I seem to hear less about a computer’s memory and more about its data storage capabilities. That’s a bad sign.
The idea of a computer having a memory – whether it’s a simple PC or a large data warehouse – is central to the concept of managing not merely data, but information. A few years ago, when we were a bit more optimistic perhaps, we even spoke of knowledge management, a phrase which has become decidedly unfashionable in IT. Possibly because it’s gotten so complicated to track and sort all the information in our computer-based repositories, we no longer think of IT as coming even close to the power of human memory, even though we assume computers can store much more than the average mind. Certainly they can store a lot of poems.
Given that this is National Poetry Month, I found myself looking at an article published four years ago in Arts & Letters: A Journal of Contemporary Culture. In “Does Memory Have A Future?” David Barber discusses how the oral traditions of Homer and other classic poets flourished into what he describes as the “memory arts,” where specialists would try to teach others how to improve their ability to retain information. Like many other challenging and manual activities, the introduction of IT changed all that. With the right sized hard drive, you could do a lot better than even the best memory artist. Barber doesn’t waste time bemoaning that, however:
Now that we are all essentially subjects of a virtual empire of computational memory, there is no longer much practical reason to slave away on the upkeep of memory's structural integrity. That's in the hands of the systems gurus and the webmasters now. A mixed blessing, perhaps, but might it not have the positive effect of granting us greater liberty to do what we will with our own private estates of memory? The way I see it, the revolution in information technology that has made such astonishing gains in taking over what might be called the grunt work of memory has potentially freed up all kinds of room in our minds for newly reclaimed fields of memory to take root and flower.
He is talking, of course, about poetry – language that tries to capture human experience as purely as it can. Sometimes challenging to understand, often offering fresh nuances with each reading, poetry is not metadata but meta-information. We haven’t designed – and may never be able to design – an IT system that can make good use of it. Poems allow us to inhabit, by memorizing them, the mind of the poet, a sort of empathy uncommon to most of what you would pull out of an enterprise business application. Poetry can, I would argue, make us even more human than we would be without it, and certainly in an age where we are surrounded by mere facts. “Let us by all means give the wonders of information technology their due,” Barber concludes, “but let us also not forget that it can't and shouldn't supplant our fundamental need for poetry's ‘intuition technology.’”
Isn’t this what we’re thinking about when we think of great leaders? People who absorb knowledge the way it gets soaked into a great poem and take what appears to be a simple gut feeling and turn it into the right course of action? What’s great about intuition technology is that it requires constant maintenance but no real upgrades. Licensing charges are dispensed with, and although outsourcing is out of the question, it’s part of that heterogeneous environment between our ears that can bring joy as well as simple productivity and accomplishment. If you can adopt intuition technology successfully, information technology management should be a piece of cake.