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Introduction: Finding Digital Memory

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Abstract

Although humans have always used elements of the environment to help them remember - by carving notches on a stick or tying knots in a handkerchief, for example - there seems to be something quite different, perhaps fundamentally so, about the digital realm. Our shift to operating within online spaces creates a significantly different environment for memory work. There are more records of what we have done, more channels of communication, and more ways of reconfiguring and recontextualising information. Such a complex combination of possibilities requires new types of literacy that are, as yet, underdeveloped. The importance of understanding more about this field of digital memory is becoming increasingly obvious as we move more aspects of our lives into digital, networked spaces. This volume is composed of papers presented during the 3rd and 4th Inter-Disciplinary.Net Global Conferences on Digital Memories: Exploring Critical Issues, held as part of the Cyber Hub activity in Prague, Czech Republic in March of 2011 and 2012. Each of the included writings contributes to the new but rapidly evolving arena of theory pertaining to the intersection of digital technology and human memory. There are examples of how personal, interpersonal, communal, national and global memory is being affected by new practices of recording and sharing information about the present and the past. This applies to information that is contemporary or historical; high-profile or mundane; rich in detail or minimalist; or visual, textual or multimodal.
This chapter originally appeared in the 2013 book “Meaning and
Memory: Digital Differences”, first published by the Inter-Disciplinary Press.
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Introduction
Tim Fawns
Although humans have always used elements of the environment to help them
remember - by carving notches on a stick or tying knots in a handkerchief, for
example - there seems to be something quite different, perhaps fundamentally so,
about the digital realm. Our shift to operating within online spaces creates a
significantly different environment for memory work. There are more records of
what we have done, more channels of communication, and more ways of
reconfiguring and recontextualising information. Such a complex combination of
possibilities requires new types of literacy that are, as yet, underdeveloped. The
importance of understanding more about this field of digital memory is becoming
increasingly obvious as we move more aspects of our lives into digital, networked
spaces.
This volume is compsoed of papers presented during the 3rd and 4th Inter-
Disciplinary.Net Global Conferences on Digital Memories: Exploring Critical
Issues, held as part of the Cyber Hub activity in Prague, Czech Republic in March
of 2011 and 2012.1 Each of the included writings contributes to the new but rapidly
evolving arena of theory pertaining to the intersection of digital technology and
human memory. There are examples of how personal, interpersonal, communal,
national and global memory is being affected by new practices of recording and
sharing information about the present and the past. This applies to information that
is contemporary or historical; high-profile or mundane; rich in detail or minimalist;
or visual, textual or multimodal.
A power of the new is that it leads us to reconsider the old. Many of the issues
covered here - including those relating to nationalism and history, the nature of
archiving, narrative and discourse, engagement with personal objects, and cultural
memory - have existed for hundreds or thousands of years. Digital technology is
casting new light on them, not because it operates on ones and zeros, but because it
affects the social processes, channels of communication, and considerations of
accessibility and organisation involved in the preservation and reconstruction of
events over time.
Indeed, in ‘Memory and Place: From Ancient Memory to Cyberspace as
Contemporary Collective Memory,’ Segah Sak draws from ancient Greek and
Roman scholars to position cyberspace as a place of memory. It is, she writes, a
form of collective memory that is ‘not only an archive of representations of present
and past, but also a collectively produced and received realm.’ This points to a
tension between the conception of digital spaces, such as websites, as archives as
well as dynamic entities or environments. These spaces are expected to
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simultaneously preserve yet change. Tools such as The Wayback Machine Internet
Archive allow us to see some of the differences within a single website across
time. Yet, as several chapters here show, archiving the Internet, or any dynamic
component within it, raises ontological problems. What should be stored when the
experience of using an Internet site and, indeed, its very composition, is dependent
on the interactions of users within a specific context?
To answer these questions, we might begin by asking another: what do we mean by
‘digital memory?’ A number of the authors in this book suggest that memory is not
found in the data themselves but in the connections and relationships between
elements. Digital memory seems only to exist in activity - in the sharing,
consumption and meaning-making that is performed between the nodes of a
network, within a particular context. Just as a photograph fails to show what a
scene was like in motion or how its components interacted, any use of the Internet
as an archive produces an incomplete representation, a snapshot or façade with
limited opportunity for interrogation. Jaakko Suominen’s chapter, ‘Retrogamers’
Communal Memory and Discourses of Digital History,’ highlights computer
gaming as a cultural pastime with a history, and explains how this cultural history
is reconstructed on the Internet. In questioning ‘what type of memory machine is
the Internet,’ Suominen raises the dangers of conflating memory and storage. He
reiterates Sak’s claim that digital spaces (e.g. websites) function as both artefacts
and environments, with the result that they can be studied through ethnography as
lived spaces, or through analysis as objects.
