September 8, 2014

Five Variations of the "post hoc" Fallacy

We can differentiate the mnemonic advantages of narrative causality by distinguishing the various patterns of how the basic "post hoc" fallacy can be variously narrated and/or narrativized. Today's post builds on my ongoing blog series Memory & Narrative, where I have showed that causality embeds sequence within consequence, which makes remembering more efficient. However, ease of rememberability does not always translate into certain memorability. Yet, not all causalities are the same. 

The following is a working taxonomy of distinct patterns, to illustrate how popular storying of the past enables efficiency and/or memorability, at some times better than others. I will note five differing patterns, each of which aims to narrativize singular causality, all based on the classic logical fallacy of "post hoc, ergo propter hoc", or "after this, therefore because of this".

Spoiler Alert: The surprising bonus advantage for memorability will appear in sections 4 and 5. 

Apologies in advance. This is a very long post.

Feel free to bookmark and skim the five sections as need be.

The first pattern may be called Assumed Causality and it represents the purest form of the "post hoc" fallacy.

When we retroactively invent reasons to explain events, when we name causes strictly by imagination, when we invoke superstition or create new superstitions in the thrill of a momentous experience – such is the proper essence and literal manifestation of the fallacy “After this, therefore because of this”. Philosophically, this category offers a smorgasboard of reception, theory and method, but all that must wait. A few examples will remind us all of the basics, and also demonstrate how even the most imaginary perceptions of causality generates mnemonic efficiencies.

From my perspective, for the sake of memorializing temporal sequence, the falsehood of a cause is less important than the sequence it purportedly explains. If Dave swears Jenny dumped him because of his new cat, he may be wrong but his story cements a chronology that is undoubtedly correct. Purported causation does imply correlation – as I blogged about a while back – and “bad history is often based on good chronology”. What is paradoxical about this “Assumed Causality” is that the chronology is almost certainly valid, precisely because there is literally nothing else to support Dave’s hypothesis. The clueless ex-boyfriend has no explanation other than sequence, and so he imagines a cause from the preceding events.

At any rate, if Dave tells that story enough, at least to himself, it creates an efficiency for remembering the past. Dave can now perceive two periods of time, one with a happy relationship, and one after the happy relationship, and Dave’s memory of each period can be summarily contained in the single transition point of his new cat. It’s a bad story, but a good sequence. For remembering the past as a series of connected time periods, that’s about as efficient as it can get.

The same observations apply with any other classically “post hoc” supposition. It’s absurd to think Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles, but the story propagates because – and thus preserves the fact that – the band’s breakup absolutely occurred after Yoko took up with John.

Similarly, repeating the story that “the Reformation” occurred “because” of the printing press – while inaccurate – does successfully chronologize the official period (as defined) within the proper temporal range (as desired). In truth, the Lollards, Hussites, Waldensians and other groups preceded the printing press, and one suspects Luther and Calvin might have somehow managed somewhat without Guttenberg. Nevertheless, for pure and simple “post hoc” causality, this is how we remember the past. The Reformation did, in fact, become prominent only after Guttenberg’s press.

This first category is what best illustrates the main point. Assumed Causality provides a pure efficiency in remembering historical time because the imagined consequence contains nothing besides the original sequence. Moving on now, it’s important to understand how this same basic pattern gets repeated in differing ways, and provides differing types of mnemonic advantage.

A second pattern is what I’ve elsewhere called Inflated Causality and it represents the most common form of the "post hoc" fallacy.

This variation of the “post hoc” fallacy has many manifestations but essentially depends on isolating one aspect of, or oversimplifying one’s narrative account of, any situation involving complex causation. This differs from the traditional way in which professional historians sought to “prioritize causes”. The common and popular method is to single out one reason above all others, after which lesser reasons may be promptly forgotten. Popular simplification takes a minor cause, a major cause, or a “necessary causality” and makes it utterly sufficient.

The singular cause being proffered may have a high or low degree of plausibility, but is not utterly contrived. Such claims of causality are based largely on sequence, but not “purely” based on sequence, as we saw in the first pattern above.

