Etymology: Authority

Let’s start thinking about this in terms of memory. I’m going to set out some definitions. They’re not meant to be definitive just shorthand, if you like, for some of the concepts I want to discuss.

Common (human) memory: I can remember that yesterday you were wearing a green t-shirt, for example. There is huge variation here between individuals, and also for those individuals, when they find themselves in differing circumstances or conditions or health. Some people have good memories, some people don’t.

Outsourced memory: In the general instance this is the use of media to record human exchanges and agreements and data. This covers, for example, the writing down of laws. And, of course, it is in the writing down of laws that laws themselves retain an air of civility, of justice. Writing down law does not remove controversy and disagreement, particular in matters of interpretation and perceptions of justice (hello the legal profession in its entirety), history clearly tells us this. It provides something much more valuable, the basis of modern society. Extending the concept beyond merely law and we have our collective knowledge, at species level, being turned into artefacts to travel across both time and space.

Although the concept of outsourced memory is nothing new we are more aware of it today as we see such a proliferation of the product becoming available through retail. It used to be a book or a library. Today it is a computer, a flash stick, a portable drive, or the cloud.

Potentially timeless memory: Is the idea that binds this all together. The idea that gives recorded words their power. The idea is simple, that we can capture at some point in time, either exactly what happened, or exactly what was agreed, and that our capture, our recording, will not degrade over time. We depend on the, often unspoken, thought that we can if required refer back to the document and resolve any conflicts that may have occurred. Was it 4% or was it 5%? Whereas that sounds simple, or even an oversimplification to make a point (be honest most of us could remember which of those two was agreed, right?), please remember that the most significant part of many contracts is the agreed cut.

Potentially timeless memory is an idea, not an actual delivery of eternal memory. It doesn’t need to be demonstrably timeless, it simply needs to have the potential. This view is facilitated as much by the fact that any individuals’ personal needs are only really affected over the 100 years or so they might be alive, as by anything else.

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