This tension between preservation and reconstruction or, as Kevin Day puts it,
archiving and renewal, is continued in the chapter, Digital Memories and
Rhetorical Devices: Archive, Reconstruction, and Artistic Strategies.’ Day uses a
dichotomy of metaphors and metonymies to discuss the dual nature of
‘cybermemory’ as eternal yet ephemeral. In doing so, he questions not only the
drive of Internet users to both preserve and discard, but whether preservation
within such an environment is really possible. Most sites are now dynamic in the
sense that they appear differently according to the audience, the time and other
contextual (or even random) factors. To what extent can such a fluid construct
function as a reliable source of historical information, and does this change the way
we anchor ourselves in our own past reality?
Alongside these issues, a key theme running through the contributions in this book
is a consideration of digital memory affordances or, in other words, the
possibilities for action and interaction that are opened up by new technologies.
Some of the authors of these chapters seek to understand how these opportunities
shape the expression, negotiation and consolidation of memory. Their work
questions which aspects of past experience can be captured in digital systems, and
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how they are mediated, modified, distributed and consumed. What effects do the
properties and possibilities of media have on the meaning we make from our
digital artefacts, and on the interactions and discourses that arise around them?
New features of digital technology create not only new sorts of media artefacts, but
new structures and networks to contain them. In his chapter, ‘Metadata and New
Memory Architecture in Programmable Environments, Carlos Falci illustrates the
power of metadata to change how and what we access to support the construction
of memory. This data, which is associated with, but external to, the artefacts
themselves, creates the possibility for infinite architectures of memory retrieval
and representation. Although we may dictate the parameters of the construction of
these architectures (by specifying the tags we are interested in, for example), the
algorithms and forms of mediation are beyond our control and are understood in a
machine context rather than a human one. The connections produced in an
algorithmically-driven network can be somewhat alien to our human understanding
of meaningful association. To combat this loss of control and humanity, Falci
advocates creative and meaningful uses of metadata to connect daily events and
associations.
Most media production and distribution involves collaboration between people and
technology. For this reason, cultural factors are always intertwined with
technological drivers and barriers, each moving the other in various directions. In
her chapter, ‘How Digitisation has Unveiled Secret Memories: The Case of
Samizdat Writings,’ Stefania Mella demonstrates how political factors can alter the
possibilities for production and engagement with media. Importantly, Mella voices
concerns that value may be lost when material artefacts are digitised, or when
constraints such as restricted access are removed. In the case of the samizdat
writings (underground Czech writings from the late 20th Century), the fundamental
nature of a document is altered, removing the ‘direct contact’ of the reader, as well
as the scent and the fragility of the materiality of the physical object. Further,
providing international, public access detracts from the special qualities of the
documents and undermines the reason for creating them in the first place. Here,
then, we find a hint that it may not be appropriate or desirable to convert
everything to digital form.
Any reduction from the ‘real’ to the digital involves the loss of some information.
In any interface, certain types of information are allowed and others are not. In my
chapter, ‘Blended Memory: the Changing Balance of Technologically-mediated
Semantic and Episodic Memory,’ I consider a potential result of such reduction:
the privileging of what is captured in digital photographs over what is not. While
photograph collections are, for many people, a key source of information for
reconstructing the past, a lot of potentially important aspects of experience are not
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captured within them. I suggest that this need not be a problem if digital artefacts
are used as anchor points between which we reconstruct subjective memory,
returning to the idea that memory is made between rather than of data. On the other
hand, using digital evidence as a substitute for subjective memory and meaning
may eventually lead to detachment through lowered engagement with our past
experience.
In contrast, Martin Pogacar argues that digital environments have the potential to
enhance the immediacy of remembering by facilitating highly-engaged and
affective relationships with the past. In his chapter, ‘Empowering Digital
Memorials: Post-Yugoslav Dealings with Socialist Past(s),’ Pogacar uses cases of
YouTube video memorials to show how the democratising effect of social media is
allowing the unearthing not only of personal histories but of personal national
histories. In other words, we are providing and receiving access to a much broader
spectrum of individual views on public issues. Pogacar's discussion of ‘vernacular
digital memorials’ shows how digital tools allow the past to be perpetually
renewed and re-narrated in the present. Although each aspect of these memories is
mediated (through imagery, music or textual commentary), the environment
produced has the potential to increase engagement with the past through powerful
social affordances.
