The medium is the memory

Rumsey draws a powerful analogy to underscore memory’s materiality. The greatest memory system, she reminds us, is the universe itself. Nature embeds history in matter. When, in the early 19th century, scientists realized that they could read nature’s memory by closely examining the Earth and stars, we gained a much deeper understanding of the cosmos and our place in it. Geologists discovered that the strata in exposed rock tell the story of the planet’s development. Biologists found that fossilized plants and animals reveal secrets about the evolution of life. Astronomers realized that by looking through a telescope they could see not only across great distances but far back in time, gaining a glimpse of the origins of existence.

Through such discoveries, Rumsey argues, people both revealed and refined their “forensic imagination,” a subtle and creative way of thinking highly attuned to deciphering meaning from matter. We deploy that same imagination in understanding and appreciating our history and culture. The upshot is that the technologies a society uses to record, store and share information will play a crucial role in determining the richness, or sparseness, of its legacy. To put a new spin on Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum, the medium is the memory.

Whether through cave paintings or Facebook posts, we humans have always been eager to record our experiences. But, as Rumsey makes clear, we’ve been far less zealous about safeguarding those records for posterity. In choosing among media technologies through the ages, people have tended to trade durability for transmissibility. It’s not hard to understand why. Intent on our immediate needs, we prefer those media that make communication easier and faster, rather than the ones that offer the greatest longevity. And so the lightweight scroll supplants the heavy clay tablet, the instantaneous email supplants the slow-moving letter. A cave painting may last for millennia, but a Facebook post will get you a lot more likes a lot more quickly.

–Nicholas Carr, When our culture’s past is lost in the cloud

A minor quibble: Carr ends his column by advising, “We should make sure that there’s always a place in the world for the eloquent object, the thing itself.” I know what he means by that, and it’s a point I agree with. At the same time, his definition of “materiality,” in this particular column, is a bit limited in scope. True, the “digital” record of a Facebook timeline is not the same as the “physical” record of, say, a diary. Both are still material. The difference is that the materiality of a Facebook timeline is scattered–into the code that structures a web site or whatever browser a person is using, into whatever hard drives or servers are tasked to archive the timeline and call it up on demand–whereas the materiality of a diary is self-contained: the book, the “thing itself.”

Electronic signals, we should remember, are material things, if we understand “materiality” to refer to anything with atomic substance. But Abby Rumsey’s point about the fragility of digital stuff is well-taken. Those digital archives are not only fragile in their material state (as anyone can attest whose computer has suddenly died before she could save the document she was writing), but they are, as noted elsewhere in the column, eminently mutable (as anyone can attest who has accidentally deleted the document he was revising before saving the latest change).

All of this is to emphasize the point Carr/Rumsey makes in that third paragraph: digital media are more immediately transmissible, but the meaning and form of communication are (perhaps) not as adequately preserved. The physical chassis of my laptop will likely outlive me in significant respects. The digital world housed within or accessed through it likely will not. Not in its current form. It’s worth reflecting on the fact that this very blog post does, in fact, physically exist. The electronic signals that sustain and transmit it literally exist; the codes for it are stored somewhere. But these various physical materials only come together in the form of this commonplace blog when the vast machinery of the Internet (including your machine and mine) is mobilized to make it so, for the fleeting moments of access. Not unlike the various chemicals and biological materials that house me for the scant few decades I–as in I Me Myself, the being whose history belongs to this body and mind–exist on this planet.

When I die, these materials will disperse, never to come together in precisely the same form again, never housing the particular meaningfulness or resonance of my life, as I have lived it. What I think Carr and Rumsey touch on, whether they know it or not, is whether the resonance of a human soul can be housed by media. If it can, it is less likely to be in digital form. Looks like Ray Kurzweil still has his work cut out for him.

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