Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Digital Archive

The future is stubbornly resistant to prediction, but we try anyway. I’ve been thinking lately about memory, technologies that mediate our memories, and the future of the past.

The one glaring fact — and I think it is more or less incontrovertible — is this: Digital technology has made it possible to capture and store vast amounts a data.

Much of this data, for the average person, involves the documentation of daily life. This documentation is often photographic or audio-visual.

What difference will this make? Recently, I suggested that in an age of memory abundance, memory will be devalued. There will be too much of it and it will be out there somewhere — in a hard drive, on my phone/computer,  or in the cloud. As we confidently and routinely outsource our remembering to digital devices and archives, we will grow relatively indifferent to personal memories. (Although, I don’t think indifferent is the best word — perhaps unattached.)

This too seems to me incontrovertible. It is the overlooked truth in Plato’s much-maligned critique of writing. Externalized memory is only figuratively related to internalized memory.

But I was assuming the permanence of these digital memories. What if our digital archives prove to be impermanent? What if in the coming years and decades we realize that our digital memories are gradually fading into oblivion?

Consider the following from Bruce Sterling: “Actually it’s mostly the past’s things that will outlive us. Things that have already successfully lived a long time, such as the Pyramids, are likely to stay around longer than 99.9% of our things. It might be a bit startling to realize that it’s mostly our paper that will survive us as data, while a lot of our electronics will succumb to erasure, loss, and bit rot.”

It might turn out that Snapchat is a premonition. What then?

Scenario A: Digital memory decay is a technical problem that is eventually solved; trajectory of memory abundance and consequent indifference plays out.

Scenario B: Digital memory decay remains a persistent problem.

Scenario B1: We devote ourselves to rituals of digital memory preservation. Therapy first referred to the care of the gods. We think of it as care for the self, sometimes involving the recollection repressed memories. Perhaps in the future these senses of the word will mutate into therapy understood as the care of our digital memories.

Scenario B2: By the time the problem of digital memory decay is recognized as a threat, we no longer care. Memory, we decide, is a burden. Mutually reinforcing decay and indifference then yield a creeping amnesia of long term memory. Eternal sunshine indeed.

Scenario B3: We reconsider our digital dependence and reintegrate analog and internalized forms of memory into our ecology of remembrance.

Scenario C: All of this is wrong.

In truth, I can hardly imagine a serious indifference to personal memory. But then again, I’m sure those who lived in societies whose cultural forms were devoted to tribal remembrance could hardly imagine serious indifference to the memory of the tribe. They probably couldn’t imagine someone caring much about their individual history; it was likely an incoherent concept. Thinking about the future involves the thinking of that which we can’t quite imagine, or is it the imagining of that which we can’t quite think. In any case, it’s not really about the future anyway. It’s about trying to make some sense of forces now at work and trying to reckon with the long reach of the past, which, remembered or not, will continue to make itself felt in the present.

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8 thoughts on “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Digital Archive

  1. Great reflection.
    I’d hope for Scenario B3, as most of my thoughts somehow come back to thoughtful digital integration into our lives.
    With so many gigabytes of information being produced daily, I hadn’t thought about the notion of digital decal and “bit rot.”
    I’ve never had much desire to document the minutiae in my daily life, but my blog will contain a detailed account of my values and reflections on big ideas for however long I decide to write digitally.
    Here’s my take on students and memory:
    http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2012/07/the-digital-age-memory-and-learning193.html

  2. Concerning the immense amount differing perspectives and personalities among people of the world, I believe memory abundance pertaining to the digital archive can only be surmised as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ by the individuals and their respective ‘memories’ at stake. Having the ability to almost literally choose which memories to hold on to or not (deleting them) allows us to depict and draw out our own pasts. Whether this ability leaves something to be desired or is sought after, I say, is unknown.

    I enjoyed reading this post and ‘From Memory Scarcity to Memory Abundance’ and their thought provoking content. I agree that an over-abundance of memories (and almost anything else for that matter) tends to take away from many emotional responses. My own personal hopes would certainly lean toward your Scenario B3, however, I can almost see a terrifying Scenario B2 become a reality. At which point I say it still remains the individual’s responsibility to cherish their internalized memories so as to not forget who they are or where they came from. Humans progressive future depends upon the foundations of a strong past remembered.

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