreverent horde of quoters engaged in the world’s largest shouting match, merely that the devices which power our everyday experiences lend themselves to this phenomenon, rather than veer away from it.

The beautiful irony of the whole conundrum is that from an issue borne from digital means, the solution, or at least one method to establish a modicum of balance, is perhaps found in a much more analogue medium. To not rely so ardently on our devices, and more on our own ability to absorb and index the information with which we interact.

So the next time you read something interesting on Wikipedia or Buzzfeed, or anywhere else for that matter – don’t dwell on it merely long enough to be able to quote it. Instead, really let it sink in, allow it to take hold and become a part of you and your story. For when you recount it next, its colours will refract within you and amplify your luminosity, instead of promising colour, only to fade out to black and white.

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