A few examples: the New Testament is in Greek because of Alexander the Great; the battle of Hastings was won because of the stirrup; the battle of Agincourt was won because of the longbow; America revolted from Britain because of “taxation without representation”; the U.S. Civil War was fought over slavery; the Holocaust occurred because Hitler hated the Jews. Obviously, some of these claims may be stronger than others, but none of them deserves singular causality, and yet none of these claims completely lacks basis in reasonable estimations of actual causation.

As with the earlier category, the mnemonic advantage here can often be chronological. It’s probably too simple to say the economics of World War II single-handedly ended the Great Depression, but that oversimplified explanation preserves a historical sequence succinctly. Likewise, JFK may not have defeated Nixon because of the TV debates, but that narrative preserves a sequentialized memory, the origin of televised presidential debates. In most if not quite all of these situations, a memory of temporal sequence becomes cemented by the efficiency of simplified transition. The JFK-Nixon narrative helps memorialize an early phase of Television’s growing influence. The economic narrative about WWII preserves a mnemonic periodization: Depression, then War. Our most basic narrativization of the period from 1914 to 1944 is: war, boom, bust, war, boom. That vast oversimplification uses a generic causality to preserve the chronology with mnemonic efficiency.

This is not at all, however, intended to imply that remembered chronology is always preserved with precision. Far from it.

I’ve observed a third pattern we’ll call “Bloom as Root”, which is actually a variation of Inflated Causality.

Technically, this ought to be a subcategory of “Inflated Causality” because this pattern also isolates and exalts the causal influence of what careful historians would call, at most, one significant factor among many. However, the uniqueness of “Bloom as Root” is that chronology itself can become somewhat distorted.

To grasp the “Bloom as Root” metaphor, don’t think of flowers. Think about food. When bread, cheese, or produce gets old, there's a window of time during which mold can take root invisibly without showing itself. So it goes with change. People often observe the bloom of new developments and declare that bloom to be the root, the original cause of observable change.

The posting of Martin Luther's "95 theses" is considered the start of the protestant reformation, but it was merely the first breakout success of a much longer process. Luther's importance is not imagined but inflated, and yet Luther as the origin of the protestant movement is a gross chronological distortion. Other movements of the so-called "pre-reformation" had significantly altered the historical conditions in which Luther's protest succeeded. However, despite all that early development, a larger number of people were impacted by Luther so his actions could be widely observed as a prominent "bloom", which was later declared to be a causative "root".

On this point, scholars will please note that my point is not to argue for a revisionist periodization, but to point out that actual historical processes are often memorialized as change only when the change becomes widely noticeable. Rather than arguing about labels, my point is to show that popular views can chronologically distort the origin of later change. In particular, it should be noted that an element of statistical weight seems a typical part of creating this pattern.

Elvis Presley did not invent Rock and Roll, but for millions of Americans he was the “bloom” which manifested a previously invisible but long-gestating movement. The San Francisco gold rush began in 1948, but the larger bulk of brand new rookie miners arrived only in time to be called “forty-niners”. Thomas Edison did not invent electric light, but he made feasible the widespread promulgation of electric light bulbs. America’s conflict with middle east terrorists did not begin on 9/11 of 2001, but the attacks on New York and Washington brought an immensely heightened sense of prominence which is commonly considered as a beginning of sorts, as if America had not been previously at "war" with "terror". For a lighter example, ask ten friends the name of Michael Jackson’s first album and find out how many say “Thriller”. Some will remember his childhood work with the Jackson 5, but ask about his first solo album and they still may not know about “Off the Wall”. This frivolous illustration makes the point equally well. In remembering origination, prominence often trumps precision.

In such cases, the perceptual aspect of causality is to blame for misreckoning. The popular memory of a society can only perceive to be causal those factors which have been widely apparent. Elvis started Rock and Roll, Edison invented light bulbs, the gold rush exploded in ’49, and 9/11 sparked a “war on terror”. In each case, the statistical predominance of a popular perception seems to be what determines the popular story which gets preserved in collective memory. For all the careful temporal and causal parsing of professional historians, for all their repeated nit picking and nuancing, they cannot even get people to keep the “post hoc” fallacy within its own boundaries of what is strictly “post”, so how can they (historians) ever eradicate the fallacy altogether?

