The Changing Architecture of Ideas: From Memory Theater to the Internet

From the priest-poets — who initiated young men and women into the Mysteries, and that gave the tribe meaning with stories passed down from their forerunners — to the craftsmen that taught new apprentices, ancient peoples passed down their cultures by word of mouth. These were, to use a more familiar phrase, oral traditions.

Writing, when it came, dramatically transformed primitive societies. Techniques, from farming to war, were associated with a particular god or goddess, and in many cases had associated rites that had to be performed at specific times of the year. Writing, likewise, was imagined to have been discovered by a deity — Thoth in ancient Egypt, Odin among the Norse, etc. — and it’s power became associated with the Mysteries themselves, with letters sometimes doubling as occult symbols, as in the case of northern European runes and Hebrew (in relation to the Kabbalah).


Some oral traditions still remain. The fraternity of Freemasonry generally insists that rituals are conducted from memory (though members in the USA, for example, are given a cipher book as an aid to memory, though these contain sentences written using only parts of words, not whole words).

In Hinduism and Buddhism, mantras are handed down from teacher to disciple.

And in Islam there still remains the tradition of reciting the Koran in full from memory. Someone who has achieved this is called a Hafiz (male) or Hafiza (female), meaning “Guardian.”

Memory Theater

It is perhaps no coincidence that when philosopher Soren Kierkegaard criticized his nemesis Georg Hegel, he accused him of constructing a “crystal palace” of ideas, in which no one could live.

In many cultures, memory and writing seem to be associated with geometry, number, and, to some degree, architecture. Islam, partly because of prohibitions on the use of imagery (not always enforced), developed geometry to a far greater degree than neighboring cultures. Arab expertise in geometry influenced its architecture and mosaic.

The Stupa — a building that usually houses Buddhist relics — was based on the principles of the Mandala, the latter being conceived as a sacred space, through which the practitioner moved, mentally and spiritually, meditating on the objects it held.

Freemasonry’s symbolism, likewise, is very largely based on architecture. God is referred to as “The Great Architect” or, sometimes, “Grand Geometrician.” Again, mantras must be chanted a certain number of times, usually 108. Renowned historian of Hinduism and Buddhism Koenraad Elst has argued that this number has both zodiacal and geometrical significance, in the latter case being related to the “golden mean” of architecture.

The memory theater and the Buddhist mandala, meditational and memory spaces.

Memory Theater (left) and Buddhist Mandala (right)

A more literal connection exists in ancient Greek and Roman treatises on rhetoric, which proposed the “method of loci.” In this method, which lasted into the late Renaissance in some cases, the individual mentally associated ideas, words, or parts of a speech, with parts of a building and objects contained in it. He then imagined himself moving through the building (or buildings) seeing, picking up the objects, etc., thus reminding himself of their associated properties.

Hegel does something similar, using history itself as a kind of construction, moving through it in The Phenomenology of Spirit, recalling objects of history, and arguing that Spirit (or Mind) is refining itself in the process, so that it comes to supersede symbolism and to understand itself through pure reason. Notably, in one section, the philosopher describes an early manifestation of Spirit as the “Artificer” who creates pyramids, geometric shapes, etc. For Hegel, though, through modern philosophy man had transcended this stage of evolution, just as he had transcended religion, symbolism, and spirituality.

Information Architects And The World Wide Web

One of the latest internet careers is that of the “Information Architect.” It’s a good term, and one that links back, if unintentionally, to the idea of the memory theater, the method of loci, and so on. The Information Architect plans out the pages on website, what they will be, and how they will link to each other. In many cases, he will also create the coding for the site. The Information Architect will generally work with a Content Editor, who will be responsible for creating or commissioning the actual content for the website (and, if a site already exists, organizing and editing what is there).

Though the ancients believed that writing had to have been discovered or invented by a deity, complaints that men were losing their memories as a result of writing (which made memorizing enormously lengthy myths, religious rites, etc. unnecessary) were aired throughout antiquity. The internet has seen similar complaints arise. Google glasses even promise to give you immediate information on anything you need anywhere you may be. Want to discuss fine art? Literature? Philosophy? Sport? Pop music? No worries, Google glasses will give you the information you need to seem like you know something. You can remain ignorant and still impress.

While dumbing down is a clear danger with the internet (and some advertisers are quite happy to appeal to laziness and ignorance), it’s hardly the whole story. Memory itself has got a bad rap over the last few decades, with people complaining that schools teach what to remember, but not how to think. But memory — ancient or modern — is not an end in itself. Vast amounts of data were remembered so that the priest-poet, the shaman, the philosopher, and so on, would have a store of knowledge to draw on, to understand the world and new challenges that arose. The same goes for modern writers, designers, and other creatives.

Great ideas don’t emerge in a vacuum. They arise as a result of acquiring information on a range of often seemingly incompatible or unrelated areas, and them letting that information link up through often unconscious mental processes. Steve Jobs’s study of typography enabled him to do the then unthinkable: to introduce different fonts to the personal computer — a revolutionary idea at the time that no one else had thought of.

The World Wide Web provides more information than we could ever consume, from the academic to pop culture. While the majority of users may eventually use it as a crutch — so that they do not have to take responsibility for remembering anything — a significant minority will use the internet to think outside the box and to empower themselves to be more creative. They will contribute new architectures of ideas to the whole, and these will link up through shared links on different websites and the forming of creative groups hosting different but compatible sites, and with webmasters based in different regions and even different countries. For the thinking internet surfer this will provide an enormous wealth of new ideas and ways of looking at the world and the challenges facing it.

Angel_headshot_smallAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.