Memory [draft] [#digitalkeywords]

“…increasingly ubiquitous digital data storage has had a profound effect on contemporary practices of history and remembrance – and even on the way humans construct and perceive their identities. Discussions of a ‘modernity that forgets’ or an ‘Internet that remembers’ …risk conflating individual cognitive memory, collective and cultural memory, history, storage media, and the archive. ”

The following is a draft of an essay, eventually for publication as part of the Digital Keywords project (Ben Peters, ed). This and other drafts will be circulated on Culture Digitally, and we invite anyone to provide comment, criticism, or suggestion in the comment space below. We ask that you please do honor that it is being offered in draft form — both in your comments, which we hope will be constructive in tone, and in any use of the document: you may share the link to this essay as widely as you like, but please do not quote from this draft without the author’s permission. (TLG)


Memory — Steven Schrag, University of Pennsylvania

“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder.”

– Plato, The Phaedrus

“Reminders. Now nothing slips your mind.”

– Apple Inc., “OS X Apps”

Memory – from the Latin memoria (the faculty of remembering, remembrance, a historical account), and “mnemonic” from Mnemosyne, mother of the nine Muses in Greek myth – is one of the most fundamental concepts of human identity, and one of its oldest technologies. It is a process, at both the individual and collective level, of narrating and making sense of experience, of storage and recovery. While computer memory (itself an expansive category of devices used to store and recall data or programs) is but one technology of memory among many, increasingly ubiquitous digital data storage has had a profound effect on contemporary practices of history and remembrance – and even on the way humans construct and perceive their identities. Discussions of a “modernity that forgets” or an “Internet that remembers,” however, often risk conflating individual cognitive memory, collective and cultural memory, history, storage media, and the archive.

Memory, like identity, is a polysemic term expressed as a series of dualities. Both publicly and privately constructed, it comprises the particular and the universal, the natural faculty and the artificial mnemonic, the internal and the external. Historically construed as an art, practiced as a technique in oral societies, retained in objects and architectures, sites and realms, it both mediates (and is mediated by) the analog structures of the brain and the digital records of the hard drive. This essay will outline several of these dualities – the paradoxical relation between remembrance and archival of the past, the tension between technologically-induced amnesia and hypermnesia, and the emergent/everpresent gaps between mnemonic persistence and ephemerality that shape social structures of domination and control – and address the question of whether digital memory intersects cognitive and cultural memory as a surrogate or as a symbiote.

Paradox and Prosthetic

“The paradox of a culture which manifests so many symptoms of hypermnesia and which yet at the same time is post-mnemonic is a paradox that is resolvable once we see the causal relationship between these two features. Our world is hypermnesic in many of its cultural manifestations, and post-mnemonic in the structures of the political economy. The cultural symptoms of hypermnesia are caused by a political-economic system which systemically generates a post-mnemonic culture – a Modernity which forgets.”

– Paul Connerton, How Modernity Forgets

”The most common transformation of memory concerns what has been regarded generally as memory undone – amnesia or forgetting. How memories are erased, forgotten, or willed absent has come to be seen as equally important to the ways in which memories are set in place”

– Barbie Zelizer, Reading the Past Against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies

Conversations about the relationship between technology and memory stretch back to Plato’s injunction in the Phaedrus. The act of archival (of an email on a server, a file in a cabinet, or the commitment of an argument to paper) is fundamentally an act of forgetting, of “externalizing memory” via storage media rather than committing it to biological memory. Walter Ong, who considers Plato’s polemic within a larger history of literacy, casts the mnemonic technology of writing as the catalyst for a fundamental epistemic shift between cultures of orality and literacy; however, unlike Plato, he claims that writing can be both destructive and reconstitutive of memory (1982). Ong highlights a contradiction inherent to prosthetic memory: the same process that Derrida pathologizes as an endless reiteration akin to the death-drive, which he called “archive fever.” Memory, an active process that revives and recreates, calls to mind from the archive that which it archives. Thus the act of remembering, in (re)constructing and (re)mediating the present, traps us paradoxically in the past.

