Social Media and the Arts of Memory

UPDATE: A complete and updated form of the essay began here is now available here.

Early in The Art of Memory, Frances Yates pauses to envision a “forgotten social habit” of the classical world.  She invites us to wonder,“Who is that man moving slowly in the lonely building, stopping at intervals with an intent face?”  That man, Yates tells us, is a “rhetoric student forming a set of memory loci.”  The rhetoric student would have been creating the architecture of a mental space into which they would then place vivid images imaginatively designed to recollect the themes or words of a prepared oration.  While delivering the oration, the rhetor would navigate the mental space coming upon each carefully placed image which triggered their memory accordingly.  This work of designing mental space and populating the space with striking images followed the prescriptions of the artificial memory techniques widely practiced in classical antiquity.

What if, however, we updated Yates’ scene by setting it in the present?  The scene would be instantly recognizable as long as we equipped our imagined person with a cell phone.  The stopping at intervals and the intent face would correspond to any of the multiple uses to which an Internet-enabled smart phone may be put:  reading or sending a text message, downloading songs, taking or sending pictures and video, updating social media profiles, or finding directions with GPS, to name but a few.  What is striking is how often these activities would, like that of the ancient rhetor, involve the work of memory.   Much of what cell phones are increasingly used for has very little to do with making a phone call, after all. In fact, one could argue that the calling feature of phones is becoming largely irrelevant.  Cell phones are more likely to be used to access the Internet, send a text message, take a picture, or film a video.  Given these capabilities cell phones have become prosthetic memory devices; to lose a cell phone would be to induce a state of partial amnesia.  Or, it may be better to say it would might induce a fear of future amnesia since our ability to approach the present as a field of potential memories would be undermined.

Social networking sites (SNS) are of special interest because of the way in which they explicitly trade in memory.  As Joanne Garde-Hansen asks in “MyMemories?:  Personal Digital Archive Fever and Facebook,” “If memory and identity can be seen as coterminous and SNSs involve literally digitising ones’ self into being then what is at stake when memories and identities are practiced on Facebook?”

She goes on to add,

It goes without saying that the allure of the site is in its drawing together in one place memory practices: creating photograph albums, sharing photographs, messaging, joining groups and alumni memberships, making ‘friends’ and staying in touch with family.

It would be fair to acknowledge that SNS such as Facebook traffic in more than the allure of memory practices. Nonetheless, the production, maintenance, and retrieval of memory is integral to the practices deployed on SNSs.

Following Jacques Derrida, Garde-Hansen considers Facebook as an instance of the archiving archive. Thus, she points out, the architecture of a SNS such as Facebook is not neutral with respect to the memories it archives.  As Derrida observed,

… the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future.  The archivization produces as much as it records the event.

Garde-Hansen also draws SNSs into the conflict between database and narrative staged by Manovich in The Language of New Media.  In her view, the most significant aspect of Manovich’s analysis of new media for SNSs is the comparison he draws between the visual organization of new media interfaces and spatial montage.  “Manovich’s emphasis upon spatial narrative is,” according to Garde-Hansen, “extremely pertinent to thinking through the emergence of SNSs and how these sites remediate personal and collective memory.” Framed in this way, memory as spatial montage challenges “the rise and dominance of history,” the “power of the written word” to order the past temporally, and the “twentieth century’s emphasis upon the single, unadulterated image (think cinema).”

Derrida’s insight suggests that given the way the architecture of an archive already determines what can in fact be archived, the future record of the past is already impinging upon the present.  Or, put otherwise, the sorts of memories we are able to generate with social media may already be directing our interactions in the present.  (For an insightful discussion of this point anchored on an analysis of faux-vintage photography see Nathan Jurgenson’s, “The Faux-Vintage Photo.”)  Drawing in Manovich’s database/narrative opposition, suggests that the visual/spatial mode of ordering memories on SNSs potentially shifts how meaning is derived from memory and how we construct the self.  We’ll explore both of these considerations a little further in subsequent posts.

