Expired · 11th April 2010
Several terabytes of memory is all we need – and this kind of massive data storage will soon be commercially available for anyone who wants it. Then, if we attach miniature sensors to our bodies, we will be able to make a digital record of our lives, a moment-by-moment inventory of everything that happens to us. Appropriate software will allow us to retrieve this information at any future time. We will effectively have a total recollection of our experiences in digital format.
At first glance, the idea is fascinating. But it overlooks an obvious contradiction. How is anyone to continue living his or her life as an ongoing process if the past keeps intruding on the present? Life is a journey, not an accumulation of baggage. It is lived more by letting go than by hanging on.
Such a complete recording of life's experiences also overlooks the importance of forgetting. "For the human condition," writes Yadin Dudai in the New Scientist (Oct. 24/09), "forgetting is at least as important as remembering – sometimes more so." Indeed, remembering can be a curse, a mass of detail that becomes oppressively heavy and debilitating. We need to forget to be free. As Dudai notes, we need detailed memory for "businesses and courts, clinics and insurance agencies". And we each need a memory to learn from experience and to reach generalized understandings. But we don't need to remember everything. Total recollection of the past would overwhelm anyone's present.
But the idea of recording one's entire life in digital format poses a question with more serious and worrisome implications. Who cares? Beyond personal interest bordering on narcissism, why would anyone think his or her life is so important that it should be recorded for posterity? History is the passage of billions of human lives, each of them marking the world with an iota of consequence before disappearing into the long eons of endless change. From this perspective, no one is particularly important. Even humanity is somewhat inconsequential, given these scales of time. For an individual to be so obsessively self-absorbed, to be so engrossed in the poignancy of his or her own moments as to be bereft of any sense of proportion, is pathological. And, when this attribute becomes widespread, it portends trouble.
Such an epidemic of self-importance is now undermining the civic, economic and environmental ecologies that keep us and our planet in some kind of sustainable balance. We have overburdened the place with too many people. Our unrestrained greed has become so fashionable that it is sabotaging economic systems – bankers with their egregious "bonuses" is a characteristic example of this current pathology.
Collectively, our inflated sense of individual self-importance manifests itself as environmental degradation. The justifications are always "my" rights or "our" rights rather than "their" rights. The "other" is forgotten in the narrow focus of self-interest. Incessant and escalating consumption is advanced by the inflated importance of corporate executives, propelled by the profit demands of share holders, and then abetted by the enthusiasm of compliant consumers. And all the environmental damage is supposed to be forgiven by the justification that this escalating consumption provides collateral benefit to us all. We overlook the collective consequences of our individual excessive acts because the entire system seems to be working.
"Seems" is the operative word here. A closer examination from a perspective broader than individual self-interest suggests that the consequences of behaving with abject self-importance are stressing our ecosystems, our natural resources, our economic models and even our political structures toward breaking points. Hidden in the pursuit of more-and-more is the looming law of limits, an ominous finality that the perpetual quest for self-gratification is not inclined to recognize.
Sacrificing for the whole is incompatible with this aggrandizement of the self. An inner sense of restraint, modesty and compromise cannot co-exist with perpetual and unmitigated entitlement. Per capita consumer debt in the US and Canada is at a record high. Each American and each Canadian consumes more than twice his or her weight in products and resources every day ‹ multiple Earths would be required to provide all humanity with this lifestyle. We have made the unreflective grab-and-spend we call consumerism into a cult of individual fulfilment through the illusion that our satiation of imagined wants will somehow provide us with essential nourishment and satisfaction. Instead, we are left stuffed and starved, hungry for more of the same vacuous goods that are enslaving us and despoiling our planet. If this is the best of all possible systems, why are people working longer and harder to meet their needs, while the prognosis for the global environmental continues to worsen?
Where is the wisdom that guides us to live within our material, biological and ecological limits? Where is our individual and collective humility?
These questions seem silly when viewed from the high summit of self Importance. The pathology doesn't allow for proportion, perspective or doubt. Too many people seem so absorbed in themselves that they are incapable of altering the system which is consuming us all. So our age of indulged individuality may culminate in terabytes of useless information, vast digital records of busy lives all imagining that they are each significant.