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Nature of collective memory


Utilisation of International Documentation (Part #6)


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Learning implies memory, whether in the case of the individual or of society.

"That experiences influence subsequent behaviour is evidence of an obvious but nevertheless remarkable activity called remembering. Learning could not occur without the function popularly called memory... So-called intelligent behaviour demands memory, remembering being prerequisite to reasoning. The ability to solve any problem or even to recognize that a problem exists depends on memory" (17).

What than is societal memory? How is it related to the international documentation system?

In the past, as Toffler notes (6, p. 192), "social memory" was stored in the minds of individuals as "history, myth, lore and legend, and transmitted... to their children through speech, song, chant, and example ... all the accumulated experience of the group was stored in the neurons and glia and synapses of human beings". This is still the case in many countries and sectors of society. But anthropologists do not appear to have studied "folk memory" or "cultural memory" as such. They focus on traditions as "values, beliefs, rules, and behavior patterns that are shared by a group and passed on from generation to generation as part of the socialization process" (16). This verbal tradition has largely been replaced by one based on texts.

Biologists on the other hand have tentatively recognized a "noosphere". "The age of ecological enlightenment has brought with it a new term, the ecosphere, which implies a responsible stewardship of Earth. Beyond and superimposed on these spheres lies another dimensional sphere, the noosphere, a figurative envelope of conceptual thought, or reflective impulses produced by the human intellect... It is not scientifically measurable, of course, but its presence is strongly felt and its influence is all-pervading" (17). The concept was first formulated by Vladimir Verdansky and elaborated by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. This approach has not focused on memory. As one biologist remarks, however:

"Although we are by all odds the most social of all social animals - more interdependent, more attached to each other, more inseparable in our behaviour than bees - we do not often feel our conjoined intelligence. Perhaps, however, we are linked in circuits for the storage, processing,and retrieval of information, since this appears to be the most basic and universal of all human enterprises". (17a, p. 14)

Classical Greek philosophy developed a concept of the worldsoul which was related to memory. Little attention has however been given to recent philosophical investigations of social minds, as "syntheses of individual minds into wholes with new minds"(18). This is also the case for the group mind as applied to national mind and character (19). Phychologists may refer to "culturally shared knowledge...though... This is merely an idealization...not to be confused with reality". (60, p.9). Scientists may, however, refer to "the store of human knowledge...achieves a corporate, collective power that is far greater than one Individual can exert". (20 )

The concept of group mind was examined and discarded by sociologists in connection with public opinion. This is a collection of individual opinions on an issue of public interest. It is considered to have characteristics that make it something more than the sum of individual opinions on an issue. Its function as social memory does not appear to have been explored. The concept of collective consciousness was developed by Emile Durkheim as a derivative of Rousseau's general will and Comte's consensus. But again there is little concern with memory, although Jung's concept of archetypes of the collective unconsciousness is closely related to it. The distinction between consciousness and unconsciousness may not be important in relation to memory: (*).

"A structural model may be conscious or unconscious without this difference affecting its nature. It can only be said that when the structure of a certain type of phenomena does not lie at a greatdepth, it is more likely that some kind of model, standing as a screen to hide it, mill exist in the collective consciousness. For conscious models, which are usually known as "norms.", are by definition very poor ones, since they are not intended to explain phenomena but to perpetuate them". (Claude Levi Strauss. Structural Anthropology. London, Allen Lane, 1968, p. 28. )

Educators, at least in the light of the Encyclopedia of Education (20), do not appear to have any interest in social memory, or even social learning as such. Programmes in support of inter national understanding, such as Unesco's, do not clarify any aspect of social memory even if they ensure the dissemination of cultural traditions. The new Unesco programme on cultural heritage also has no explicit concern with memory. Recent use of the term planetary consciousness by many alternative groups (29) is not related to any memory function.

It is to be expected that a social memory concern would emerge more explicitly in the development of the classification of knowledge from Aristotle through Juan Huarte, Francis Bacon, Diderot, to Dewey and Otlet and their successors (22, 23). But whilst such initiatives are effectively attempts to impose some organization on social memory, their proponents do not appear to be concerned with its nature. Thus although there is a study of classifications in their social context (24), there is little to be found on the social impact of classification schemes. A discipline such as the history of ideas is not concerned with the nature of collective memory. The power of such impacts is, however, illustrated by Jacques Attali in terms of styles of music as coding systems reflecting social structures and presaging new structures (25). But he does not consider any memory function.

Clearly social memory is an elusive and poorly explored phenomenon. Instead of attempting to clarify its nature as a psycho-social phenomenon, the search can be switched to the repositoriesof social memories . This switch necessarily abandons the preoccupation with how societies internalize recorded knowledge and focuses instead on how knowledge can be physically recorded and disseminated. Societal learning is not, however, achieved by simply recording and disseminating knowledge. It must be "absorbed" by society. How societal learning (or group learning) takes place remains unclear, as the Club of Rome report stresses.

Before commenting on modern systems it is important to note the role of encyclopaedias as repositories. Initially these were often conceived as "mirrors" of the knowledge of mankind - which reinforces the distinction noted above. Even in recent years national or ethnic encylopaedias have been deliberately created to orient social consciousness. Deliberate efforts have also been made to move beyond the traditionally passive role of the library and museum, as with Paul Otlet's Mundaneum which assembled 17 million items (26). The social significance of such initiatives was given its most eloquent form in the H G Wells proposal for a "world brain" (27). With the advent of computers, the concept has been refined under the stimulus of information scientists such as Manfred Kochen (28), Harry Schwarzlander (29) and D Soergel (30), who are linked through the World Mind Group (8).

The reality today is however represented by a multiplicity of information systems, whether national or international, specialized or general, computerized or not, and whatever the degree of interlinkage via data networks (31, 32). In this context the above concern with social memory is reduced to a preoccupation with computer memory and processing power.


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