From time to time, some friends of mine host an evening of drinking and talking called Chicken & Wine at a local Ethiopian restaurant. You could describe the evenings as a lecture series of mandatory informality. There are no rules or strictures, except one; speakers must choose a topic outside their area of expertise. The results are usually funny and thoughtful and sometimes quietly astounding.
Well, I'd like to put Chicken & Wine's run of greatness to an end with a pre-emptive strike. This is a draft of my talk, which I'll deliver if they host any more of them. And if they let me up on stage.
For this talk, I've been asked to discuss something outside my area of expertise.
Which is why I'm going to talk about fluid dynamics.
I know absolutely nothing about fluid dynamics.
I don't even know, in all honesty, whether that's even a thing, or whether I've just arbitrarily plugged two words together and generated a noun phrase willy-nilly.
But little lights spark briefly in my brain when I think of the phrase, as if to signify that yes, in some context, I've heard the term. My brain wants to tell me, even if only hesitantly and with the faintest of impulses, that I know something about fluid dyamics.
But I don't trust my brain.
I don't trust my memory.
Long before studies proved that memory was sufficiently malleable to introduce false experiences into someone's mind by dint of careful suggestions or even throwaway phrases, I had a feeling that my mind was nothing more than a wave constantly riding in to shore, constantly foaming, ever on the verge of breaking.
Someone would ask me what I thought of some ancient compilation of Smiths b-sides. After a prompt or two, my desire would mix with my memories of buying Smiths albums, of flipping through the cardboard sleeves in record stores with that carefully honed paddling of index and middle finger, of deciphering Morrissey's suggestive, sloppy and sometimes filthy lyrics. And then I would somehow remember that album of b-sides, with its wash of colour, its British '60s film icon on the cover, its aesthetic debt to Warhol, and the crooked and experimental songs that Marr and Morrissey had knocked off on a lazy afternoon. Perhaps before the fame, the campiness and the heroin got to them.
You know the album.
Or maybe you don't. Because the album I'm describing doesn't exist. It has no name. And yet it describes every Smiths record. The key lies in its namelessness, its satisfaction of categories, its position in a waveform that dips in and out of actuality.
But I tell you this: that would be the greatest Smiths album ever.
The easiest way to find out something about fluid dynamics is to Google it. Go on and give it a good Google. The internet, with its connected web of servers, is a memory that we believe we can trust. Data can be transposed, erased, replaced or even misinterpreted, but a datum is a datum. Random facts, dates, the names of authors – these can all be found on the internet. How many full fathoms does my father lie? Which wood is coming to Dunsinane? Google that shit. Stat. Hey, why do doctors always say 'stat'? I'm so going to Google that.*
People say that our memories are failing in a google-rich environment, but what it shows us is not that our memories are fake, but that the thing we think of as memory is fake. We have injected a structure into our minds, a house for facts. The memory palace is simply the most rigorous and opulent application of our native conception of memory. But we confuse the structure for its materials, as if we looked at a house and believed it to be a hollow tree.
The new metaphor for computing is no longer the box but the cloud. And it is the newest metaphor and structure for memory – vague, shifting, flowing into and out of other structures. We're packing up and moving that house, room by room, into the sky.*
Fluid dynamics, by the way, is a sub-discipline of fluid mechanics that deals with fluid flow—the natural science of fluids (liquids and gases) in motion. It has several subdisciplines itself, including aerodynamics (the study of air and other gases in motion) and hydrodynamics (the study of liquids in motion).
The more you know.
Stat is a barked abbreviation of the Latin statim, which means “immediately”. Doctors like to say stat because they're so very busy.
*But this can't be right, you say. There's still plenty of stuff running around up there in our heads, and there always will be. And some of it must be true – which is to say, it must be constant. Practical experience bears that out. Red lights always mean stop, green means go, and a flashing red hand means that you shouldn't have been crossing the street in the first place.
I wonder about those everyday details of our life, and to what degree we actually remember them as individuals. Red lights are not an individual phenomenon; they are objects that our entire culture holds in its mind. One day we will find ourselves in a place with strange new lights, and our minds will refuse to hold on to their colours.