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