From Memory Scarcity to Memory Abundance

The most famous section in arguably the most famous book about photography, Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, dwells on a photograph of Barthes’ recently deceased mother taken in a winter garden when she was a little girl. On this picture, Barthes hung his meditative reflections on death and photography. The image evoked both the “that-has-been” reality of the subject, and the haunting “this-will-die” realization. That one photograph of his mother is also the only image discussed by Barthes that was not reproduced in Camera Lucida. It was too personal. It conveyed something true about his mother, but only to him.

But what if Barthes had not a few, but hundreds or even thousands of images of his mother?

I’ve long thought that what was most consequential about social media was their status as prosthetic memories. A site like Facebook, for example, is a massive archive of externalized memories preserved as texts and images. For this reason, it seemed to me, it would be unbearably hard to abandon such sites, particularly for those who had come of age with and through them. These archives bore too precious a record of the past to be simply deleted with a few clicks. I made this argument as late as last night.

But now I’ve realized that I had not fully appreciated the most important dynamic at play. I was operating with assumptions that were formed during an age of relative memory scarcity, but digital photography and sites like Facebook have brought us to an age of memory abundance. The paradoxical consequence of this development will be the progressive devaluing of such memories and severing of the past’s hold on the present. Gigabytes and terabytes of digital memories will not make us care more about those memories, they will make us care less.

We’ve seen the pattern before. Oral societies which had few and relatively inefficient technologies of remembrance at their disposal, lived to remember. Their cultural lives were devoted to ritual and liturgical acts of communal remembering. The introduction of writing, a comparably wondrous technology of remembrance, gradually released the individual from the burdens of cultural remembrance. Memory that could be outsourced, as we say, or offloaded could also be effectively forgotten by  the individual who was free to remember their own history. And it has been to this task that subsequent developments in the technology of remembrance have been put to use. The emergence of cheap paper coupled with rising rates of literacy gave us the diary and the boxes of letters. Photography and the film were also put to the task of documenting our lives. But until recently, these technologies were subject to important constraints. The recording devices were bulky and cumbersome and they were limited in capacity by the number of exposures in a film and the length of ribbon in a tape. There were also important practical constraints on storage and access. Digital technologies have burst through these constraints and they have not yet reached their potential.

Now we carry relatively unobtrusive devices of practically unlimited recording capacity, and these are easily linked to archives that are likewise virtually unlimited in their capacity to store and organize these memories. If we cast our vision into the not altogether distant nor fantastical future, we can anticipate individuals engaging with the world through devices (e.g., Google Glass) that will both augment the physical world by layering it with information and generate a near continuous audio-visual record of our experience.

Compared to these present and soon-to-be technologies, the 35mm camera which was at my disposal through the ’80s and ’90s seems primitive. With regards to a spectrum indicating the capacity to document and archive memories, I was then closer to my pre-modern predecessors than to the generation that will succeed me.

Roland Barthes’ near mystical veneration of his mother’s photograph, touching as it appears to those of us who lived in the age of memory scarcity, will seem quixotic and quaint to those who have known only memory abundance. Barthes will seem to them as those medievals that venerated the physical book do to us. They will be as indifferent to the photograph, and the past it encodes, as we are to the cheap paperback.

It may seem, as it did to me, that social media revived the significance of the past by reconnecting us with friends we would have mostly forgotten and reconstituting habits of social remembering. I’d even expressed concerns that social media might allow the past to overwhelm the present rendering recollection rather than suppression traumatic. But this has only been an effect of novelty upon that transitional generation who had lived without the technology and upon whom it appeared in medias res. For those who have known only the affordances of memory abundance, there will be no reconnection with long forgotten classmates or nostalgic reminiscences around a rare photograph of their youth capturing some trivial, unremembered moment. It will all be documented and archived, but it will mean not a thing.

It will be Barthes’ contemporary, Andy Warhol, who will appear as one of us. In his biography of Warhol, Victor Bockris writes,

Indeed, Andy’s desire to record everything around him had become a mania.  As John Perrault, the art critic, wrote in a profile of Warhol in Vogue:  “His portable tape recorder, housed in a black briefcase, is his latest self-protection device.  The microphone is pointed at anyone who approaches, turning the situation into a theater work.  He records hours of tape every day but just files the reels away and never listens to them.”

Andy Warhol’s performance art will be our ordinary experience, and it is that last line that we should note — “… and he never listens to them.”

Reconsider Plato’s infamous critique of writing. Critics charge Plato with shortsightedness because he failed to see just how much writing would in fact allow us to remember. But from a different perspective, Plato was right. The efficient and durable externalization of memory would makes us personally indifferent to remembrance. As the external archive grows, our personal involvement with the memory it stores shrinks in proportion.

Give me a few precious photographs, a few minutes of grainy film and I will treasure them and hold them dear. Give me one terabyte of images and films and I will care not at all.

In the future, we will float in the present untethered from the past and propelled listlessly onward by the perpetual stream of documentary detritus we will emit.

Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google appear

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16 thoughts on “From Memory Scarcity to Memory Abundance

  1. Enjoyed reading this, Michael.
    Interesting musings on how we might change in response to huge, easily accessible archives. Seems to be quite a pessimistic conclusion, though, to say that too much access to an archive will make us not value our own past. Does having easy access to the Metropolitan art museum make us value art less? Yes, if the Met was simply covered wall to wall with paintings mixed pell-mell from all different time periods, with no organization, and no textual description, we may well walk out with less appreciation than we walked in with. With greater riches comes a greater requirement to organize and build meaning. And perhaps for each one of us, there is some limited number of photographs beyond which it doesn’t make sense to try to build a meaningful collection. Sounds like Warhol was only interested in building the size of his archive and had no interest in structuring it and building meaning into it.

