An intriguing computer-based metaphor for culture

Psychologists have exploited computers as metaphors for the human brain ever since their invention. Concepts like “short term memory” and “long term memory” as functional cognitive units that pass information from one to another owe their provenance to computer metaphors.

These metaphors, however, are based on particular technical instantiations of computing; there are unimaginably many ways to instantiate computers as technological objects, including in DNA, slime, and liquid crystal. Even the cloud based systems powering technology experiences today are radically different from the self-contained computing units that spawned the computer-based metaphors at the heart of cognitive psychology. For example,  web-pages hardly ever exist on a single server anymore. When called they are constructed on-the-fly from databases and servers with the illusion of being a unitary object. This very webpage was constructed with 93 calls to four domains; each of those calls would have been served by a server accessing multiple databases in order to fulfill the request. A simple blog page is constructed on-the-fly by literally hundreds of processes hosted on multiple servers.

The information-processing metaphor of the human brain is based on the standalone serial computer; and in practice those barely exist anymore. New forms of computing, like “cloud-computing”, radically disrupt these metaphors.

pingfs (ping file system) is a file storage  system that stores data in the internet itself, as packets bouncing between routers in a network. As a  packet is received it is bounced back as a new packet. No local storage exists beyond that required to read the message, bounce it and instantaneously delete the local copy. The data is “stored” primarily between nodes, not within them; like storing tennis balls by juggling them.

This seems like a far better metaphor for memory than the “short term memory”[RAM]/”long term memory”[Hard-drive] distinction. It captures the social nature of memory, and how individuals primarily remember things they are reminded of.

But as a metaphor for social life and memory it could be improved. What if  nodes in the network selectively bounced packets based on agreement and disagreement? What if packets were subtly changed each time they bounced? This would start to approximate a metaphor for culture, and capture how information is simultaneously transmitted and stored; that the act of transmission is also a mechanism of storage.

This metaphor starts to capture some of the magic of cultural memory; moving the locus of action from the inside of individual brains to the spaces between people, as post-structural theorists have long suggested.  Culture, according to this metaphor, is produced and maintained by the constant flurry of interaction between its members. It is what happens between people, not within people, that creates memory.  Obviously, this is only possible if the people have the capacity to “bounce packets” of information in appropriate ways, but it is a metaphor that highlights that meaning and memory cannot be made alone.