Frankenstein, Robocop, Google: Human Memory/Digital Memory
Mark Vareschi, an assistant professor of English, is exploring what it is that makes a life unique. Our memories, he believes, define who we are, but what defines our memories, especially in an age when the digital sphere keeps better track of our words and actions than our own minds do?
“I’m really interested in studying the relationship between memory and identity,” he says. “There’s a version of you that exists in your own mind. But human memory is fragile. We forget. At the same time, Amazon has a version of you, built out of your preferences and purchases. Google has a version of you. These versions are based on the things you’ve done, and the digital world doesn’t forget.”
A scholar of eighteenth-century literature, he found that the theme of memory and the individual dates back centuries, and so he built a course to study that relationship. Frankenstein, Robocop, Google launched this fall, as a seminar for about twenty first-year students.
FIG-ure It Out
Vareschi’s course is part of a FIG, a first-year interest group, and it combines his literary study with Philosophy 101 (intro) and Library and Information Science 351 (intro to digital information). “The fascinating thing,” he says, “is that the students aren’t all in the humanities. They’re about half STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] and business majors, and half in English and philosophy. We have students who are talking about the future of human identity, and that’s an exciting development.”
Classics and Cinema
The course begins with a classical foundation: Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero all wrote about memory and the individual, and Vareschi takes his students through that deep background. But with the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, literature adds in the question of technology: can science create a person by assembling the right building blocks? That’s a theme that writers — and, more recently movie-makers — have returned to again and again.
“When he made Robocop, Paul Verhoeven said he was making a new Frankenstein,” Vareschi says. “But it’s really quite different. Frankenstein’s monster actually comes with no memory — he’s got a brain that was presumably used, but he remembers nothing. He’s a tabula rasa. The main character in Robocop does have memories. He learns his identity through a series of flashbacks.”
As the course develops, Vareschi and his students will turn to the ways in which digital records supplant memory, and what the implications of this may be. As people create digital avatars of themselves through social media sites — or have avatars created for them by Google or other online entities — the question arises of who the true individual is, and who controls that identity. “We’ll be looking at concepts of surveillance and privacy,” Vareschi says. “These ideas have been part of the realm of science fiction for decades, but they’re becoming more real now.”
Published in the Winter 2014 issue