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Books & Arts

Memories for the future

27 April 2012

If we are the sum of our memories, then how should we go about creating them, asks Richard Johnstone

Right:

jef safi/Flickr

jef safi/Flickr

Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age
By Viktor Mayer-Schönberger | Princeton University Press | $28.95

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
By James Gleick | HarperCollins | $29.99

Memory: Fragments of a Modern History
By Alison Winter | University of Chicago Press | $44.95



OUR pasts, and the pasts we’ve lived in, have never been more accessible. Aerial photographs of the backyard of our childhood home, records of our online shopping that constitute a kind of biography of acquisition, our emails stretching back to the beginning of time (or circa 1992, which amounts to the same thing) can all be found in a matter of moments and all without leaving the terminal. Indeed, so ubiquitous and so accessible is the raft of information that defines us that it has almost become easier to remember than to forget.

That at least is the burden of Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’s Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, first published in 2009 and now released in paperback. The subtitle is designed to be arresting: virtue and forgetting have not typically been placed side by side in our cultural landscape. Forgetting indeed has been something to be avoided. Forgetting is the process by which our memories are altered or removed, and that has not generally been seen as a good thing, expect perhaps by those – survivors of war, for example – for whom it is the only alternative to the repeated trauma of remembering. To forget, whether through the natural processes of ageing or as a consequence of illness, or to be induced to forget, in the case of such terrifying prospects as mind control or brainwashing, has been seen as tantamount to losing our very selves.

Memories, in fact, are our selves. Although our lives might be shared with others, with families and friends and colleagues, when the time comes for recollection we each of us tend to remember those shared experiences in significantly different ways. We are culturally attuned to seeing the two things – our unique selves and our memories – as mutually dependent and inseparable. Our memories create us, and we find the prospect of one day losing those memories deeply unsettling. We fear how easily we might forget, which is why the new technologies, with their capacity to archive forever the digitised raw material that shows who we are and where we have been, have appealed to us as guarantors that our memories will never fade. The vast electronic archive may not contain all the memories that are in our heads, but it does contain the stuff of memory, the documents and photographs and scraps of information that have the power to revitalise our current memories and even help us to recover ones that would otherwise be lost forever.

It is not surprising, then, that over the past twenty or thirty years of the technological revolution we have proved so relaxed, even cavalier, in assigning more and more of the responsibility for remembering the details of our lives to memory banks and memory discs and memory cards with capacities for accumulating and preserving more and more of the raw material of memory. We can only have been so relaxed about this development because of our belief that more is better – that the more information that is out there and freely available, the more we can dive into it to supplement and refresh our own memories and our own sense of our selves. Against the idea that technology is dehumanising and intrusive has grown the powerful belief that the technology is there to help us – among other things, to help us to remember and even to do our remembering for us.

Yet the ever-accelerating pace of technological development can feel as if it is creating too many choices and too much information – too many memories, in a sense – and it is this feeling of being overwhelmed that has led to a reassessment of the act of forgetting. In considering ways in which the web could be induced to forget at least some of what it currently remembers, Mayer-Schönberger has caught a revisionist moment in our approach to the relationship between remembering and forgetting. How to unburden ourselves of some of the stuff that is holding us back and tying us down to outdated definitions of ourselves is emerging as a new project for our times.

Up until very recently in human history, argues Mayer-Schönberger, “the default was to forget.” Remembering was hard, keeping records was costly. If you wanted to uncover something from your past – an elusive document, a buried trauma – you had to make an effort. To forget, to let go of or otherwise repress those memories that were superfluous to immediate requirements or just plain embarrassing, seemed by far the easier, and in many ways the more sensible option. At the same time, the relative ease of forgetting carried overtones of weakness, particularly when viewed through the lens of psychoanalysis, say, or the “never again” school of history, which painted forgetting rather than remembering as damaging to the self. By these lights, rather than take the easy option, we had a responsibility to ourselves and to others to remember. But now, “for the first time in human history,” remembering and forgetting have swapped places, and remembering has adopted the default position. We now live, says Mayer-Schönberger, in “a world that is set to remember.” This means, in effect, that the injunction to “forget it,” which once seemed like an encouragement to take the path of least resistance, now seems like a recipe for hard work.

In a media-saturated environment of constant and never-ending novelty, in which the week before last is already the remote past, it may seem counterintuitive to argue that it has become easier to remember than to forget. But Mayer-Schönberger, in describing a world that is set to remember, is not saying that everything is remembered by everyone all at once, but that elements from our pasts, forgotten by others and considered by us, if at all, as irrelevant to who we are now, can suddenly and arbitrarily resurface, sometimes with destructive consequences. One of the most influential ways in which memory has been conceptualised in modern times is as a collection of everything we have ever done, sitting there in our heads, waiting to be accessed, if only we could find the key. By happy analogy, the computer provides those keys. They’re right there, between us and the screen, offering access to information and hence to memories that might have been thought of as over and done with. The compromising photograph, for example, injudiciously posted to Flickr or Facebook, which can without warning emerge from the archive to cut short a promising career. For Mayer-Schönberger, this kind of recovered memory – recovered by others, not by the individual whose memory it is – is pernicious because it denies us the human right to remake ourselves, to learn from experience, to forget and move on to the next stage.

