To the Cloud! Loss in the Age of Digital Memory

this is your brain on plugs

Contributed by Ashley Shew Assistant Professor at Virginia Tech
October 01, 2013
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Part of the Cluster:

Tokens and talismans in digital spaces

At an international conference with a lovely group of philosophers of technology, I heard the wonderful music of Fado that Portugal is famed for. In getting ready for this trip, I had listened to some clips on YouTube, anticipating the experience. Fado involves a few stringed instruments accompanying haunting vocals on bittersweet and sad songs. It's hard to describe, and the YouTube clips capture the music, but they do it without capturing the oppressive heat of the club, the warmth of the people, the bottles of wine consumed, the joy of one's companions. One of the philosophers took videos of the performance with his phone; he then shared them with the group on Facebook after we returned. Watching this Fado music, sitting back in my home, I could remember, but there was no replication. The experience differed, the companions changed. This digital token – a video shared – captured the facts of the evening without capturing the essence.

 

Our computer overlords have not yet arrived, but, in an age of increasing data-ization, those items we once held as special, sacred, personal, private, or valuable seem increasingly digitized. Digital photography has quickly and efficiently replaced the analog, developing film of my youth. Childhood games, as reflected on by people in my generation, more often recall play on a Nintendo platform than on a folding board. We are already far into an era of digital memory. There is no backing up or saving what has been lost.

 

The era of digital memory, of course, offers the illusion of safety, of saving, of keeping for keeps. The idea that we can click a button and save, that we can back up what we have written or recorded or created or captured with something-that-is-both-camera-and-phone-and-GPS-and-Walkman, remains as much an illusion as it was during a time when we literally cut-and-pasted. Yes, we do these things with the faith that we keep our memories, but that faith rests on an illusion. Our digital devices allow us to save and find information like never before, but recall remains tied to particular software, readers, and devices.

 

Loss in this age of digital memory feels the same as it used to. Digital memory cannot save all the things we want, all the times we would want. Just as we lament the destruction of our photo albums when they burn in house fires or become damaged or warped with time, so too we regard the passage of our digital albums when we suffer their loss through file corruption and poor back-up planning. The loss of digital memory feels, perhaps, more like betrayal than the material corruption of photo negatives and scrapbooks. We've been conditioned to think the digital is salvageable, that new technologies offer a way to better keep and store, all the while we amass an increasing number of digital things.

 

The narrative of technology we've been handed tells us that new ways improve upon the old. The old versions – the “hard” copies, the objects heavy with their own weight – are somehow lesser in this version of history. These clunky things we used to trust seem like they might more easily disappoint; we have the new, the better, the disembodied and transferable. The example of digital music storage certainly hints at the conclusion that we have better platforms on which to build our collections.

 

At one point, music wasn't something to save, but something to savor in a moment, to memorize and practice in order to share. Re-creations weren't the same, nor were they expected to be. Memorizing a piece in order to play it for others was still personal; one could never fully replicate the performance, or even have the illusion of doing so. The recording of music transformed performance into something more readily shareable, and without a person needing any musical skills to do so. From records to eight-tracks to tapes to CDs to downloading mp3s to easily streamed music, the history of the sharing of music speaks to technological triumph. We can hear the same performance twice; we can share at will. It's as if we've willfully forgotten how to savor; we take crappy iPhone-videos when we should be experiencing something wonderful as it unfolds. But, then again, maybe that's always been the case that our experiences involve reflection upon the sharing and communicating of those experiences.

 

What we do in our digital and “online” spaces appears no different from what we did without those spaces. The spaces have changed, but the people are the same. We pursue the same things we would in other spaces – corresponding with friends, sharing pictures, making inside jokes, reading news and discussing, playing games, etc. The humans behind both digital and material objects have not changed.

 

Yoni van den Eede describes the process of “collecting our lives online” by explaining how our online activities – selecting, sorting, sharing, displaying – strongly resemble the practices of collecting (2010). Some collections are carefully curated, organized, reviewed; other collections can look unfamiliar, foreign, askew. But the intentioned assemblage remains important: though I might not understand the way another collector configures their work, so too may I fail to “get” what's happening with a person's blog, website, picture album, or other conglomeration of digital things.

 

The ideas and feelings that get wrapped up in material objects are just as easily wrapped into digital objects. Though the medium of our collecting has shifted, the experience shares similarities with past practices, with the same meanings and experiences (though configured in different relations). People curse the corruption of data, the loss of digital photos, the deconstruction of their collections when computers and servers malfunction. We long to hold onto our collections, our experiences, to truly hit the 'save' button.

 

But the materiality is sometimes what causes the digital to be corruptible. We believe digital things to be more durable, more ideal than our material things. Even when a song is played on a device, the song is not that device; it exists outside and is streamed through. What digital devices seem to promise is something closer to an idealization of artifacts.

 

Plato's Theory of the Forms, discussed in many of his dialogues, explains that the abstract – that which exists outside the material realm – exists as more real than the material artifacts that we can experience. Material objects are corruptible and finite; the forms are real reality, the perfect versions merely cast the shadows that are our material things. All chairs are only cheap imitations of the perfect form of chair that exists in the Realm of the Forms.

 

The illusion that digital things offer us is that they can be more perfect than the material from which they are derived. Digital memories suggest the lie that memory can replicate experience more perfectly and more durably than that which materiality can provide. Digital memories also let us make moments more perfect by editing video to capture that which we like, and to take out things we don't. We can crop and chop and choose which pictures to keep; we can make remembrances more close to the form of life that we idealize.

 

When we experience loss of digital memories, the sting is two-fold: one for the loss of the digital thing, the other for the loss of the idealization we created. The era of digital memory offers the illusion that we can have control over our things, over ourselves, but our control still relies on the material.

 

We suffer now from too much data and too little memory.

 

There's much more that could be said here about self-construction, digital identity theft, personalization of data (“Amazon recommends”).

 

 

References:

Plato. “Works By Plato.” Accessible: http://classics.mit.edu/Browse/browse-Plato.html

van den Eede, Yoni. 2010. “Collecting our Lives Online.” Techne: Research in Philosophy and Technology. 14(2): 103-123. Accessible: http://www.pdcnet.org/techne/content/techne_2010_0014_0002_0103_0123

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