This paradox of memory replicates the ambiguity of the science-fictional “prosthetic,” perceived either as a liberating cybernetic extension of the self or the dangerous, disembodied Other of cyberpunk. The cyborg, whose embodied and machine-prosthetic memory function as a holistic ubiquitous-feedback mechanism, forms a hybrid communication-control system – the endpoint of which would be, perhaps, a transcendent, McLuhan-esque global consciousness. In striking contrast, the postmodern mythology of cyberpunk asks: are the memories we experience actually ours? For a scholarly understanding of memory, the answer is always both yes and no – as uncertain as Deckard’s status as human or Replicant at the conclusion of Blade Runner – but unlike the hopeful hybridity of Haraway’s cyborg, the cyberpunk myth (epitomized by William Gibson’s foundational novels) separates the “consensual hallucination” of cyberspace from “meatspace.” Scholars of memory studies describe uniquely modern forms of cultural amnesia: the loss of the art of memory amid the displaced rush of liquid modern life. Pierre Nora places history and memory in conflict, narrating the “conquest” of memory by an ever-accelerating history, a vast standing-reserve of documents piled skyscraper-high, burying the past in an act of archival “terrorism”. These fears of amnesia, (dis)embodied in “neuromantic” cyberpunk mythology, confronts the ‘otherness’ of prosthetic memory (Landsberg 1996; Csicsery-Ronay 1988). In a Cartesian schism of virtualized mind and subjugated meat, the cyberpunk myth depicts the self as “the victim…helpless and sad, against the powers of exteriorized mind” (Csicsery-Ronay p277).

Oblivion and the Archive

“Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”

– George Orwell, 1984

“The dead past is just another name for the living present. What if you focus the chronoscope in the past of one-hundredth of a second ago? Aren’t you watching the present?”

– Isaac Asimov, “The Dead Past”

Discussions of digital memory often begin with the vision of Vannevar Bush, the “memex” (memory-index) – a permanent, electromechanical archive, that would link documents to each other by means of associative trails and annotations resembling the hyperlinked structure of today’s Internet. But Bush’s own position on whether the documents within the memex should be permanent changed over time; his unpublished “Memex II” addresses the need for “a readily alterable record” whose entries can be rewritten or deleted. But with alterability comes the threat of revisionism, whose purest incarnation is the infinitely alterable “memory hole” of Orwell’s 1984: a granular control mechanism into which every inconvenient document is deposited and made to disappear – or reappear – in service of an official historical narrative. Specters of genocide and trauma haunt us, imploring that we “never forget,” yet Avishai Margalit calls for an “ethics of memory” that ensures that the descendants of genocidal trauma do not find themselves shackled by the duty to commemorate (2002). Such concerns echo Plato’s condemnation of writing: that the text can only repeat its “one unvarying answer” to future questioners, lacking the fluidity of transitory orality, unable to evolve and learn. These benefits of forgetting – its potential for redemption/regeneration/reconciliation, its hope for radical change that “escapes” the past, and its evolutionary capacity for public deliberation and production of knowledge – create tension at the ambiguous interface between the transitory individual and the enduring collective.

Jeffery Rosen and Viktor Mayer-Schönberger similarly argue the “virtue” of forgetting in counterposition to the threat of permanent “comprehensive memory”: “all citizens face the difficulty of escaping their past now that the Internet records everything and forgets nothing” (Mayer-Schönberger 2009; Rosen 2010). Individuals’ past preferences and actions, archived by ubiquitous computing technologies – imperfectly contextualized, in ways that often prove misleading or even inaccurate – haunt them in the present, exposing previous transgressions to public and state scrutiny, and foreclosing on the possibility of rehabilitation or even of change. Rosen and Mayer-Schönberger thus characterize forgetting as a vital form of information control: specifically, individual control over one’s personal information. Their anti-archival policy prescriptions (expungement, in legal terms, or Mayer-Schönberger’s “expiration dates” on some types of archival data) seek to protect this allegedly disappearing faculty of forgetting because of its importance for personal privacy and autonomy. “Comprehensive memory” (rather, comprehensive history) suggests the creation of a “temporal panopticon,” such as that allegorized in Asimov’s short story “The Dead Past”: a fictional “chronoscope,” built for looking into the past, actually functions to eradicate present privacy. Le droit à l’oubli – the “right of oblivion” – creates a legal separation between past crime and present identity by denying our chronoscope-analogues full access to history, allowing a fresh start: the chance to escape one’s past.

