Saturday, April 03, 2004

Technology, Self Definition and Reminiscence:
C-changes in the Potential For Cultural Memory

Because my grandfather is dying, and because I am a cybersociologist and cannot help it, in the car on the way back from Boston yesterday morning I got to thinking about an irony of modernity.

Here we are amidst a constantly accelerating fast-paced forgettable life, googling our way through a fleeting universe of 22 minute sitcoms and rapid remote channel changing. Our attention spans grow short. We live for the moment, the blogentry, the now. We learn to pastiche where once we practiced memorization, to organize and network where we once practiced storage.

Yet as our subjective sense of time grows ever more fragmented and esoteric, our cultural artifacts grow permanent. They pile up around us, like the overstuffed linen closet in my parent's house, the one that contains nothing but rows and rows of shoeboxes filled with 50 years of photographs. The glut's getting worse: the ability to store things small, in bits and bytes; the growing breadth of media available for archiving, and the move beyond the analog and physical -- and hence corruptible -- storage mechanism: all these changes and more speak to a new potential for stuff, even while the world grows disposable.

Take for example the eternality of the video recording. Its historical novelty speaks eons about the nuance of change: I will be always alive at ten and twelve and thirty on the screen, this generation's realspace, forever young for my children and theirs. But my grandfather's immortality is both less perfect and more tenuous. Though in grainy half-ageburned film long since transferred to VHS he will forever wave, silent, his black and white hand from behind my tiny mother on a half-blurred swingset, mostly, the bulk of his life predates the ubiquity of the handheld recorder. There are no films of his own childhood, as there are few pictures, and even these are tiny and overexposed, hardly believable. Those scant silent forevers notwithstanding, when he passes (and it will be any day now) he will be old forever on this newfangled thing we call video.

Of course, without tools, and behind them, memory is still memory. It underlies our mnemonics and artifacts, which is to say merely that there is still some deliberate choice involved in what our memories are, and what we make of them. But memory is an imperfect place, subject to last rite recency; it is a place where image and moment rule. Simultaneous among fainter memories of pancakes and Coney Island kiddie rides, my grandfather will forever be here on his deathbed in the dim light and hum of a hospice home, sunken teeth and half-opened Parkinsonian eyes, the rabbi meditating before him.

In so many ways, the past is always at the mercy of the frantic present. The long term is always too big and broad not to be subject to filter and selection by the short. But when one looks at the technological supports we use for memory -- the photo of me and grandpa at Coney Island which created the false memory I have of being there at three years old, and, looking farther back to places where I cannot have been, the backyard barbecue swings of a 1959 I never saw and never will yet still own as if I had been there -- one can see evidence of the ways in which, say, 1959 becomes subject to deconstruction and pastiche.

And this raises several questions, not least among them the real question of not just legitimacy but, more deeply, of the effect that this might have on what we remember, and how, and why. Disassociating the images of our past from the past, making all history ever-present, brings with it a new sort of ancestral ownership, one somehow simultaneously new and primitive. As a race, those born in the digital age have come to terms with that which our illusory primitve who runs from the camera could not. We embrace the way our souls have been captured by our knowledge-creation and knowledge sharing tools.

My grandfather may be dying, but he will remain eternally with us. He may be forever old, but he is nonetheless the first of a new breed of ancestor, one always present. Here in the millenium world the forever-on screen gods in our living room reconstitute our ancestors eternally, manufacturing our pasts as present, our elders as ourselves.

posted by boyhowdy | 1:54 PM |

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