Post-it Notes People

Post-it Notes don’t work as well as most folks imagine.

Post-it Notes are popular with lots of people. But they have drawbacks. They cannot inventory information. Post-it Notes cannot retrieve reminders at the right time. Post-it Notes lack any central processing unit (CPU).

Few folks notice this, however, for most are Post-it Notes people. We stick little packets of useless information all over our cranium. This is exacerbated in an internet world. We can tell people the price of tea in China. But we can’t tell whether that’s worth remembering.

Pre-internet, we processed information like Lily Tomlin’s famous telephone switchboard operator, Ernestine. “Ernestine’s “switch” was a circuit-switch, which means it connects A directly to B. Data travelled in predetermined channels.1 This gave us the ability to sort, store and retrieve the right information at the right time, as computers do via a CPU.

The Internet world has changed that. Data has become packets of information no longer traveling in predetermined channels. There’s no CPU. Data is more like stuff written on Post-it Notes. We don’t know “how to sort through lots of information and assign values,” Daniel Henninger writes.

This was historically a function of the Judeo-Christian faith. It organized information via four predetermined channels: how life ought to be (creation), what it actually is (the fall), how we can make a better world (redemption) and what the world will be one day (the final restoration). These four constituted a human CPU, sorting out the good, the bad and the ugly.

Post-it Notes people lack a CPU. “Our society is basically motion without memory, which of course, is one of the clinical definitions of insanity,” notes James Billington, the chief librarian of Congress. It’s why T.S. Eliot asked: “Where is the life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”2

Of course, most of us have forgotten that Eliot asked these questions.

Which brings us to Memorial Day. On May 5, 1868, retired Union Major General Jonathan A. Logan inaugurated “Decoration Day” so that “no vandalism of neglect, no ravages of time” would allow coming generations to forget “the cost of a free and undivided republic.” In 1882, Decoration Day was changed to Memorial Day. Fallen soldiers from all wars were honored. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared Memorial Day a federal holiday on the last Monday in May. But by this time, Memorial Day had become cookouts rather than commemorations. So much for the vandalism of neglect and the ravages of time.

Which brings us to whatever happened to the Judeo-Christian faith. We’ve forgotten how the “great sin” of the Old Testament was forgetfulness. When we forget our past, we lose the ability to differentiate between mere activity and meaningful advancement, to make meaning-full sense of our present day.

That’s the question writer-director Barry Levinson posed in his 1990 movie Avalon. Levinson recounts the story of his family growing up in Baltimore, through the lens of Thanksgivings in the 1950s and 60s. The film opens with family patriarch Sam Krichinsky telling his grandchildren — for the umpteenth time — about coming to Baltimore in 1914. “Pa, the kids have heard the story — enough!” No, Sam argues. No! The children must hear the story!

Jorge Luis Borges flips the same question in his novel, Ficciones. In this story, a man suffers a modest brain injury and cannot forget anything he has experienced, waking or dreaming. His brain is filled only with details. Everything sticks, like Post-it Notes. Yet it’s entirely random.

Director Christopher Nolan flips the question back in his film, Memento (not for those easily offended by coarse language and violence). It tells an unsettling story of a man who suffers a modest brain injury after he and his wife are brutally attacked. He wakes every morning unable to recall what happened yesterday. His determined search for his wife’s killer is a confusing disarray of Polaroid pictures, tattoos and Post-It Notes. It’s a brilliant but disturbing film.

In the Judeo-Christian faith, we’re to remember, but not remember every thing. We’re also to forget some things; but not every thing. Discerning which is which requires predetermined channels, the gospel in four “channels.” It’s the CPU that Post-it Pads people, including Christians, don’t seem to have.

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1 Daniel Henninger, “Packet Politics,” The Wall Street Journal, (Thursday, March 29, 2007)
2 T.S. Eliot, The Rock (1934)

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