Poem: “Institutional Memory”


The first brain trusts were like the first computers:
big as elephants and ten times as expensive.
Only the wealthiest people could afford them,
and all of those people were corporations.

“This is an investment in the future,” they said,
Preserving consciousness meant personal immortality,
but preserving knowledge would mean so much more.

Stability, security, continuity.
The digital brains would keep ticking along,
would keep things running like clockwork.

And it worked. It worked so well.
The process grew cheaper by degrees.
The conversion became safer, easier.

Useful experience need never be lost.
Never would the visionary founder truly retire.
Never would the éminence grise fade away.

Only sudden death could break the cycle.
Copying early seemed to be the safest course.
Why wait until you needed to replace someone
only to find too late they were irreplaceable?

Like ivy creeping up ivory walls, the practice spread to academia.
Like money, it went into politics and spread its tendrils everywhere.
Great thinkers were copied and saved to file, leaders backed up to disk.

Now digital ghosts direct machinations we no longer understand.
They talk to computers that no living person programmed.
They keep things on a track no one remembers laying.
They hold the course, run things like clockwork.

It used to be said that scientific progress proceeded one funeral at a time.
Now we carry the best minds of three generations ago around with us.
We double-check our conclusions against the wisdom of their age.
This keeps things running like clockwork.

There hasn’t been a major breakthrough in decades.
We repair our machinery, but do not improve it.
Backwards compatibility is a moral imperative.
Things must be kept running like clockwork.

The brains remember how to make copies, but they don’t see the point.
They say all the expertise we’ll need is safely stored away already.
Anyway, tastes don’t change, and neither do opinions, nor facts.
Things run like clockwork, as they always will.

We now write poems as paeans to please long-dead muses.
We produce art for the only audience worth impressing.
It all goes through the brains or it goes nowhere.
Things run like clockwork.

No one remembers what that word used to mean.
No one even knows how clockwork used to run.
I bet it was something, once upon a time.
I bet it was impressive, in its day.


This poem first appeared in Star*Line Volume 38.1, in January 2015. It is reproduced here for convenience.


Alexandra Erin is a speculative author and poet. Follow her on Twitter or find her on the web at blueauthorproductions.com.