Returning to the scene suggested by Yates, however, we may also consider SNSs such as Facebook as instances of new artificial memory spaces constructed to supplement and augment the natural memory.  Already in the artificial memory tradition we have memory rendered spatially and visually in a manner that anticipates the representation and organization of memory in SNSs.  Situating SNSs within the long history of spatial and visual memory also affords us the opportunity to consider SNSs in the context of a complex and rich tradition of philosophical reflection.

What emerges is a history of memory practices that alternate between a Platonic focus on memory as the presence of an absence and an Aristotelian emphasis on memory as the record of the past.  There are several thematic threads that weave this story together including the opposition of internal memory to memory supported by inscription, the connection between memory and imagination, memory as the index of desire, the related tensions between space and time and databases and narratives, and the relationship of memory to identity.  Yet for all the complexity those themes introduce, we will begin our next post in this series with a story.


Joanne Garde-Hansen’s article is found in Save As… Digital Memories.

The Language(s) of Digital Media Platforms

What follows is a thought experiment.  Comments/criticisms welcome.

In an influential 2001 book, The Language of New Media, theorist Lev Manovich presented his “attempt at both a record and a theory of the present” with regards to digital media.  He explains that his “aim” is to “describe and understand the logic driving the development of the language of new media.”  But he is quick to add,

I am not claiming that there is a single language of new media.  I use “language” as an umbrella term to refer to a number of various conventions used by designers of new media objects to organize data and structure the user’s experience.

The final product is an engaging and provocative study.  For the moment, however, I want to reflect on the notion of a “language” of digital media — it’s a suggestive metaphor.  Early in the book, Manovich explains his rationale for the term,

I do not want to suggest that we need to return to the structuralist phase of semiotics in understanding new media.  However, given that most studies of new media and cyberculture focus on their sociological, economic, and political dimensions, it was important for me to use the word language to signal the different focus of this work:  the emergent conventions, recurrent design patterns, and key forms of new media.

Manovich states explicitly that he is not claiming that there is a single, monolithic language of new media.  At a recent conference, media anthropologist John Postill made a similar point.  We do not have, he suggested,

a totalising ephocal ‘logic’ but rather ever more differentiated Internet ‘technologies, practices, contexts’ ([Miller and Slater] 2000: 3). The evidence provided in the reviewed texts strongly suggests that the Internet – and indeed the world – is becoming ever more plural and that no universal ‘logic of practice’ … is gaining ascendancy at the expense of all other logics.

I take his “logics” to be roughly parallel to Manovich’s “language,” although Postill is focusing on the practices that emerge from digital media, less so on the internal logic of the given platform.  The two, however, are surely interrelated.  So while we do not have a single language of digital media, we may still speak of languages or logics of particular platforms or interfaces.  Now in an associative leap, I want to connect this with the recent conversations surrounding Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages.  Judging from reviews and interviews, I have not yet read the book, Deutscher has written a fascinating study.  More specifically though, it is his defense of linguist Roman Jakobson’s maxim concerning the difference languages make that I want to think with here.  According to Jakobson, “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.”  In other words, languages do not necessarily constrain a native speaker’s ability to think or comprehend certain concepts, but languages do force their speakers to make certain things explicit.  In Deutscher’s words,

Languages differ in what types of information they force the speakers to mention when they describe the world. (For example, some languages require you to be more specific about gender than English does, while English requires you to be more specific about tense than some other languages. Some require you to be more specific about color differences, and so on.) And it turns out that if your language routinely obliges you to express certain information whenever you open your mouth; it forces you to pay attention to certain types of information and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not need to be so attentive to. These habits of speech can then create habits of mind that go beyond mere speech, and affect things like memory, attention, association, even practical skills like orientation.

Now what if we press the language of digital media platforms/interfaces metaphor and ask if the Jakobson principle holds?  My initial thought is that something like the inverse of Jakobson’s principle ends up being more useful.  I could be wrong here, this is just an initial refection, but what seems most interesting about a particular platform is its specific limitations and how the user is constrained to work (often imaginatively) within those constraints.  Consider as an example Twitter’s 140 character limit or the limited symbols available for text messages.  Facebook allows greater flexibility and more media options for communication, but it is still limited.  Second Life has its own logic or language with its own particular possibilities and limitations.  And so on.