While the examples that Mayer-Schönberger quotes are extreme cases – for the most part, ill-advised Facebook postings do not in fact lead to career plateaus – his underlying point, that digital memory threatens to overtake human memory, refers to how we increasingly feel overshadowed by an edifice of information about ourselves that we no longer control. We can feel trapped, sometimes by the very material that we ourselves have posted online while under the illusion that we were in charge. (How extraordinary, by the way, that the two terms that we most familiarly use to describe the new reality of electronic interconnectedness, “web” and “net,” should both evoke the notion of entrapment.) It is on this question of control that the implications of Delete are most far-reaching. As control over information slips away from us, it is no accident that the curatorial impulse has assumed such importance in the way we interact with the web. Curating, in fact, is the new creativity. Compilations, assemblies, mash-ups – Mayer-Schönberger’s preferred term is “bricolage” – constitute a kind of fight-back, a way of remaking discrete documentary items, emphasising their malleability rather than their fixedness, and in doing so imposing a personal stamp upon them. In the same way, the fashion for talking up the role of so-called “information curators,” the people who drive pathways through the web in the quest for some kind of order, contributes to the idea that if we are to retain authority over our own biographies, we need to take some kind of action and not just sit there and let ourselves be taken over.

Mayer-Schönberger proposes some solutions for how we might reclaim ourselves and our memories from the clutches of the web – a changed culture of how we use and respond to the burgeoning of information, a built-in use-by date for the currency of that information – but they don’t really convince. We are left wondering whether it isn’t just better to go with the flow rather than worry too much about where it is all heading. But for Mayer-Schönberger, that would be a dangerously complacent line to take. “We are creating,” he says, “a digital memory that vastly exceeds the capacity of our collective human mind,” and it is possible to hear, echoing out from that phrase, the idea that we have built the monster that will devour us. In his suggestive remarks on the popularity of bricolage, he seems to be pointing to the possibilities of counter-revolution, of asserting ourselves against the vast repository of information, and resuming control. And indeed, an optimist could argue that the resumption of control – us owning the information rather than the information owning us – is well on its way, in the increasing sophistication of search functions that, thanks to tags and metadata and the like, not only make information accessible but also can make us feel much more in control of that information, and much more in control of our pasts. “It’s easy,” say the advertisements for ancestry.com.


AS A useful corrective to the idea that the information explosion is a very recent phenomenon, James Gleick’s information-packed history of the way we store, transmit and recover knowledge, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, reminds us that we have always felt overloaded, struggling to cope. Gleick quotes Robert Burton, writing from Oxford in 1621 of being inundated by “new books every day, pamphlets, currantoes, stories, whole catalogues of volumes of all sorts, new paradoxes, opinions, schisms, heresies, controversies in philosophy, religion, &c.” Gleick uncovers many other such examples from what we might call the “before web era,” while noting that the ever-increasing supply of information was not being lamented so much as wondered at. Indeed, by the mid twentieth century, the prospect of linking up all that information, in some unspecified but wired way, held out the prospect of a new “shared mind” that would collect and disseminate information to the benefit of all. Gleick refers to Teilhard de Chardin, who asked in 1955 whether it does “not seem as though a great body is in the process of being born – with its limbs, its nervous system, its centres of perception, its memory?” Which is, pretty much, what’s happened, even though it hasn’t turned out entirely for the best.

Gleick points to how this abundance of information has come to seem as much burdensome as liberating, not least because so much is now stored outside our heads that it threatens to undermine our sense of ourselves. What is ours, and what belongs to cyberspace? Gleick is interested in the means by which we store and access information content, more than in the function of memory itself, but there are nevertheless some striking parallels with the conclusions reached by Mayer-Schönberger, particularly around questions of control and ownership. “For a certain time,” Gleick observes, “collectors, scholars or fans possessed their books and their records.” It was “part of who they were.” No longer, when those books and those records are available equally to all, in digitised form, to be called up when required.

The problem with all this material – this infinity of choice – is that it leaves us without our own unique story to tell. Somehow, all this information and documentation must be ordered and winnowed and matched to us as individuals in order that we may possess it as part of our personal biography, rather than having it possess us. Gleick sees this process as entailing a reassertion of the power to forget, which seems to be analogous to a kind of robust editing. “Forgetting used to be a failing,” he says, “a waste, a sign of senility. Now it takes effort. It may be as important as remembering.” In their different ways, Mayer-Schönberger and Gleick both encourage us to consider the virtues of forgetting. Rather than a sign of weakness and decline or, most disturbingly of all, a loss of selfhood, it may be quite the reverse – a way for us to get our lives back in order.