This third variation, in short, is that perception of "propter" depends on perception of "post".

There is one important caveat to all this. The chronology is distorted only if the causality is retained. If one recognizes causality properly, as an imprecise characterization of causal significance, then even this “Bloom as Root” pattern still manages to preserve a genuine chronological sequence. Elvis did precede the widespread popularity of Rock and Roll. Edison did precede the electric light bulb’s introduction as a commonplace of daily life. And so on. In other words, a trumped up causality still manages to preserve a legitimate sequence of some sort. Whether that sequence is “accurate” depends on what claim is being attached to it, but the presence of some actual sequence itself appears to be a required factor for the inflation (and/or mischaracterization) of causality. 

The game remains, "after this, therefore because of this". A poorly derived sense of consequence most often embeds a properly remembered event sequence. Otherwise, the claim could be too easily disproved.

By the way, I suspect this "Bloom as Root" pattern is what best explains the first century memory of Jesus’ public debut in Galilee

The synoptic Gospels are simplistic in agreement with each other (and with what seems was likely the popular memory) that Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee began with John the Baptist’s imprisonment, but the fourth Gospel purports a more nuanced early phase of "pre-ministry". Jesus goes recruiting and travels with his recruits to a destination event, all while the Baptizer was still active (Jn.3:23). This apparent contradiction, I suggest, preserves the conflict between majority perception and minority precision. In short, Jesus seems to have engaged in some public ministry in Galilee before John’s arrest, but it was evidently not until after John’s arrest that Jesus' public presence (so to speak) became widely recognized. On this hypothesis, more work remains to be done; today it merely helps illustrate "Bloom as Root".

There are two patterns yet to be outlined, and here comes the boost in mnemonic advantage.

A fourth pattern may be called Multiple Effectuality, which happens to be the most demonstrable (and almost actually defensible) form of the "post hoc" fallacy.

Like the previous three categories, this method of narrativizing causality again aims to isolate and magnify the importance of a singular cause. Like the previous two categories, this fourth variation essentially works by “Inflating” what was arguably necessary, into something now claimed as “sufficient”. Where this new category differs is that the method works inversely. Rather than narrativizing the prominence of one cause against others, the method of “Multiple Effectuality” inflates the prominence of a given cause by repeatedly narrating various examples of a singular cause having multiple effects. Sometimes these multiple effects are simultaneous and sometimes they are gradual or residual, but in this method the cause is made to seem more prominent and significant as a cause precisely because of how many effects it purportedly renders.

As we will see, it's the multiplying of effects which provides an extra mnemonic advantage. In addition to the basic efficiency of causality (embedding sequence within consequence), "Multiple Effectuality" also enhances the memorability of the singular cause, by mnemonic association with its multiple effects.

Consider Sputnik. Rather than viewing Sputnik as the most prominent cause of any particular effect, what we tend to hear is a variety of stories about how Sputnik had this effect or that effect on a number of individual persons and processes, some decades after the fact. Over time, Sputnik has been blamed for accelerating the space race, for leading us to Ronald Reagan’s infamous “star wars” program, for inspiring individual rocket scientists who went on to do such work at NASA, and even for increasing awareness of STEM competition on a globalized scale, which even led to the gradual and still controversial nationalization of public education in the US. If globalization means we care less about competition between Texas and Iowa, and more about competition between the US and Russia, one can arguably trace a trajectory from Sputnik to Jimmy Carter’s election year commissioning of the US Department of Education.

Obviously, the plausibility of these narratives may vary, but all together these multiple claims of “effectuality” work together to increase the sense of Sputnik’s purported causality. The greater the number of individual effects that can be said to arise from a singular cause, the more that cause can be declared to exhibit significant causality. Finally, the more narrative effects are connected back to this cause, the more mnemonic associations can be built up which cause Sputnik itself to become more frequently remembered, and more likely to remain memorable.

