The art of remembering

3 April 2009 by Jennifer

Some thoughts on saving, retrieving, handing on or losing information. Ratchets, branches, channels, dead ends etc.

I was thinking about the ways that information gets lost. Sometimes it gets handed on and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it gets written down and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes people forget, and sometimes they remember till they die, but then they die.

Histories and skills

There’s a story that because so many builders died in the second world war, some of the previously-common knowledge about how traditional UK brick houses are “supposed to work” was lost with them. So some of the houses built in the 50s and 60s had problems, and lots of the houses built pre-war aren’t being maintained optimally.

[E.g. my house has some damp at the back, which is probably because (a) someone’s put down a concrete back yard and it doesn’t slope away from the house sufficiently, and (b) it’s now got rendering over some of the brick, so the brick can’t “breathe” as well as it would have originally. 100 years ago when it was new, it would have had blue brick paving sloping away from the walls, taking the water quickly away from the house, and it wouldn’t have had the rendering. Whoever made those changes probably had no idea that they were interfering with the house’s functional integrity. Some practical info on this subject, for anyone who’s interested.]

I’ve heard it said that queer activists are particularly prone to not knowing their own history, sometimes attributed to the fact that each new generation of queer people is mostly born to non-queer parents.

Or take the example of NHS midwives and breech birth (where the baby comes out bottom-first or feet-first rather than headfirst). As more and more breech babies are born by Caesarian surgery, so midwives get less and less opportunity to learn from the older midwives who know how to manage a natural breech birth safely.

Come to that, NHS midwives nowadays have less and less opportunity to see any birth without some kind of intervention, even if the intervention is as seemingly minor as “internally examining” the labouring woman. (An experienced old-style midwife will usually be able to tell from observing the woman roughly “how far on” she is.) The art of “not interfering unless necessary”, and the observational skills which support it, are still kept alive by some radical woman-centred midwives, but I don’t get the impression that their knowledge is highly valued within the NHS.

From me now to me later

On the other hand, the handing-on of information doesn’t have to be from one generation to another or even from one person to another. It could be from the me of now to the me of later. Sometimes I have an insight but then after a while I forget it again, and then later I have the same insight again and think “Hang on! I knew that! how did I forget?”

Either way, the question is: how do you capture that information – ideas, insights, experience, skills – and make it available for later?

Dynamic and static Quality

In Lila, the sequel to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M Pirsig describes what he calls Dynamic and static Quality.

To give a tiny bit of context to the following quote, what he means by “static quality” is something like: traditions, rituals, rules, documentation and so on.

Static quality patterns are dead when they are exclusive, when they demand blind obedience and suppress Dynamic change. But static patterns, nevertheless, provide a necessary stabilizing force to protect Dynamic progress from degeneration. Although Dynamic Quality, the Quality of freedom, creates this world in which we live, these patterns of static quality, the quality of order, preserve our world. Neither static nor Dynamic Quality can survive without the other.

Somewhere, I’m pretty sure he uses the metaphor of a ratchet to describe the working-together of static and dynamic – dynamic new development as the turning, static the holding steady so it doesn’t turn back. But can’t find that quote now. (Every now and again, I wish I could use a search engine on a paper book, and this is one of those times – I could do a search on “ratchet” and I bet that bit would come up. Unless of course he used a different word.)

(As an aside: I highly recommend both books. They are stories, but full of ideas that go beyond the stories.)


Another metaphor I’m thinking of – this one more relevant to communities or organisations evolving over time – is the one of “branching” software. Some existing software is developed in two or more initially-incompatible directions, and the code bases may or may not ever be merged again.

I was thinking at first that the “branching” analogy was meant to be with tree branches. But then the metaphorical parallel would have to include sometimes merging two tree branches back together.

I’m not sure that’d be impossible – I think it would be a bit similar to the grafting of fruit tree branches onto root stock – but at any rate it’s hardly a common sight.

Closer might be a canal splitting into two different channels, or a railway with different branch lines, which may or may not rejoin further along.

Or, in the case of merging software, perhaps a yet better metaphor would be a piece of weaving – since an important part of rejoining the weave would be to decide which pieces of yarn to weave where, which is a bit like the art of deciding which code to keep.

Anyway, the point is that sometimes different people continue a chain of ideas in two or more different directions, and they don’t reconnect further down. Then, sometimes you get one side continuing to develop and be handed on, whereas the other channel peters out into a dead end (like some kind of silted-up backwater). So for example with software, a version which is no longer maintained might contain a cool feature, which the main trunk had never developed.

There are parallels to this in activism, I think. A project ends, a group stops meeting, people move away, and sometimes the experience and knowledge along that branch is lost.

Retrieval of insights

For myself, I do write things down. I’ve usually got things stuck on my wall, and a few key files on my Psion which I re-read every now and again. But writing has limitations.

One is that retrieving an insight from something I’ve written down relies on re-reading it at the appropriate time. And I’ve written a lot of stuff down :-)

Another is that it seems to be easier to document practical stuff than emotional findings.

The ideas I lose tend to be not so much the kind like “Oooh! Wouldn’t it be cool to do this!” but more the kind similar to “If you are feeling mopey, here are some probable reasons why, and here are some ways which may work for getting unmopified”.

One of the things which works best for me is having thinking sessions, as invented by Nancy Kline and described in her extremely marvellous book Time to Think.

Thinking sessions seem to provide an environment where I’m better than usual at retrieving useful stuff from memory. It’s not quite just remembering it, though, either. Accessing a thought during a thinking session is more like recreating it. Re-finding it on a bit of paper doesn’t necessarily have the same emotional resonance.

Writing for remembering

A lot of my ideas for future blog posts (and a few of the existing ones) are in the category of “I want to remember this – maybe if I write it down here I’ll make it a bit bigger in my landscape!”

Some of the more recent posts haven’t been that kind. There’s always some thinking involved in writing them, but at heart they’ve been more motivated by “I have some thoughts that I want to tell to other people”.

But I like the idea that over time this blog could become a sort of documentation of “what works for me”, that I could consult for my own benefit in future.

Here, have an index…
The art of remembering
Histories and skills
From me now to me later
Dynamic and static Quality
Retrieval of insights
Writing for remembering

2 thoughts on “The art of remembering”

  1. Now that ebooks are here, you will be able to look up a word from a text!

    I profited from your reference to Static and Dynamic Quality. In my social environment, Static Quality seems to dominate nearly all Dynamic Quality. I am doing what I can to rectify this on a personal level, but a boost of some sort would be invaluable.

    Very nice writing. Take care.

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