Shame and Forgetting in the Information Age

Charles Baxter

We have transformed information into a form of garbage.
- Neil Postman

In Memory of Tom, My Brother

In April 1998, my brother Tom died, at the age of fifty-nine. He died in his sleep, of a heart attack, one day after his fifty-ninth birthday. He had been afflicted with bad health for some time, including congestive heart failure, renal failure, diabetes, cancer, and narcolepsy. He once fell asleep at the wheel and had to crawl out of his wrecked car and a drainage ditch to the nearest house. His financial affairs were a calamity. Faced with the problems, he was almost perversely upbeat. Every week over the phone I'd ask him how he was, and he'd say, "Not too bad for an old man!"

Tom was an outcast of the information age. Perhaps every family has one. He was ours. He had trouble in school (and he went to a lot of schools) because he could not learn printed information easily. Reading and writing often defeated him, and they did so before the culture had begun to employ the phrase "learning disability," and before this society had become dependent on computers. He had a computer and claimed he didn't know how to use it. For years, long after I had begged him to stop, he would introduce himself exuberantly as "the dumb brother." I was stricken by this phrase, made heart-sick by it, and by his effort to turn this source of shame into an identifying badge.

Forgetting was shameful to him, and he felt it marked him for life.

His spelling was atrocious. He wrote in a scrawl. Much of my writing made very little sense to him, except for the stories that he recognized and in which he figured, and there were many. I wrote about him all the time. He was my muse for a while. He never forgot anyone he ever met, and he never forgot a story, witnessed or heard. He listened to stories and told them expressively, with awe and wonder. As long as he could function in the world, he was a salesman, a manufacturer's rep, a job in which he could put his storytelling capacities to use. He didn't — almost everyone said this about him — have a mean bone in his body.

His father — his and mine — died in 1948 when Tom was nine years old, and at the funeral some man, some friend of the family, told Tom, “You're not going to cry, are you.” It wasn't a question; it was an order. “He told me to stuff it,” Tom said later. And stuff it he did, with food.

Where do you go, what do you do, if you can't manage the printed information that we churn out? What becomes of you? What if you can't stand it? Melville's Bartleby starved in the Tombs. My brother took the opposite tack. He ate. He overate. He took it, the food, all in. He became large and unseemly; he became so big that when he came into the room, any room anywhere, people helplessly stared at this huge tottering man. He stuffed it and then he went on stuffing it. He absorbed it. He fought his shame (he always ate in secret, out of sight, preferably in the dark) by eventually calling attention to it: he began wearing pink sportshirts and kelly green trousers and rainbow suspenders. By his mid-to-late forties, he was unemployable, defeated by his exasperated difficulties with his appearance and with the printed word.

He was among the ranks of those who cannot easily process written information, the data-disabled. There's a large number of these people around, and no one likes to talk about them. They are a great scandal to our sensibilities. We have a myth that education will help them get on their feet. For some of them, yes. But for many, many others, education is the wall they can't get over, or through.

My brother had a storehouse of stories. If an experience had been witnessed and reported to him, he could remember the narrative in detail and tell it again. I'll repeat this for emphasis: he never forgot anyone. He loved to tell stories about how he had recognized someone who couldn't recognize him, who had forgotten who he was. It was his special triumph never to forget a name or a face, and he was amused by my own difficulty in remembering names. He thought it was a telling commentary on the sort of person I was, and am, that I had such difficulties. He was amused that I forgot human beings but remembered what I read. However, if it — the information — arrived on paper, or on a screen, he'd lose track of the content. It wouldn't stick. With me, it did.

Nevertheless, he once could recite the words that Charley speaks over Willy Loman's grave, “a salesman don't put a bolt to a nut” speech, by heart. “All I have,” my brother would say, “is a smile and a shoeshine.” When I see him now, he is sitting at a table, telling an amazing story, a story that may or may not be true. He didn't always care if a story was literally true, but it had to be narratively useful and explain something that needed explaining.

By some miracle he never became embittered. He loved the world and loved God in a way that I refused to. He found the world quite wonderful, a fit place for stories. He was the first person to take me into a public library and to explain to me that each card represented a book. I didn't believe him. When I was eleven, I pestered him with questions about what happened on a date between the girl and the boy (I was completely mystified), and so, with his girlfriend's permission, he took me along the next time they went out, so he could show me how the thing was done. She let me hold her hand at the movie.