For another example, consider the battle of Thermopylae as the purported turning point of western civilization. As the argument goes, the Spartan sacrifice bought valuable time for the southern Greeks to mobilize an effective defense, without which Persia might have ended Greek independence, without which Philip and Alexander do not gain strength in Macedonia for mounting a Persian campaign, without which the entire course of Western Civilization could have become unrecognizable for us, now. 

Obviously, this dramatic and even compelling narrativization is a completely fallacious instance of "post hoc, ergo propter hoc" [albeit in the negative, via counterfactuals]. Nevertheless, we may observe this particular narrative method to be multiplying the "effectuality" of a singular cause by presenting a long-term account of residual effects. This approach succeeds at inflating the significance of Thermopylae in our popular memory because it creates a mnemonic efficiency and provides multiple associations for mnemonic reinforcement. The story of Thermpoylae and its place in history become not just rememberable, but increasingly memorable.

Likewise, the greatness of Alexander the Great can be magnified by increasing the number of claims that he directly caused x, y, z, and so forth. He founded cities, put his name on the map, conquered the whole east, ended the threat of Persia anywhere west of Syria, made Greek an international language, and set the terms of political struggle for the following three centuries. Again, some claims are more arguable than others but altogether they build up his significance. Why did all these things come to pass? Because Alexander. Why is the New Testament in Greek? Alexander. Why was Cleopatra actually Greek? Alexander. Why did Herod give his sons Macedonian names? Alexander. Why did Rome fail to Latinize its provinces in the East? Alexander.

When numerous individual effects can be claimed, the significance of a cause is more highly exalted. When numerous effects purportedly derive from a singular cause, the underlying sequential structure is preserved as a general chronology. We remember that Alexander preceded all these things because he was, however erroneously, narratively credited with them. Finally, with multiple narrative connections, we build a larger neural network of mnemonic associations between the numerously purported effectualities and the centralized singular causality.

In point of fact, why do we actually remember Alexander the Great? Our memory of Alexander is repeatedly reinforced by having so many opportunities to remember each and all of those things which it’s been repeatedly said that he accomplished. Each effect demonstrates once more a narrative connection to the persistent singularity of purported causation. The more narrative connections we build, the greater the potential for associative memory to build synaptic connections, and the greater likelihood that a purported causality may become not only more efficiently rememberable, but more strongly memorable as well.

A big reason narratives tend to focus on causality is because causality provides our primary advantages in remembering narratives. In all, there are two distinct and separable mnemonic advantages of narrative causality. While singular causality facilitates a more efficient remembering of some particular sequence, it is multiple “effectuality” that increases our likelihood of remembering some causality with a more long-term memorability.

If causal connectedness leads to maximized memorability, one wonders how far this mnemonic advantage of narrative can stretch. Memorability being relative, we might expect this dynamic to have some ultimate ideal. As it turns out, there are indeed two opposite poles in this continuum of causality. In the same sense in which Assumed Causality (pattern #1) was the purest instance of the “post hoc” fallacy, it is Multiple Effectuality (pattern #4) which leads us toward the fallacy's logical extreme.

The fifth pattern to observe may be called Widespread Contingency, which is actually an extreme variation on Multiple Effectuality.

In labeling pattern #4, I noted that Multiple Effectuality is the most demonstrable form of the "post hoc" fallacy. By that I mean that while causal claims based on sequence remain logical fallacies, it is this form of the fallacy which is most difficult to dispute. While Assumed Causality (#1) relies purely on sequence, which is usually obvious to see and easy to point out, and Inflated Causality (#2 & #3) relies on prioritizing among multiple factors in order to narratively assert the sufficiency of an artificially singular causality, the method of Multiple Effectuality (which we might also call Demonstrated Causality) is more solidly planted on evidencing ways in which a genuinely "necessary" cause can be linked to the emergence of multiple effects. 

