​​​​Lost Data - Recovered Histories

​​A short tale of cybernetic and historical identity 

by Kenneth Stewart, Ph.D.

​On a Saturday morning a while back, I sat down at my computer

to begin working when suddenly the cursor froze on the screen. '

This had happened before, so I wasn't in a panic. I simply switched

my computer on and off and waited for the screen to light up again

with all my files and applications safely displayed in front of me.

What I saw instead panicked me. There in the middle of the screen was a blinking Macintosh icon with a question mark inside it. This could only mean one thing: The computer could not find my hard drive. It wasn't there. All I saw was the same blank stare from a brain dead computer. A diagnosis on Tuesday morning from the computer doctor gave me the tragic news: My hard drive had died.

I wondered if this was a portent ­ a sign from the information gods. I had recently celebrated my 50th birthday. I had a few of my friends over. We sat around, told stories and had a good time. Now here I was a few days later- in a virtual coma - cybernetic brain death. All the papers and stories on my computer were gone. In an instant, the electronic memory of the stories I had created over the years had vanished. With sudden cybernetic amnesia, I was now free to create whatever identity I wanted and write entirely new stories. I was free to re-invent myself anew and experience a post-modern resurrection.

I was intrigued by this prospect. No longer was I restrained by the unerring recall of precise cybernetic memories, always reappearing in the same form I left them with the same mistakes, the same story lines, the same endings. Human memories, unlike cybernetic, electronic memories are never eidetic ­ we don't have exact recall. Instead, every time we recall our memories they are reconstructed a bit to fit our purposes in the moment.

This is bad news and good news. The bad news is there are bullies - we've all known them - who seek to control and dominate us ­ who manipulate to have us believe their interpretation of history. They are always busy trying to recruit us into their stories ­ their interpretation of events. If we allow ourselves to go along with them, we give up our sense of history and slowly adapt theirs. Slowly our identity- who we are and what we value - becomes a product of their version of history. We become characters in their stories and wind up missing in our own stories. The good news is that if we wake up before its too late, we can protest this and take back our lives - and write our own stories and have our own history.

And I've seen it happen: After years of slowly disappearing in their marriages, many women experience a wake-up call and begin recovering themselves and their own stories. No longer willing to be servants or pets. Or after years of living in the shadow of a dominating father or boss, a man may take his story into his own hands and write it himself instead of being a just an obedient son or dutiful employee. Time to take some risks and step out on his own.

Recovering one's own story isn't like recovering missing data from our computer. Human memory is more complicated than that. Human memory involves the interpretation of personally constructed histories. And its these personal histories that are so vulnerable to corruption.

This story has a happy ending. For $450 a computer doctor recovered all my lost data. A hefty price to pay for not backing up my files consistently. But in my work as a family therapist I have met many people who have paid dearly for the loss of their stories, only to become characters in the dominating stories of others. The recovery of their own history and the reconstruction of their identity doesn't happen as quickly or as easily as I recovered my lost data. But when it does happen, a new life is born out of a reconstructed history - a history they can call their own.

Aired on Minnesota Public Radio, KNOW 91.1 - October 1995

Identity and Empathy