This introduces another important theme of this book: an exploration of the new
voices of memory. Web 2.0 has created new channels of communication that open
up opportunities for previously marginalised, suppressed or absent perspectives to
be expressed and heard. The reconfiguration of boundaries between public and
private, in combination with political and economic developments, are resulting in
changes to the locus of control of historical and memory-related discourse.
Official, traditional channels are losing their monopoly over the information that is
broadcast about historical and current events, while individuals may also be feeling
a reduced sense of ownership and control over the distribution of personal
information.
Karen Frostig shows how technology offers a new form of expression to traditional
memorial practice in her chapter, ‘Making Memory Visible: Memory about the
Holocaust and National Socialism in Austria at the 75th Anniversary of the
Anschluss.’ The question posed by the memorial - ‘What happens when we forget
to remember?’ - forces us to consider an inherent property of memory - selectivity
- in relation to the privileging of both content and perspective. Whereas historical
records traditionally reflect the perspective of authority, new media allows the
participation of the public - in this case, pedestrians. Yet all memory is selective in
one way or another, sometimes for good reason. Individually and collectively, we
make decisions about the aspects of our past that should be highlighted and those
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on which we need not, or perhaps should not, dwell. Digital tools can shift the
power of that decision making from official channels, controlled by authoritative
entities, to the broader public, but also from the individual to commercial
enterprises. Perhaps no other tool simultaneously exemplifies both of these shifts
more strongly than Facebook.
While it opens up new, non-governmental channels for public debate around
national history, Facebook also makes choices, on behalf of the individuals who
use it, about where the personal information they post will end up, who can see it
and how others can interact with it. Marta Marcheva’s chapter, ‘Shaping Collective
Memories Online: Facebook as a New Arena for the Bulgarian-Macedonian
Conflict, discusses collective memory and the affordances of social networking
websites for expression of national identity while simultaneously managing
personal identity. Facebook, Marcheva argues, functions as a site for ‘imagined
communities’ or groups united not through mutual acquaintance or knowledge of
the constituent individuals but through a collective sense of identity and values.
The Bulgarian-Macedonian conflict is mediated through digital media, allowing
the locus of control of informational voices to pass from traditional, official
channels to members of the public. Facebook offers ‘individuals the chance to
contribute to discourses of national identity’ but changes the nature of this
‘conflict’ through its parameters of mediation: in particular, through the form of its
narratives.
The close relationship between narrative and memory can be clearly seen in many
of the chapters of this book. The construction of narratives is a form of selection
where some elements are highlighted in order to allow for a relatively stable and
coherent expression of what happened. We leave in what we perceive to be
interesting or important to our audience (or to the image we wish to convey to
them), and leave out what is boring or inconvenient. Alessandra Micalizzi’s
chapter, ‘Facebook and the Chrono-Digital Narratives: Processing the Collective
Memory of a Traumatic Event,’ shows Facebook group reactions to the 2009
earthquake in Abruzzi. This work recognises the selective nature of collective
memory - that it is not made up of the facts as they happened but of the most
important remembered aspects within a particular situation. This is a portrayal of
the Internet as a narrative technology. Again, Micalizzi suggests that these
‘chrono-digital narratives’ are not, themselves, memory but a source from which
collective memory is constructed.
Within this volume, various conceptions of memory - in relation to emerging
digital possibilities - are offered: Kevin Day’s dichotomy of the eternal and
ephemeral; Carlos Falci’s cultural and communicative memories in a constant state
of construction; my own reference to Endel Tulving’s distinction between episodic
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and semantic memory; among others. Alongside these, notions of narrative, place,
archives, cultures and practices all seem to sit under the umbrella of ‘memory,’
with their digital qualities being more or less prominent depending on the
perspective taken by each author.
While some memory practices discussed in this book begin digitally, such as the
public sharing of Facebook narratives, others begin offline, perhaps before the
establishment of the Internet (e.g. Mella’s samizdat or Suominen’s retrogaming
nostalgia), and are given a new and different significance in digital environments.
There is, perhaps, a danger of the robust and replicable digital elements becoming
privileged above the less tangible and communicable phenomena that arise within
our personal, private, cognitive spaces - those of our (internal) minds. Importantly,
it is far easier to tell or to show another person (or, indeed, ourselves) something
that resides as a digital or physical artefact. But digital memory is, at least for the
moment, reliant on offline, natural and traditional memory processes for the
making of subjective meaning that applies specifically to individual or collective
identity and purpose.