FROM this notion of forgetting as an aid to the recovery of order and control in our lives, it is only a small step to seeing it as having a specifically curative function. In the final chapter of Memory: Fragments of a Modern History – a brilliantly researched and highly readable account of scientific, quasi-scientific and just plain quack approaches to the way we remember – Alison Winter brings us up to date with “the first speculative steps… now being taken in an attempt to develop techniques of what is being called ‘therapeutic forgetting.’” This revisionist approach to forgetting – to memory loss – goes against the orthodoxy, ingrained in most of us, that the best way to deal with traumatic memories is to disinter, confront and control them, to the point where they no longer have the power to harm us. It is all part of a cultural narrative of self-assertion, of the power of individual strength and determination to defeat our demons. But what if we would be better off directing our strength and determination towards getting rid of the memories altogether, or at least damping them down so that they cease to bother us?

In describing recent attempts, whether involving therapy or drugs or a combination of both, to induce selective forgetting in those who have suffered various forms of psychological trauma, Winter is sensitive to the underlying question of what, actually, is being erased. Is it just the traumatic memories, the ones that militate against a full and satisfying life, or is it the life itself, the individual biography that is being damped down and fundamentally altered? She reminds us, just to complicate matters, that the introduction of anaesthesia to the operating theatre in the nineteenth century “was initially upsetting, because it challenged a convention about personal identity.” If it was life’s experience, and the memory of that experience, that formed your personality and character, what did that say about a process – the administering of anaesthetic – that knocked you out so that you were guaranteed not to remember a thing? As Winter says, those concerns now seem quaint and beside the point. But if we accept without question that it is legitimate to anaesthetise the present – that is, for the time that the patient is on the operating table – then perhaps it is equally legitimate to anaesthetise the past, or at least those memories from the past that stand in the way of health and wellbeing.

Winter constructs her study as an analogue of memory itself, offering a set of historical “fragments” that taken together provide a picture of “the deep intellectual and cultural complexities of memory science in practice.” In doing so, she explicitly links the late nineteenth- and twentieth-century fascination with the working of memory to the growth of technology, and particularly to the overwhelming cultural influence of photography, film and other, electronic forms of representation. Time and again photography and film have stimulated ideas of how memory works and Winter has fascinating tales to tell of “flashbulb memories” and “Kodak moments” and “movie-like memories secreted in the subconscious.” There was a sense, too, in which the filmed moment became not just a trigger for memory but the memory itself. “Mid-century advertisements for cameras and films,” she notes, “presented home movies as a way to relive the past with perfect fidelity.” This equation of film with memory assumed even greater prominence in the last decades of the twentieth century with the rise of what came to be called repressed memory syndrome, closely followed by its oppositional twin, false memory syndrome.

Winter moves surely through the complex set of cultural circumstances that contributed to the rise and fall of repressed memory syndrome and in doing so manages to be fair both to the proponents and to the critics. It is difficult now, even though the events took place so recently, to recapture the intensity of emotion and conviction with which both sides argued their case. The repressed (sometimes called “recovered”) memory phenomenon, in which victims, often at the prompting of zealous therapists, claimed to have suffered appalling abuse at the hands of relatives or others close to them, now seems like an extreme playing out of our long-held cultural belief that the truth lies buried within us and that only by confronting that truth can we be free to be our true, unencumbered selves. It is remarkable how often the recovered narrative of “what really happened” was expressed in terms of a film or a set of photographs. “It may seem,” Winter quotes, from a 1989 pamphlet explaining the process of triggering and releasing repressed memories, “that we are seeing a slide projector, with pictures flashing very rapidly before our eyes.” Only by confronting these pictures, these buried memories, it was argued, could the victim assume “control,” of the memories and themselves.

The sceptics, those who responded to the emergence of repressed memories by recasting them as false, did not so much question the existence of the memories, or their essentially cinematic nature, as they questioned where they came from. In many cases, the sceptics argued, they did not come from lived yet unacknowledged experience, but rather were created unconsciously in response to suggestions from outside or to other, random stimuli. The argument lingers on, with no definitive answer. Are recovered memories real, in the sense that they correspond to events that actually happened, or aren’t they? The answer, frustratingly, is that it rather depends. The remarkable thing about the battle between repressed and false memories, which raged so strongly for much of the eighties and the early nineties, is how quickly the heat went out of it. It is almost as if we grew wary suddenly of looking so deeply into ourselves, of recovering long-buried memories that would explain who we really, really are. The memory project, once so earnest in its determination to get at the truth, has developed into something more focused on placing – rather than resurrecting – ourselves, as we search the registries of births, deaths and marriages, or connect and reconnect with old friends on Facebook.

When Mayer-Schönberger or Gleick speaks of the need to turn away from memory for a while and focus on forgetting, or Winter of the new interest in the therapeutic potential of deleting memories rather than resurrecting and confronting them, they are identifying ways in which we might productively respond to the burden of too much information and too much memory. There is a corollary to this new approach to forgetting. If, as we have long believed, we are the sum of our memories, then rather than rely on memories from the past to define us, memories over which we may struggle to exert effective control, why not concentrate on creating memories for the future? This notion, of creating memory rather than letting it create you, is very much in the air. Camera manufacturers, for example, no longer represent their product as “a way to remember the past with perfect fidelity,” as Alison Winter reminds us they did in the seventies. They are much more likely nowadays to offer us the opportunity to “create memories.” Or, to put it another way, to take control of our future memories, rather than letting our memories control us from the past. •

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