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Memory Almost Full: Digital artifacts in a culture of impermanence

Submitted by on January 31, 2012 – 4:59 pm 7 Comments | 3,680 views

Digital collage (c) Sharon Brogan

Most of what I have created over the last 25 years is on magnetic media, or in the form of digital computer files. While working as a graphic designer in the early 1990s, I kept a meticulous archive of all of my designs on 3.5” floppy diskettes. I haven’t owned a computer with a floppy drive in years, and the software I used to create most the designs was discontinued almost a decade ago. I enthusiastically embraced the advent of digital photography years ago and swapped film rolls for memory cards. I have thousands of digital photos on multiple media, but few actual prints. I wonder whether those photographs will exist ten or twenty years from now. Will my kids and grandkids keep treasured photos from my time in a shoebox on a USB key?

Since I began working with computers on a daily basis over two decades ago, I’ve contemplated the lack of permanence of all things digital, and the potential consequences. The issue of digital permanence is an important one that we often overlook, so I hope to provoke some discussion here. It could have an enormous impact on how our children and we acquire and retain knowledge.

The ephemeral nature of the digital world is often lost on people. Books, photographic prints and works of art can last for centuries in proper conditions. By contrast, floppy disks and magnetic tape have a maximum lifespan of 10-20 years. Laser discs (CDs, DVDs) were touted as a more permanent replacement for tapes and diskettes lasting up to 50 years. In practice they have proven fragile and can also deteriorate in a few short years. Even if some media do last longer, we still need the ability to read the files contained on those media in order to see, read or experience the content. Software formats are in flux, and the tech industry has difficulty agreeing on common standards, preferring to lock in customers with proprietary formats. As a result, the ability to retain information is sometimes subject to the fortunes of the companies that created the formats.

Before Gutenberg came up with the printing press, most of the world relied on an oral tradition to pass on knowledge and memory. It’s true that for a thousand years before that, people also wrote on clay tablets, papyrus or anything else they could get their hands on, but it was a select few who could actually read. There were monks who created illuminated manuscripts throughout the Middle Ages, but they mostly kept those manuscripts to themselves.

For most, it was the oral tales that were passed along from generation to generation that provided civilizations with their memory, or permanence. With the arrival of the printed page, human beings consigned much of their cultural memory to the printed page. The age of widespread literacy began, and for many cultures, the era of oral tradition had passed. Fortunately, many stories were adapted to print, and we still have them today. The book became the common format. You do not need a manual or a special device to read a book (though a Norwegian comedy show had fun with the idea).

The printed page is rapidly being displaced by digital texts. People take more pictures than they ever have since the invention of photography, but only a tiny fraction of them ever get printed. MP3 files are replacing compact discs and LPs, and downloadable MPEGs are supplanting film and video.

When technology fails us, or when we are cut off from the Internet, how will we access knowledge?

In this digital age, memory has lost its cachet. When we need to recall something, whether it is a random fact, a phone number, or a picture, we have the ability to look it up in seconds. In this context, what is the value of memory? Without the oral tradition to pass knowledge from generation to generation, or the physical artifact of the printed page or work of art to refer to, what will happen to our cultural memory?

What is the impact on learning? In our society, since the oral tradition effectively died a long time ago, the reflex to commit knowledge to memory and share stories from generation to generation is no longer there. During the print era, we still had to commit knowledge to memory, because books are not always at our fingertips. As we gradually shift away from printed text (hard copies), it seems to me that knowledge becomes more abstract. We do not need to retain as much. Instead of knowing things, we “Google,” or look them up. The knowledge, like the data, is ephemeral. We do not need to retain as much knowledge, because it is possible for us to look it up again later if needed.

I avoid making a qualitative judgment here. Learning might not be suffering as a result of the digitization of knowledge, but there is no doubt that it will cause us to learn differently.


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  • svangelder says:

    I recently wanted to open a document I created long ago. Fortunately, through many attempts with a variety of programs I did manage, but it made me realize how fragile my digital collections are. I have vowed to spend time printing and having a hard copy.