These limits are, of course, inevitable.  Every medium has its limits, nothing new there.  Yet it is worth asking what these limits are because there is always an implicit risk in becoming habituated to communication with a given medium and internalizing these limitations.  Both Manovich and Deutscher allude to this possibility.  In the excerpt above, Deutscher suggests that, “These habits of speech can then create habits of mind that go beyond mere speech, and affect things like memory, attention, association, even practical skills like orientation.”  For his part Manovich, considering the way the “language” of new media objectifies the mind’s operations, concludes,

. . . we are asked to follow pre-programmed, objectively existing associations.  Put differently, in what can be read as an updated version of French philosopher Louis Althusser’s concept of “interpellation,” we are asked to mistake the structure of somebody else’s mind for our own . . . . The cultural technologies of an industrial society — cinema and fashion — asked us to identify with someone else’s bodily image.  Interactive media ask us to identify with someone else’s mental structure.  If the cinema viewer, male and female, lusted after and tried to emulate the body of the movie star, the computer user is asked to follow the mental trajectory of the new media designer.

So to sum up:

Digital media platforms exhibit something like a particular language or logic.

Borrowing and tweaking Jakobson’s maxim, “Languages of digital media platforms differ essentially in what they cannot (or, encourage us not to) convey and not in what they may convey.”

For consideration:  What assumptions and limitations are internalized by the habitual use of particular digital media platforms?  What communicative structures could we be internalizing and what are their limitations?  Do we then import these limitations into other areas of our thinking and communication in the world?

Comments welcome.

Manovich, Technology, and Culture

We are all of us immersed in a dense cultural web of which our identity is a reflection, and technology is an integral and formative component of this cultural web. In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich signals as much when he reminds us that, “New media objects are cultural objects; thus, any new media object … can be said to represent, as well as help construct, some outside referent.” (15) The relationship is symbiotic – technology is a product of culture and at the same time it forms culture. It does this by influencing the way human beings interpret, or is it process, reality.

One place where culture and technology intersect quite significantly is in the metaphors we use to speak of the human mind or the human body. Notice, for example, that we are less likely to say that we “ran out of steam” (a decidedly industrial metaphor) than we are to say that we “crashed” (unless you are an Apple user in which case the “crash” metaphor is lost). We are also likely to speak of ourselves as having been “hardwired” or “programmed” for certain activities or tendencies. And we are more likely to say that we are “processing” an idea than we are to speak of “our wheels turning.” You can find a substantial database of metaphors for the mind drawn from the literary, philosophical and theological sources of the Western tradition at The Mind is a Metaphor.  These metaphors encourage us to understand ourselves in certain ways and not others. They influence the contours of our imagination. They may even lock us into certain patterns of thought and action – for example the algorithm as pattern for thought. What difference will it make, hypothetically, if the algorithm rather than the narrative is the patter of human thought? (225)

Manovich’s discussion of transcoding also explores this same interaction between culture and technology by pointing to two distinct layers of new media – the cultural layer and the computer layer. These two layers “influence each other,” or better yet, are “composited together.” The more cultural artifacts are transcoded into forms of new media and processed through computers, the more far-reaching the interaction of technology and culture. (46-47) In some respects I see this as an extension of Ong’s project. Ong sought to understand the way writing (and later its extension in print) shaped human consciousness and culture. Manovich is doing the same with new media.

At the macro level, Manovich tied the transition to new media with the move from an industrial to a post-industrial society. But what is the nature of the interaction? When, for example, “a computer – and computer culture in its wake – substitutes every constant with a variable” is this because postindustrial society has already encouraged every citizen to “construct her own custom lifestyle” or do these kinds of citizens arise from the programmability of new media?

More provocatively still, we can wrestle with Manovich’s question: “Do we want, or need, such freedom?”