Memory, Karma and Desire

05/25/2015 09:09 am ET | Updated May 25, 2016


Every year, around this time, as the United States approaches its national day of commemoration -- for those who have given their lives in the various wars fought by U.S. troops -- aptly called Memorial Day. I am struck by the nature, the very essence of memory and what it really means, what it can achieve and the flip side -- the deep harm it can catalyze.

Coming from a family with a tradition of military service -- my grandfather in WWI, my uncle in WWII and my father in the Korean Conflict -- the day actually is a poignant one, redolent with parades and flags and stories culminating in the family BBQ.

Today, across the U.S., it is more known for the big sales events on everything from cars to socks, which add up to a memory component not unlike a Snapchat picture. Now you see it; now you don't.

Having said that, though, I have noticed a rise in premium video content programing (TV) around U.S. soldiers and their commitments and their sacrifices, which I attribute in part to the success of American Sniper and other movies of that genre -- which I imagine led the analysts to an insight that people might just be interested in those memories....

Last year I asked "Have We Forgotten How to Remember?" the implication being that in a world where anything and everything I need to know is nothing more than a click or swipe away, will the very notion of memory change? And if so, what does that mean for us emotionally as human beings?

So what is memory... really?

Etymologically, the modern English word "memory" comes to us from the Middle English memorie, which in turn comes from the Anglo-French memoire or memorie, and ultimately from the Latin memoria and memor, meaning "mindful" or "remembering."

Mindful or remembering...

I kind of like the mindful reference, as it seems more active -- memory makes us mindful, which is further illuminated by one of the definitions from

"Persistent modification of behavior resulting from experience."

Deepak Chopra builds on this theme and expresses it in a surprisingly marketing-oriented way -- marketers take note.... Listen:

Karma is experience, and experience creates memory, and memory creates imagination and desire, and desire creates karma again. If I buy a cup of coffee, that's karma. I now have that memory that might give me the potential desire for having cappuccino, and I walk into Starbucks, and there's karma all over again.

Makes you wonder about the efficacy of so-called real-time predictive targeting -- in fact, AOL recently published Buying at Speed, a study of 20,000 online shoppers that showed people browse brands every day and make up their minds before conscious shopping begins -- by the time data-directed marketing begins, they've already decided meaningful memory -- Karma to Desire.... "For 54 percent of planned purchases and 50 percent of impulse purchases, buyers knew the brand they would buy before they shopped."

It is also fascinating to quantify the human ability to remember by comparing it to what I imagine most of us think of as the ultimate benchmark -- computers -- and to my way of thinking the data or rather the conflicting data is fascinating and illuminating...

On one hand some say that the total storage capacity we have in our heads is at best a quarter of the power in an external hard drive that can be bought for under a $100US. Don't know about you -- that did not make me feel very special, also considering it was on sale for Memorial Day.

On the other hand -- and this is the key -- because of the complexity of our neurons, because of the serendipity of our human state, our true memory storage capacity might be according to something more akin to 2.5 petabytes (a million gigabytes) or enough to hold three million hours of video, which is equal to running a continuous stream for about 300 years... Now that made me feel macho (in a non gender sense, for the PC) and more worthy in the human vs. machine debate.

And by the way, we are also efficient -- we power all that capacity with a mere 12 watt equivalent. Would a machine even be able to achieve that much storage? It would require the electrical equivalent of a city to keep it running... GO HUMANITY.

So we have all this power; we have all this capacity; we have Deepak's karma leading to desire leading to karma again -- what do we do with it? How do we leverage it? How do we make the world a better place...

And therein lies the challenge...

Think about events all over the world -- where memory -- that is recollection of an event -- has caused nothing but turmoil, sometimes hate and way too often death....

Just look at the United States in the past two years and the growing racial strife over police and their actions.

Follow the debate over just what did the Pope say or not say to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Staying in the Middle East - memory fuels more hatred and violence than almost anywhere in the world...between people of the same religion who remember slights of centuries ago as well as between neighbors who view the same event through two different memory glasses...

Yet we have recovered from WWII and former enemies are now staunch allies, and I have written about Vietnam, where a war of not so long ago is remembered but as leverage to build on and move forward from.

And at best our memories are faulty -- flawed -- subject to mind creep and other intrusions....

So where does that leave us?

I am back to the human condition and our need to understand that algorithms alone do not solve the problems of the world, cannot replace or replicate the human factor, will never be the panacea needed to right what's wrong.

We need to work on human memory -- and whether it's in business where we need to link the "karma and desire" or in our personal lives where we need to learn that our memories are often faulty -- at best - and even so should be understood as "mindful" -- a guide if you will -- not the be-all and end-all.

And yet, what are we without memory? What are our endeavors without memory? Who are we without memory?


Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future. Elie Wiesel

And there you have it -- the two-edged sword -- because so much memory seems to be leading us down a dark path....

Time for us to take memory in hand -- understand its power, respect its limitations, leverage its strengths and beware of its danger....

So on Memorial Day, I will be taking my imperfect and flawed memory in hand -- shop a sale or two -- and do my best to control my little part of what might be our greatest contribution to the world...our memories....

What do you think?