A few years ago he was officially put on the rolls of the disabled. He had been disabled almost from the start, and his various ambitions (to be ordained, to host a radio program) were frustrated by quizzes, tests, exams. All this terrible writing! It was inescapable. He even flunked out of radio school. Toward the end of his life — I can still hardly believe it — he became a freelance writer on the subjects of boating and outdoor recreation. It was a brave choice. It was like pitching your tent in the camp of the enemy. I don't know if he ever earned any money from it — I don't think he did — but it kept him busy.

He wanted to be remembered. To this end, he was horribly, shockingly, punitively generous to everyone. He was always giving something away. It was in his nature to do so, but it was also a request: please remember me; after all, I remember you. Every gift from him was a remembrance. He went bankrupt twice, mostly because he gave everything away.

When we went into his apartment after his death, the papers — all the documents and letters and magazines and bank statements and computer printouts and postcards and newspapers and ranks of unread how-to manuals and books and directories and reference books — were stacked and stashed everywhere. It rose, in great piles, almost to the ceiling. The air was bad. The papers had absorbed all the oxygen, and there was a rank smell of paper oxidizing, turning brown, like the smell of food cooking. He lived amid these documents. They surrounded him, like the foetid documentary accumulations in Bleak House. The apartment was stuffed with written material, all the paperwork of a lifetime, very little of it thrown out or recycled. It had befriended him. Because he couldn't hold it in his head, he kept it around and had learned to live with it. Besides, he couldn't bend over to pick it up.

We searched through it all. There was no will. He hadn't written one. As they say: all he had left behind were our memories of him. That, and the papers.

Memory, Shame, and Forgetting

Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I happen to live, is a small and rather tightly wound city where information processing is a major industry. Surrounded by farmland, the area is nevertheless dominated by the University of Michigan and by its intellectual, artistic, and athletic productions. A barn, not two miles from where I live, has M GO BLUE patterned on its roof shingles.

People here often take considerable pride in their minds and more particularly in their memories. The town is full of Know-It-Alls. It has to be. Standing in front of others, sporting their expensive ties and slightly askew accessories in classrooms or outside of them, my colleagues rattle off facts and figures and concepts and patterns while their students take notes. The virtuosi of knowledge, they are presumed to have — they do have — some authority because of what they know and what they remember. Their lives and their authority depend upon their ability to remember, and to remember their subjects in public. Having a private memory in a place like this might be pleasant, but it is certainly beside the point, at least professionally. Private memories stay at home, or end up in a therapist's office.

The business of Ann Arbor (or Madison, or Berkeley, or Bloomington, any college or university town) is memory, cultural memory. Software, in every sense.

This may explain why I perked up, some months ago, as I was sitting in a local restaurant, when I heard two women in the next booth talking about memory. I bent over to eavesdrop, which is, in part, what I do for a living.

“How much memory have you got?” one of them asked the other.

“I don't know.”

“You don't know?” the first one asked. “You don't know how much memory you have? Didn't you ask the salesman?”

Of course they were not talking about their own minds. But it was an extraordinary conversation because its tone was so offhand, what one of my students once called “so lunchtime.” In a way that even Marshall McLuhan might not have predicted, the mechanical extensions of humans have now apparently extended to our brains, and more particularly to our memories. “Your memory” can now in casual conversation refer to your computer's memory rather than your own.

This usage signals a conflation in the way that we think about the data we remember, as opposed to what we would call “our memories.” “Our memories” are memories of our experiences in narrative form. They are probably not in the external computer unless we are keeping a journal or writing a memoir, in which case only the words are there. Data, by contrast, the proliferating facts and figures, can easily be stored.

Confusion about the two forms of memory is spreading and manifesting itself in peculiar ways, most peculiarly in what might seem to be its opposite, a huge desire or need to forget, a kind of fetishizing of amnesia. Strategic amnesia might be an appropriate phrase to describe how we are coping with information-glut, what David Shenk in a recent book on the subject called “data smog.”1

Strategic amnesia has everything to do with the desire to create or destroy personal histories. It has everything to do with the way we tell stories. As I write, it is smearing into unintelligibility the daily tableaux of public and political life. In this sense, narrative dysfunction and strategic amnesia are conniving, and have joined hands.

This is complicated and perplexing and needs to be approached slowly and with caution, not to say alarm.

