Post-it Notes don’t work as well as we imagine. They cannot inventory information. They cannot retrieve reminders at the right time (ever noticed how blizzards of Post-it Notes are safely ignored?). Post-it Notes lack any central processing unit (CPU).
Many of us are Post-it Notes people. We stick little packets of useless information all over our cranium. That’s easy in the Internet world. We tell people, for example, the price of tea in China. But we don’t know if that’s worth remembering. Post-it Notes people have always been around. Lately, though, their numbers are increasing.
For thousands of years, 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. Conversation or faxed data travels in a predetermined channel,” writes Daniel Henninger.1 This means we sorted, stored and retrieved information in the same way as computers — via a CPU.
The Internet world changes that, Henninger says. Facts have become packets of information ñ no longer traveling in a predetermined channel. Sort of like Post-it Notes. “[T]his experience has forced more people than ever to think in terms of hierarchies ñ how to sort through lots of information and assign values,” Henninger concludes.
Sorting through lots of information and assigning values was historically a function of the Judeo-Christian faith. It organized information via a hierarchy of four predetermined channels ñ how life ought to be (creation), how it actually is (the fall), how life can be made better (redemption) and what it will be one day (the final restoration). These four conduits constituted our CPU that sorted 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 posed three haunting questions many years ago: “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 those 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.” By 1882, Decoration Day was changed to Memorial Day and fallen soldiers from all wars were honored as well. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared Memorial Day a federal holiday on the last Monday in May. By this time, however, Memorial Day had become a cookout rather than a commemoration. So much for the “vandalism of neglect and the ravages of time.”
Between Logan’s inauguration and Nixon’s declaration, the Judeo-Christian faith ñ slowly but surely — was also vandalized by neglect and ravaged by time. Sorting, storage and retrieval was replaced with Post-it Notes. We forgot that 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.
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! Levinson was evoking memory to ask whether we’re getting better or simply becoming busier.
This Memorial Day might be a good time to watch Avalon. Or read Jorge Luis Borges’ 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.
The randomness of Post-it Notes is exacerbated when they lose their stickiness and fall all over the place. Another Memorial Day film to watch is Memento (it’s not for those easily offended by coarse language and violence). The film tells an unsettling story of a man who suffers a modest brain injury after he and his wife are brutally attacked (she is killed). 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 that no longer stick. It’s a brilliant but disturbing film.
This Memorial Day, why not enjoy a cookout and a commemoration? If Sam Krichinsky was right, retrieving the right stories might help us know whether we’re getting better or simply becoming busier. But that would require a pretty good CPU.
1 Daniel Henninger, “Packet Politics,” The Wall Street Journal, (Thursday, March 29, 2007)
2 T.S. Eliot, The Rock (1934)