A number of chapters of this volume cast light on the importance of the non-digital
within digital memory. Many of the authors question what makes something real,
or meaningful, or present, and consider this in relation to the affordances and
practices of memory work in digital domains. Nicole Ridgway’s chapter, ‘In
Excess of the Already Constituted: Interaction as Performance,’ takes this
consideration further by examining the real and the virtual, highlighting the
importance of performance and embodiment in digital engagement. Ridgway raises
the idea of memory as performance, that assembling disparate information into a
representation of the past is something we do with our bodies. Even when this
process relies on digital artefacts, she claims, these artefacts are simply code that is
caught between embodied acts. While digital environments may stand in for, or
even hide, the material world, they do not remove materiality from the interface,
nor from the phenomenological experience of the user. Ridgway reminds us that
digital interaction always coincides with non-digital, embodied activity, leading us
to re-examine notions of affordance by placing the focus of interaction on the
relationship rather than on the nature of the entities involved.
Will digital memory always rely on the non-digital for its meaning? Technology is
changing the effort and engagement involved in choosing what is recorded, how
we record it and what we do with the resulting information. Personal photograph
collections consist of many thousands of images, each event recorded in abundant
detail. Lifelogging interfaces have already begun to select their users’ most
‘interesting’ moments for them to aid the processing of huge quantities of recorded
information.2 On a collective level, enabling public discourse around events of
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international, historical significance leads to a surplus of information that is beyond
our capacity to process - see, for example, Alessandra Micalizzi’s research within
this volume. Digital trends often seem to reduce our selectivity in various ways,
primarily by allowing us to capture and store more information and to permeate
memory artefacts across digital space. Digital technology can, however, allow a
new kind of selectivity through the creation of algorithmically-driven collections
connected by semantic coincidence. Falci’s examination of the potential of digital
metadata to draw together diverse elements into new contexts shows how this can
create new forms of memory ‘on-the-fly’. Although many forms of recording or
documenting effectively decouple the memory cue from the location of the
remembered experience (for example, a photograph usually depicts somewhere
other than the room in which it is stored), this decoupling can be foregrounded by
dynamic architectures, each network bringing with it a new context and a new set
of meanings. Perhaps, for some, this foregrounding will lead to a critical evaluation
of the source and structure of information that is used in remembering. For others,
dynamic collections may simply replace traditional ways of selecting and ordering
such information so that the algorithm, rather than the person, controls the stimuli
of remembrance.
The way we approach issues of control, ownership and privacy around our digital
artefacts is likely to be affected by our digital literacy. The same is true of the
emerging social and historical implications of digital memory. How we deal with
the new channels of communication available to us and the consequences of using
them will be closely tied to our understanding of evolving digital mediation and the
culture that arises around it. Whether or not there is there something fundamentally
different - in memory terms - about digital objects and environments, there
certainly seems to be a steep learning curve when it comes to understanding their
nature and the effects they produce on individuals and on society. Studying human
interaction with digital media is like trying to hit a large - and increasing - number
of moving targets. Given the rapid and widespread development of software and
hardware, how do we make sense of what is happening?
There are, of course, many more questions than answers. The future of memory,
how it will be constructed, how meaning will be made from it, and how it will be
expressed and received, are relatively unknown. Research such as that contained in
this book, coming from a diverse range of disciplines, can make a significant
contribution through the interconnections of different, innovative viewpoints. A
combination of research backgrounds and approaches can be highly valuable,
perhaps especially so in a field like ‘Digital Memory,’ which is still being
established. As with most interdisciplinary enterprises, the potential benefits of
mixing many different perspectives are balanced by the challenges that arise.
Language, for one thing, can be problematic. For example, the term ‘memory’ (or
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‘a memory’) is central to much, if not all, of the work here, yet can be used to
mean many different things. However, posing problems such as this is a way of
leading readers to ask questions and to think critically about issues that have been
hiding in plain sight for generations. For me, this book is about memory-related
gains and losses produced by cultures of use that arise around the affordances of
new technologies. This can be most clearly seen in the voices these technologies
enable, the ways in which non-digital activity interacts with digital interfaces, and
the tension between recording and remembering the past.
Notes
1 The exception is Nicole Ridgway’s chapter on interaction as performance which,
though presented at a different Inter-Disciplinary.Net conference (Cyberspace and
New Media Technology and Culture, 2008), helps to balance this volume by
foregrounding the concept of embodiment within digital memory work.
2 See, for example, Hyowon Lee, et al., ‘Constructing a SenseCam Visual Diary as
a Media Process’, Multimedia Systems 14 (6) (2008): 341-349.
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