Persistence, Ephemerality, and Power 

“A major source of forgetting…is associated with processes that separate social life from locality and from human dimensions: superhuman speed, megacities that are so enormous as to be unmemorable, consumerism disconnected from the labour process, the short lifespan of urban architecture, the disappearance of walkable cities. What is being forgotten in modernity is profound, the human-scale-ness of life, the experience of living and working in a world of social relationships that are known. There is some kind of deep transformation in what might be described as the meaning of life based on shared memories, and that meaning is eroded by a structural transformation in the life-spaces of modernity.”

– Paul Connerton, How Modernity Forgets

“Quite obviously, remembering has become the norm, and forgetting the exception. Four main technological drivers have facilitated this shift: digitization, cheap storage, easy retrieval, and global reach.”

– Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age

The purported “comprehensive memory” of the digital age is, in fact, neither comprehensive nor permanent. “The World Wide Web still is not a library,” concludes Wallace Koehler after conducting a longitudinal study of the “half-life” of online documents – much less the universal archive of the memex (2004). “Link rot” (hyperlinks whose destination pages are no longer available) introduces significant decay into the associative trails we build through hypertext, complicating access and retrieval; “bit rot” and “data rot” similarly force us to grapple with the degeneration of software through the accumulation of errors over time, and the fragility of the physical discs and drives that comprise our storage media; website providers can go out of business, causing thousands of pages to disappear overnight. The “dark Internet” and the “Deep Web” remind us that our means of indexing even the archival data we have are incomplete and impermanent.

Much of the Internet’s content is still characterized by its practical ephemerality: in one striking example, the average thread on 4chan’s popular /b/ message board spends just five seconds on the first page, and five minutes on the site in total, before its content vanishes (Bernstein et al. 2011). “Ephemeral technologies” like Snapchat, which delete information shortly after its receipt, once again make forgetting rather than remembering the default. While these software solutions are defeated by a “hack” as simple as a screenshot, requiring users to rely on social convention for the privacy and security of their correspondence, the lack of a persistent, searchable archive of data in such applications demonstrates the development of new social norms and technological architectures in which experiences are fleeting by design.

But the temporal gaps and untraceable depths of our networked archives intensify, rather than diminish, the need for ongoing critical scrutiny of historical and archival practices. Asymmetries in information control and “information flux,” as well as the ability to analyze and interpret, affect power dynamics between individuals and institutions. David Brin’s unrealizable “transparent society,” in which individuals and organizations have equal access to each other’s data, “postulates the end of privacy,” according to Bossewitch and Sinnreich, “but it fails to adequately account for the differential access to analytic processing power available to different individuals and organizations in making sense – and use – of this data” (2013). In turn, however, the lacunae in archival memory are shaped by these power dynamics; as Susan Brison notes, “As a society, we live with the unbearable by pressuring those who have been traumatized to forget and by rejecting the testimonies of those who are forced by fate to remember” (1996). The desire for recovery and forgiveness, the hidden virtues of ephemerality, can also reflect institutional power – resulting in the erasure of trauma or systemic injustice not only from archives, but from societal and individual memory as well. In the absence of a symmetrically transparent utopia, crucial questions remain, bound up with traditional concerns about selective cultural amnesia, surveillance, and power: who controls the archives, the official histories that modulate collective memory? Who surveils the past, who is surveilled, and who has the capacity to evade surveillance? How can we disrupt hegemonic narratives of the past – violent impositions of identity akin to the “memory implants” of Total Recall – and create new and emancipatory narratives?

Surrogacy or Symbiosis?

“Because we do not understand the brain very well we are constantly tempted to use the latest technology as a model for trying to understand it. In my childhood we were always assured that the brain was a telephone switchboard. (‘What else could it be?’) I was amused to see that Sherrington, the great British neuroscientist, thought that the brain worked like a telegraph system. Freud often compared the brain to hydraulic and electro-magnetic systems. Leibniz compared it to a mill, and I am told some of the ancient Greeks thought the brain functions like a catapult. At present, obviously, the metaphor is the digital computer.”