We read and are told every day that our industrial economy has shifted in the last two decades toward the production of information. The manufacture of goods has been exported to a large degree and displaced by the mass production of data. The technology of data processing has increased exponentially year by year, resulting in high-speed forms of planned obsolescence in software programs (Windows, etc.) and in the computers themselves. The only frustrating limit to this technology, one CEO told me, is the speed of light, which is now too slow.

The easy mass access to the Internet has resulted in the rapid trading of information and the public postings of semiprivate and occasionally lurid materials in homepages and Web sites. Furthermore, a large proportion of the population works with, or is at least familiar with, information technology. We are all (well, most of us) computer users now. Many of us have to spend the day in front of screens, moving the information around or creating new information.

There is more information all the time. No one can absorb all the information. No one wants to. The day ends, not with physical exhaustion, but with data-fatigue or data-nausea. Information on a screen is subtly different from information gleaned from books, although no one has been completely clear about the nature of this difference. Because there's always more information, an information explosion, but a limited capacity to absorb it or even to know what information is essential and what information is trivial, anxiety often results, data-anxiety. What do you need to know, what do you need to absorb, what do you need to remember? Who can say? No one can keep up. No one is in a position to tell you.

Given such a situation, every place where computers reign is like Ann Arbor. You can process information perfectly well in a farmhouse in North Dakota. In an information society, large sectors of the population, to survive, have had to acquire some competency in handling data, organizing it, moving it around, displaying it, and disposing of it.

A proliferation of information causes information-inflation. That is, every individual piece of information loses some value given the sheer quantity of other information. Some information turns quickly into garbage. Bad information may well force out good, in a Gresham's Law of data processing.

The tremendous quantities of data — much of it trivial or even subtrivial — have created new forms of competency, having to do with both arranging the data and remembering it.

Remembering data and remembering an experience are two very different activities. It is possible that the quantity of data we are supposed to remember has reduced our capacity to remember or even to have experiences.

What meaning does forgetfulness possess in an information age?

- Advertisement headline in The New York Times for a prescription drug to aid memory

The signs of anxiety over forgetfulness have been turning up everywhere lately, but most prominently, for me, in television commercials and newspaper ads. One recent such commercial, shown nationally, begins with documentary footage of a young woman in a large stadium singing the Canadian national anthem. After about ten seconds, she begins to fluff her lines. A pause, while she looks embarrassed and shamefaced. She then stops singing. Cut to a voice-over, an announcer saying, “Everybody needs a good night's sleep to perform well.” On the screen, we see a shot of the product: a mattress. Memory-anxiety makes for good business.

Prescription drugs that aid the memory, so-called “cognitive enhancers,” are touted in full-page ads in The New York Times.

The phobia about forgetting has entered the run of daily conversation. A colleague in my department, forgetting my name as we meet in the hallway, turns beet red from embarrassment and says that it must be the onset of Alzheimer's. Another friend, having forgotten her keys in her office, says that she is in fact worried not so much about the keys but about her memory slips. These slips are commonplace, she says, but they are causing her depressive spells. She can't stop talking about it. Clearly she is obsessing about her mental competence. Time and again, I have seen friends and colleagues lose their trains of thought in meetings and then blush and stammer and apologize, as if their professional standing had suddenly been endangered.

Many people seem to believe that remembering is simply a matter of willpower.

During an enormous stadium concert by the band R.E.M., Michael Stipe, the lead singer, apologizes to the audience, thousands of us, for having the lyric sheets to the songs he sings placed on a music stand in front of him.

In an information age, forgetfulness is a sign of debility and incompetence. It is taken as weakness, an emblem of losing one's grip. For anyone who works with quantities of data, a single note of forgetfulness can sound like a death knell. To remember is to triumph over loss and death; to forget is to form a partnership with oblivion.

History is narratable as long as its events occur in some logical way, but when trauma and shame are introduced into the mix, history is corrupted from the inside. The one story my brother Tom could not tell was the continuing story of why he ate in the way he did. Against a shame that you cannot bear, your mind detaches itself from its own memory. It is the strategic amnesia of everyday life, both involuntary and willful.

Charles Baxter is the author of two novels, four books of short stories, a novella, and a book of poetry. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and has received grants from the NEA, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund.

This article is an excerpt from “Shame and Forgetting in the Information Age,” by Charles Baxter, in The Business of Memory, a collection of essays edited by Baxter published in 1999 by Gray Wolf Press. It is published here with permission from Darhansoff and Verrill Literary Agency and the author.

1 Neil Postman, quoted in David Shenk, Data Smog (San Francisco, HarperEdge, 1997).