    As to memory – I think story will always be a powerful part of our lives. It is the facts we no longer commit to memory; instead we learn how to retrieve them. And I think that after a couple of retrievals we start to commit them to memory. It’s just another way of learning them.

    I think a big difference now is that we have the stories from many viewpoints, not just from that of the ruling classes. HIStory becomes OURstory. Our job becomes more that of analyzing to make sense of the many points of view and to come to conclusions. The abundance of information makes it impossible to know everything.

    I don’t think we need to lament loss of culture, yet. Culture glut is more of an issue at the moment. For most of history there were no photographs (only other kinds of visual arts), no recordings of historical moments or voices of our loved ones or how Bach’s music really sounded, no videos. Curation – the saving of the gems is an issue. We record so much, we have to learn to cull and collect that which we value and remember to back up, print what is really important. Our heirs are not going to spend their lives going through our mountains of digital data once we are gone.

    • Agreed. One thing I overlooked in this post was “glut.” I think we save a great deal of data because we can, but not necessarily because we should. Our memory capacity forces us to be selective about what we retain. I think we need to develop strategies for managing the overload.

  • Audrey says:

    What an interesting post!

    Another part of the evolution in storage of knowledge is the move from storing things on hard drives to storing them on the cloud, which in some ways is more permanent (less prone to being lost due to hard drive crash) and less permanent (clouds can probably crash too….). Also, because of the glut Susan refers to, I think it makes us way more picky about what we choose to remember, but speaking for myself, there are still things that I intentionally remember, despite that fact that I can look them up on my phone, like quotes, phone numbers, important dates. We are also way more picky about what we print, which is WAY more environmentally friendly.

    I love that video too, thanks for the early morning laugh Rob!

    • The recent takedown/shutdown of Megaupload by the FBI proves we shouldn’t get too cozy with the cloud either. I have lots of stuff stored in the cloud, but long term, I think I need a failsafe for that too… Or I need, as Susan says, to be more selective about what I choose to archive.

      • Sylwia Bielec says:

        The cloud. I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t trust my data with something with such an ephemeral metaphor. I’m not sure why people believe it to be more permanent than other types of storage. It is the same storage, except we do not control it. It is certainly more convenient and allows us to use more and more devices to access our data, but I do not consider it a more permanent way of storing things.

  • Kristine says:

    Sorry…but as I was reading your blog I kept nodding and laughing…at myself! I figure that my brain will be complete mush by the time I’m 50. Yes, memory has certainly lost it’s cachet (in my world anyway), as I rely on my electronic devices not only to remember things or find things, but to remind me to pick up the dry cleaning, or to send a nut free lunch with my kids to school.

  • Paul says:

    Digital Ephemera
    I’m not worried about the impermanence of our digital texts. In fact, it’s its ubiquity and stickiness that I find unsettling at times. There are a lot blog posts, photos, and emails that people wish they could obliterate from the record. I’m sure even Bill Gates wishes he could have permanently erased emails used against him in the Microsoft anti-trust suit in the Nineties.
    I think there are two issues here: what is risked in the private sphere when it comes to records of one’s life (photos, letters, essays, cards…)when saved in digital formats and what finds its way into the public sphere. When I can find the time, I have been scanning old photographs from my grandparents’ albums, mostly snapshots of family and friends in the 1920’s and 30’s, though there are a few daguerreotypes from the late 1800’s . These albums have been in an attic gathering dust for 50 years, largely ignored. I have scanned them because they are fading and at risk of falling apart. I back-up my hard drive every weekend. If I wanted to “preserve” them, I would have them reprinted, cataloged, and safely stored in the secure place. Which brings me to the “glut” of the matter. What creation –photo, text, artifact– is worthy of that effort in time and expense? We have to curate those objects to know (or feel) what is meaningful.
    In the public sphere, I have posted a selection of those photos and invited relatives to enjoy and comment on them. They can “right-click Save as” and have them as well. I suspect there will be a propagation of those images which will make them more sticky in the collective memory of my family.