    Access, display and stability become important when one has a large collection. And good software can certainly facilitate this. Bad software takes our collections and organizes them according to someone else’s meanings and goals. Then, just because we have lots of stuff doesn’t mean it is enriching to our life. And constantly changing software and algorithms means that an archive never takes on a stability that allows both ourselves and others to build lasting meaning out of it. Thinking of Facebook here, regarding bad software, though they are likely doing good stuff as well.

    So I think that if we have stable long lasting systems and the ability to organize our archives according to our own meanings, then having a larger amount of recorded stuff could actually make us richer as human beings.

    • Boaz, first off my apologies for being slower than usual in responding to comments of late. Secondly, thanks for the thoughtful comments as always.

      I should say that this post is a little different for me, I don’t ordinarily take this sort of vigorously predictive tone. Mostly, I tried to capture a thought that suddenly flashed into my mind as I thought about the staying power of social media sites such as Facebook. For some reason, Barthes and his mother’s photo popped into mind and then that question, “What if he had thousands of images?”

      I’m not sure that our past will ever become wholly meaningless, but I think that we as of yet have no real sense of how much documentation we will have of ou own lives in the not too distant future. Smart databases and software might help, but at the scale of date we are potentially talking about, I still think that we will run into real human limitations. Who has the time to watch all the hours of film we may record of ourselves or what may be the millions of images accumulated over a lifetime. It’s not that the Met will be covered pell-mell and wall to wall, its that the paintings will spill out of it and on to the streets and cover every surface. What then?

      I need to make my case a little better than I did here, and, honestly, just think more about this. But i think there is a worrisome tendency to lose intimate touch with what we commend to an archive, at least when that archive reaches a certain scale. If my archive is a shoe box of letters, that’s one thing. If my archive is hard drive with 10,000 images and indiscriminate hours of film, that’s another.

      • Isn’t this related to the concept of “digital discipline” you’ve written about before?

        From a certain reductionist perspective, we are always deluged by more data than we can handle, and without filters we’d be lost. With new kinds of data, we need new kinds of filters.

        I agree its a real danger these days to collect too much stuff, and it does make it less meaningful. But its always a choice whether or not to take a photograph or a video or recording. And we can always delete them.

        I liked this post in terms of warning of this danger of losing meaning, but the sense of inevitability and lack of choice is what struck me as pessimistic.

        If my hard drive has 10,000 images on it with no structure, I should probably spend some time deleting some, putting them in folders or finding some way of packaging them in a way that creates personal meaningful.

        And a Met with paintings spilling out onto the streets is just a lousy museum.

  2. Perhaps it is true that we are growing out of our need to record every moment of our lives, perhaps not. What once seemed a classic attempt at capturing a part of this dynamic life with a static image was only an improved technique over books. Perhaps what I’m driving at is this, images, succeeded the written word in capturing the moment. What came next is video and as with everything else the time span between the two techniques was far less than the time span between the printing press and photosensitive materials. What comes next is probably capturing three dimensional holographic images of the present with complete audio also might be allowed to relive the moment wearing 3-d glasses.
    All of these technologies exist today. It is only a matter of time that someone commercializes the same and we have a product in the market. Then probably in the next thirty years we’ll have another blog or maybe something else which comments on the situation that how we have grown out of the need to capture these relivable moments.
    Though I dare say that I believe this will happen simply because man has tried to do the same time and again. The need that springs out of the desire to live forever, to constantly feel the joy of never losing out on time and … life.

    • “What comes next is probably capturing three dimensional holographic images of the present with complete audio also might be allowed to relive the moment wearing 3-d glasses.”

      That is really interesting. That strikes me as wholly plausible.

      “The need that springs out of the desire to live forever, to constantly feel the joy of never losing out on time and … life.”

      Yes, there are always primal desires at play. Very true.

  3. Great post. Brought me back to several thoughs that have been wandering from an emisphere and the other of my brain for quite a while.
    I’d like to add though that this abundance of memory is nonetheless among the frailest we ever had. Digital support suffer the same effect of time of non-digital ones. In addition, it just takes a clumsy unplug of a table to delete 5 years of memories forever. Happened to me recently and made me think.
    One would argue that the cloud and its knives ( Social networking & photosharing sites) supply to such shortcome. But then the access to our memories depends on Internet access, that is, to a pay-for service…

  4. I really enjoyed this post and it actually reminded me to an article I read a while ago about the fetiche found in photography. For me it is totally natural for human beings to be highly pulled by any media that can bring them to be close to the past experiences, beacuse you see, human beings need a complement. The pass of time, the passing by of experiences, and the nostalgy brought by it, brings us to feel quite empty, and photography is the fetiche who revives the memories and makes u feel as if they were real, even though the only place where they exist is in our brain. No one remembers things the same way even though they would have been in the same place or time.Memories are precious and so special because of the nostalgia they keep inside and they can be revived by photography. It is quite crazy, because what you say its true about the digital supports. Somehow emotions feel much more real or deep through non digital sources becasue they seem more authentic. The fact all of our pictures can be mainstreamed takes off the value and the importance photographs should really have,

  5. love this post. I think you are right on with your depiction of everything involved. I love the description of grainy film and precious photographs. Speaks right to me.

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