– John R. Searle, Minds, Brains and Science

The way we conceive of natural symbol systems depends to a large degree on the computational metaphors we use to understand them, and machine learning suggests an understanding of symbolic thought that is very different to traditional views…Our analysis of [predictive, probabilistic symbolic communication] arose out of the idea that the mind can be modeled as a kind of learning machine.”

– Michael Ramscar, “Computing Machinery and Understanding”

Our understanding of the mind, and thus of memory, remains in flux. In practice, individuals’ everyday use of mnemonic technologies is contingent, subject to constant change in the form and function of their devices (Kalnikaite and Whittaker 2007). The relationship between organic and prosthetic memory appears to be one of synergy and symbiosis rather than surrogacy. Our metaphors for mind have historically modeled cognition as a pneumatic system, a clockwork automaton, a helmsman steering a ship, an enchanted mechanical loom; today, we may more readily compare the mind to a search engine, algorithmically retrieving stored data from a disorganized network, “learning” from each new delve into its archive.

But even as we embrace this new metaphor of memory, and use it to imagine both our individual and our collective identities, we derive meaning from the mind-metaphors of past eras, which possess their own political and poetic histories. Contemporary “cloud computing” extends cyberpunk notions of disembodied mind into the present day, while proliferating “augmented reality” technologies reinvigorate hopes and fears about the potential of cyborg remembrance either to emancipate or dehumanize. Digitally reconstructed memory and forgetting continue to exist in a state of paradox and plurality, inviting continued conversation about our archives, our histories, and ourselves.

New mnemonic technologies revitalize timeless questions about the contradictory nature of memory – constantly reconstructing the past while prospecting potential futures, in acts as simple as reading old letters from a friend or writing a shopping list – and resurrect familiar specters as well. But as individuals and corporations alike increasingly seek out professional reputation management services to influence their archival afterimages (at least, those who can afford to do so), and the European Court of Justice navigates the tension between privacy and free expression implicated in a (limited) “right to be forgotten” from the index of search engines, these questions and anxieties gain urgency and force. By tracing prevalent themes of information control, surveillance, and power against the background of prosthetic memory, we may hopefully remind ourselves that the term “memory” itself represents more than either synapses or hard disks – that, far from signaling either the end of memory or the end of forgetting, our shifting metaphors for memory and mind represent the complex and multivalent interplay of future and past.

Works Cited

Bernstein, M. S., et al. (2011). 4chan and/b: An Analysis of Anonymity and Ephemerality in a Large Online Community. ICWSM.

Biddick, K. (1993). “Humanist History and the Haunting of Virtual Worlds: Problems of Memory and Rememoration.” Genders 0(18): 47-66.

Biocca, F. and M. R. Levy (1995). Communication in the age of virtual reality, Routledge.

Bossewitch, J. and A. Sinnreich (2013). “The end of forgetting: Strategic agency beyond the panopticon.” New Media & Society 15(2): 224-242.

Bowker, G. C. Memory practices in the sciences.

Brison, S. J. (1996). “Outliving oneself: trauma, memory and personal identity.” In Diana T. Meyers (ed.), Feminists Rethink the Self. Westview Press.

Bugeja, M. and D. V. Dimitrova (2006). “The Half-Life Phenomenon.” The Serials Librarian 49(3): 115-123.

Cavallaro, D. (2000). Cyberpunk and cyberculture: Science fiction and the work of William Gibson, Continuum.

Chun, W. H. K. (2008). “The enduring ephemeral, or the future is a memory.” Critical Inquiry 35(1): 148-171.

Csicsery-Ronay, I. (1988). “Cyberpunk and Neuromanticism.” Mississippi Review 16(2/3): 266-278.

Connerton, P. (1989). How Societies Remember, Cambridge.

Connerton, P. (2009). How Modernity Forgets, Cambridge.