In other words, this "Demonstrated Causality" is only fallacious in the sense that it trumps up an inflated significance for some influential aspect of the past. In different sense, multiplying effects is not fallacious at all if the purported causality is not overly exalted as sufficient. In fact, the given cause may even remain singular as long as the narrative is adjusted to present a necessary causality as the common denominator (so to speak) of many subsequent eventualities. Indeed, this delineation of necessary causality is tantamount to historiographical methods of identifying the dynamic factors which altered historical conditions during movements and processes which went on in the past. 

To clarify: the pattern of popular storying which I call "Multiple Effectuality" is absolutely an instance of the logical fallacy, "post hoc, ergo propter hoc". However, when one attempts to identify the legitimate historical sequences being preserved by this fallacious narrativizion, the difference between the fallacy and the history is much smaller, in pattern #4, than in all other instances listed above. As this difference between fallacy and history shrinks, it approaches an ideal which can never be reached. This asymptotic destination might be called "pure contingency", except that such would be fantasy. But this does not leave us without recourse.

As it turns out, contingency is relative. So is continuity, but let's bookmark that for future posts.

Skip the small print if you want to jump right into examples.

Consider the relativity of contingency. On a scale from zero to infinity, the Himalayan mountains have a contingency factor that sits very near zero, while the Big Bang has a contingency factor that scores highly, approaching infinity. In between, there is everything from the hinge on a door to traffic accidents to a hurricaine to the detonation of a nuclear weapon. In other words, we might theoretically measure the contingency of an action if we could objectively quantify the number of its necessary impacts on subsequent occurrences. But measurement aside, this illustrates that "necessary causality" exists everywhere at all moments, albeit immeasurably, and the relative impact of these contingencies relies demonstrably on the number of actual outcomes which appear to have been effected, in hindsight, by some given aspect of historical conditions. The final point is to remember that perceiving and/or narrativizing multiple effects leads inexorably to increased associative opportunities to reinforce the memorability of some contingent detail.

In sum, the more any aspect of the past appears to have influenced later developments, the more likely it is to survive for a longer period of time within personal, social, collective, and cultural memory.

That last statement raises a host of questions about relative memorability and the conditions of forgetting, but these are questions that cannot be addressed just now. All I am claiming at the moment is that a "Widespread Contingency" is more likely to become memorable and to be remembered for longer. This increased likelihood does not necessarily mean any particular contingency will become remembered or last very long in anyone's memory. Again, those important questions are for some other day.

What remains for this post is to provide examples to illustrate the type of contingency which is typically exhibited in this fifth variation of the classical "post hoc" fallacy.

Consider Alexander once more. The more we multiply his effects, the less we see Alexander as the singular cause of individual effects, and the more we begin to see Alexander as the singular cause of, quite simply, a world that was different in every way for having had him exist in it. In that sense, we come somewhat closer to supposing that what Alexander caused was not so much a number of individual effects but an alteration of the way in which people saw the world and thought about every thing in it.

Consider 9/11 again. Earlier, we noted 9/11 as an example of Inflated Causality, in the sense that someone can claim 9/11 caused the US to begin prosecuting its current "War on Terror". But there is another sense in which some people have seen 9/11 as having altered the whole world and our view of everything in it. Or to put that another way, we might say that what 9/11 primarily "caused" was a world in which the world can no longer assume that airplanes won't fly into buildings, and an America in which we can no longer assume our citizens won't be attacked, or a New York in which the twin towers can no longer be viewed as a part of the skyline.

Technically, these aren't strictly defensible claims of actual causation. Technically, these are tautological definitions of psychological impact being manifested in subjective perceptions. However, in the interest of narrative causality and mnemonic efficiency, these are situations that provide ideal conditioning for memorability. There's a very close correspondence between these types of "world altering" events and people's tendencies to characterize them precisely that way, as having altered the world.

As with all other instances of the "post hoc" fallacy so far, it's the dubious narrative consequences which provide heightened mnemonic potential for remembering a particular cause in historical sequence. But in this particular case, the dubious quality is minimized, and the sequential aspect is maximized. There's no real sense in which the above contingencies truly altered the entire world, but the psychological perception does get embedded within a sequence of that perceived consequence. If everything since the event just seems different than everything had seemed before, then every single thing which seems different is an opportunity to remind someone of that perceptually drastic event which seemingly "caused" such a change.

