We mean it


Entirely Predictable

However, there is one problem with this picture, which is entirely predictable and probably essential to the idea of the meme itself: Einstein never wrote or said this phrase to anybody. At least this is the conclusion we reach if we consult Alice Calaprice’s Ultimate Quotable Einstein. There is no record that he ever expressed this particular nightmarish vision. But we should not move on too hastily. What if the counterfeit nature of the quote at the centre of the meme is itself part of the nightmare? Is this not Plato’s nightmare of mediation and recorded memory from the Phaedrus? Here, things remember, but we forget, and we end up having no idea whether what the thing remembers or knows is in any way real.

In much the same way that we might make this point about the place of the pre-technological human in Derrida and Baudrillard, we can cut through the tension between living and dead memory in the case of Einstein, whose “nightmare” I want to explore. Although Einstein may not have said what the meme claims he said, a consideration of what he did have to say about technology suggests that he held similarly pessimistic views about the relation between the human and technology.

Technological Memory or Reality

This idea is taken up by Derrida in his discussion of Plato’s pharmacy and by Baudrillard in his works on simulation. For Derrida, the Platonic myth of the value of speech over writing and the fear of the infinite slippage of the signifier relative to the signified misses the essential diffĂ©rance of being from itself. In other words, there is no self-identical truth to which we might appeal. The same is the case with Baudrillard’s notion of simulation. Here, the signifier, media reality, is out on its own, an integral reality that has no relation to what we might mistakenly call the real thing. Against the Platonic vision, which contrasts anamnesis to hypomnesis, or living to dead memory, both Derrida and Baudrillard oppose the idea of the superiority of immediacy. In their view, we should not imagine that technological memory or reality is in some way a poor version of ontological human memory or organic reality

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn fact, the unreliability of technological mediation is in some respects undercut or traversed by metaphorical connections that establish the spirit of meaning that always resides somewhere else. Following Calaprice’s collection, we may therefore argue that the truth of Einstein’s Nightmare can be found in his various comments about machines — “A machine disregards human feelings . . . machines make our life impersonal, stunt certain qualities in us, and create an impersonal environment” — and science — “It is strange that science, which in the old days seemed harmless, should have evolved into a nightmare that causes everyone to tremble.” Such quotes suggest that Einstein indeed experienced anxiety about the anti-human progress of modernity.