Daugman, J. G. (2001). “Brain metaphor and brain theory.” In William P. Bechtel, Pete Mandik, Jennifer Mundale & Robert S. Stufflebeam (eds.), Philosophy and the Neurosciences: A Reader. Blackwell.

Ernst, W. and J. Parikka (2012). Digital Memory and the Archive, University of Minnesota Press.

Featherstone, M. and R. Burrows (1996). Cyberspace/cyberbodies/cyberpunk: Cultures of technological embodiment, Sage.

Foucault, M. (1977). Language, counter-memory, practice: selected essays and interviews, Cornell University Press.

Garde-Hansen, J., et al. (2009). Save as… digital memories, Palgrave Macmillan.

Haskins, E. (2007). “Between Archive and Participation: Public Memory in a Digital Age.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 37(4): 401-422.

Kalnikait, V., et al. (2007). Software or wetware?: discovering when and why people use digital prosthetic memory. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. San Jose, California, USA, ACM: 71-80.

Keightley, E. and M. Pickering (2012). The Mnemonic Imagination: Remembering as Creative Practice, Palgrave Macmillan.

Kennedy, V. (1999). “The Computational Metaphor of Mind: More Bugs in the Program.” Metaphor and Symbol 14(4): 281-292.

Koehler, W. (2004). “A longitudinal study of web pages continued: A report aftersix years.” Information Research 9(2), 1-9.

Landsberg, A. (2004). Prosthetic memory: The transformation of American remembrance in the age of mass culture, Columbia University Press.

Margalit, Avishai (2002). The ethics of memory, Harvard University Press.

Markwell, J. and D. W. Brooks (2003). ““Link rot” limits the usefulness of web-based educational materials in biochemistry and molecular biology*.” Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education 31(1): 69-72.

Mayer-Schönberger, Viktor (2009). Delete: the virtue of forgetting in a digital age, Princeton University Press.

McGlone, M. S. (2007). “What is the explanatory value of a conceptual metaphor?” Language & Communication 27(2): 109-126.

Muri, A. (2003). “Of Shit and the Soul: Tropes of cybernetic disembodiment in contemporary culture.” Body & Society 9(3): 73-92.

Nichols, B. (1988). “The work of culture in the age of cybernetic systems.” Screen 29(1): 22-46.

Parker, A. (2007). “Link rot: how the inaccessibility of electronic citations affects the quality of New Zealand scholarly literature.” New Zealand Library & Information Management Journal 50(2): 172-192.

Pruchnic, J. and K. Lacey (2011). “The Future of Forgetting: Rhetoric, Memory, Affect.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 41(5): 472-494.

Ramscar, M. (2010) “Computing machinery and understanding.” Cognitive Science, 34(6), 966-971.

Ruiz de Mendoza Ibáñez, F. J. and L. Pérez Hernández (2011). “The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor: Myths, Developments and Challenges.” Metaphor and Symbol 26(3): 161-185.

Savoie, H. (2010). “Memory Work in the Digital Age: Exploring the Boundary Between Universal and Particular Memory Online.” Global Media Journal: American Edition 9(16).

Saerle, J. (1984). Minds, Brains, and Science, Harvard University Press.

Sellen, A. J. and S. Whittaker (2010). “Beyond total capture: a constructive critique of lifelogging.” Commun. ACM 53(5): 70-77.

Steiner, L. and B. Zelizer (1995). “Competing memories: Reading the past against the grain: The shape of memory studies.”

Sternberg, R. J. (1990). Metaphors of mind: Conceptions of the nature of intelligence, Cambridge University Press.

Van Dijck, J. (2007). Mediated Memories in the Digital Age, Stanford University Press.

Van Dijck, J. (2013). “‘You have one identity’: performing the self on Facebook and LinkedIn.” Media, Culture & Society 35(2): 199-215.

Van House, N. and E. F. Churchill (2008). “Technologies of memory: Key issues and critical perspectives.” Memory Studies 1(3): 295-310.

Viégas, F. B., et al. (2004). Digital artifacts for remembering and storytelling: Posthistory and social network fragments. System Sciences, 2004. Proceedings of the 37th Annual Hawaii International Conference on, IEEE.

Wiener, N. (1988). The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, Da Capo Press, Incorporated.