On Memory Palaces & Visual Computation

This piece came out of a new event series called “Are.na Walkthroughs” in which we ask people to take us through a particular channel, the blocks and ideas held within, and the ways those ideas may have evolved as the channel has grown and accumulated. Our first one was on February 12 over Zoom, and it featured Kai Jenrette, Taulant Sulko, Ritu Ghiya, and Emily Nabnian. Here, Tau shares some of what he talked about while walking us through his channel “Visual Computing Observatory.“

An example of the Piet programming language, created by David Morgan-Mar, in which programs look like abstract paintings.

In today's world, any information I want is available via a simple search. This can be useful in many circumstances, but only searching for information I need can also be a hindrance to expanding my knowledge on a given topic. There are also parameters in place that I didn’t set; a Google search for a term today, for example, will return completely different results than the same search eight years ago. 

The fleeting nature of the internet made me want to build my own internet, a “second internet”—a place where I could reach for information instead of searching for it. But how could I accomplish this with the tools available to me? 

When I received an invitation to join Are.na back in 2016, I didn't initially understand it because of its open-ended nature. I didn't have an archiving method so my channels got messy real quick. But like any open-ended tool, learning how to use it is less about the tool itself and more about the method you apply to it. Last year, I learned about the concept of the Memory Palace and it changed the way I thought about storing and archiving information. 

Originally referred to as the Method of Loci, a Memory Palace is a mnemonic method dating back to the Roman empire.  People used it to improve their memory or to remember secret and forbidden information. The idea is simple: You begin by creating an imaginary building in your mind. You can use a real place for reference, but any architectural structure that you’re familiar with will work. You then store information about subjects you want to remember by creating relationships between the information and the objects in the room. You can remember a sequence of events by placing them inside the room in a clockwise position. Or you can remember the importance of a piece of information by the size of the object it’s assigned: A column that supports the room is very critical, whereas a cabinet is less so. A matchbox placed within the cabinet drawer can represent a small detail that’s not as crucial to remember. 

I now use Are.na as a Memory Palace, separating my channels into rooms. For example, I have a channel that I call the Computation Room. It’s pretty generic and includes any type of block that relates to computation. If I don't have a defined category I just drop it there.

If I notice a pattern in the computation room I create a more specific channel in that room. I think of that more specific topic as an object within the room. Inside the Computation Room is a channel called JavaScript Cabinet, which is where I store anything related to the JavaScript programming language.

Then there are the adjacent topics that I often find even more exciting to focus on. For those, I choose a name that corresponds with the nature of a room and also its size. For example I have a channel called the Visual Computing Observatory. In my head I am imagining an actual observatory where I am looking and observing and studying a given topic.

I work as a frontend programmer and I’m interested in visualizing the abstract, so the topic of visual computation is very dear to me. Much like a Memory Palace, in which you use spatial visualization to remember something, making the invisible visible can make software more accessible. I’m also a believer in programming as a tool for thought and not just as a way of creating an output for work. We mostly use computers today to emulate existing tools like a scratchpad or a typewriter, but I’m interested in making the inner workings of a computer more understandable, and programming as intuitive as drawing or writing. Imagine if you could create a meta version of yourself in a computer that could logic like you and create like you—that’s my dream.