A more common example is the death of a loved one. When a husband or wife dies after decades of marriage, the bereaved spouse often has trouble believing the other is actually gone, and this disbelief is precisely a function of every thing in their daily environment and their customary routines serving to remind the bereaved of the former presence, now gone. Although we could begin counting a large number of individual reminders faced by the typical widow/widower, what really matters is the overall aggregate of many small ways in which "everything" has been altered. There are now memories which belong to a time "before" such a loss, and other memories clearly belonging to a time "after" the loss.

The sense in which I mean Widespread Contingency is not necessarily that it alters the perceptions of many people, as did 9/11 or Alexander the Great. Rather, for a contingency to be widespread it must exhibit a widespread impact, in the perception of the observer/participant.

What we perceive, by such widespread contingencies, is an effective division of one time period from another, defined not by official historians or cultural narratives, but defined by personal orientation between "world altering" or "life altering" events. This temporally divisive effect can be personal, in the sense of losing a loved one, or collective, in the sense of Pearl Harbor or the assassination of JFK. Either way, it is the perception of widespread consequence which maximizes the "effectualities" of such immanently memorable contingencies. We may not be able to predict when memories of the attack on Pearl Harbor will collectively disappear, but Franklin Roosevelt was completely justified when he predicted that it would remain memorable indefinitely.

However, the most common examples of Widespread Contingency are probably the most personal. Most of us remember the time periods in our lives according to the most basic and observable contingencies of the widest possible impact. We actually define perceived periods of temporal continuity by punctuating them with these types of major contingencies:

  * To say, "growing up in my parents’ home…" is contingent upon location, prior to a major transition.
  * To say, "back during high school…" situates a phase between two major transitions.
  * To say, "when we first began dating…" marks the contingent beginning of a new relationship.
  * To say, "the whole time we were engaged… is, as above, a phase punctuated by two transitions.
  * To say, "before we had kids…" marks the obvious, but also implies a period after the wedding.
  * To say, "when we moved to our new home…" makes space and time synonymous for a period.
  * To say, "all the years I put in at that job…" isolates all the memories contingent on performing a routine.
  * To say, "before/after Mom had her accident…" isolates all the memories of a mother in health, or not.
  * To say, "on our trip to Hawaii..." isolates all the memories contingent on being in that unique location.

Strictly speaking, again, these are actually periods of continuity I have just defined, but they are in fact defined by their punctuation before, after, or in-between distinctly observable contingencies. My contention is that all such unique ubiquities (as we might label these nine examples above) are the typical way in which our minds predominantly define our mnemonic periods of time. Officialized periods of time may be based on the narrative bias of external authorities but mnemonic periods of time base themselves on the inherent sequence of perceived causality. Mnemonic chronology is not famous names and major dates but the memory of relative continuities being punctuated by major changes of the most widespread possible impact, or the relatively most widespread to date, in someone's personal life.

This leads to many other considerations of memory and forgetting, and it's possible we replace some contingencies with others as a way of successively re-orienting ourselves within time, just as we keep track of the nearest major landmarks as a way of successively re-orienting ourselves within space. But at this point, I am severely getting ahead of myself.

At the moment, I am merely contending that an accidental psychological fixation on "Widespread Contingency" is the primary human mechanism for remembering the past as distinct phases of time.

In other words, Contingency is how we remember time itself. It's the single most efficient way that memory 'does' chronology.

I had more examples but I'll append them to below my conclusion.

We might say this pattern of Widespread Contingency is an extreme example of the “post hoc” fallacy because it treats an alteration of historical conditions as the singular cause of an entirely changed context, or because it creates a singular explanation for an entirely new set of historical conditions. While such narrativizations remain technically fallacious, the mnemonic benefits arise from the psychological reality of subjective belief. 


In popular narrativizations of causality, the perception of consequence is typically based on some empirically observable sequence. The "bare chronology" (so to speak) is the purported cause (as 'point A') and the purported effect/s (as 'point B' or as multiple 'points B') and the narrativization is the method of claiming some kind of relationship between A and B(s). While biased narratives often construct bad history, they typically do so by relying on audience memory of a reliable chronology. Just as the best lies are often based partly on truth, a biased narrator uses a plausible or evidentiary "post hoc" in support of a narrativized "propter hoc". The "ergo" is fallacious, the "propter" is fallacious, but the "post" is most often legitimate.

Furthermore, in any case where the audience believes such a narrativization, the purported causality creates a mnemonic efficiency for remembering sequence. Additionally, in narratives which purport multiple effectualities, the memorability of a singular cause is additionally reinforced through an increased mnemonic network of associative and causal connectivity. Finally, in narratives which purport the alteration of widespread historical conditions due to the massive impact of some "Widespread contingency", these mnemonic advantages are fully maximized and the opportunity for potential memorability increases exponentially. None of this necessarily guarantees memorability for any particular length of time. Overall, the effect is similar to natural selection. Causality based memories enable efficient memories, giving both sequences and causes greater chances of being remembered. 

To explain actual historical instances of remembering and forgetting, there is much else to consider.

This concludes my foray into this working taxonomy of the post hoc fallacy, and its mnemonic advantages for remembering – shall we say – time itself.

My next two posts will examine similar dynamics by examining the "Great man theory of history" and some popular examples of ceremonial transitions. Each of these patterns exhibit ways in which causality makes sequential remembering more efficient, as discussed in my recent series on Memory & Narrative.

Hopefully the next installments will be much shorter. I will post them as soon as I can.

Thanks for reading.

Anon, then...


Additional examples of "Widespread Contingency":

For a more mundane example, consider mobile phones. From the car phones of 80’s movies to the smart phone outbreak of the past several years, it’s impossible to name a precise time when it suddenly became clear to all of us that a new technology had irrevocably altered our shared way of life, but it had clearly done so. Even if you never had a cell phone, we passed a tipping point somewhere at which you could no longer expect most acquaintances to be non mobile. We passed another tipping point somewhere at which you could no longer expect people to have land lines at home. Likewise, we are now at the point where we no longer make plans as carefully as we once did and children no longer know how to answer the phone.

There is an endless number of both major and minor effects brought about by our cultural transition to mobile phone use – and now, gasp, to smart phone use! In sum, that amounts to an effectively infinite number of opportunities to observe what the world is like today, “with mobile phones”. By direct contraversion, that provides an equal number of opportunities (not entirely realized, but available nonetheless) to recognize the lack of such historical conditioning when remembering details of any previous era “before cell phones”. In short, the fact that cell phones changed nearly everything is what makes cell phones an extreme example of causality, in the sense that cell phones have indeed caused everything to be the way it is now, to the extent that “everything” is conditioned by our common experience of a world in which mobile phones are ubiquitous.

Compare this, for a moment, to what we tend to remember about the most recognizable historical epochs – and in terms of cultural memory we can approximate this by defining it as all the things we recognize in a movie or television show set in past times. What are the common historical periods in film narratives of recent decades? The Victorian era, the old west, the biblical epic, Ancient Greece and/or Rome, the Elizabethan age, the American revolutionary or civil war periods, or World War I and II – we can all name the distinctive details which (for all we know) may or may not be accurate, but which filmmakers have used as distinguishing or characteristic details which represent unique ubiquities – and this is key; not just unique details, but unique ubiquities – of a particular era. The wigs, the dresses, the ghost towns, horses, wagons, robes and staves, tunics and togas, swords and sandals, Shakespearean leggings and codpieces, the tri-cornered hat and powdered wig, the doughboy helmet and trench warfare, the G.I. helmet and Sherman tanks; and so forth.

On these Hollywood tricks, I am not saying any such visual clues necessarily are, were, or deserve to be depicted as true indications of the unique ubiquities from any historical era, but I am saying that Hollywood's confident reliance on such tricks illustrates that this is precisely the way in which we remember the difference between one time period and another.


 I do hope you remember this post.


Recent Posts
Recent Posts Widget
"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton