On the Ephemerality of Memory and Preservation Technology
History and Future of the Book
On the Ephemerality of Memory and Preservation Technology
Socrates’ response to “the sociological earthquake of society” (Brockmeir 20) was his fear that the discovery of print “will create forgetfulness in the learner’s souls, because they will not use their memories” (Plato 362). “Remembering is a fundamental concern of every human society” (Brockmeier 23). The Greeks saw the importance of knowledge; it is a device that “binds individuals together” into a “considerate body of thoughts...beliefs, and concepts of self” (18). For this reason, they placed great value in their primary storage system: the memory. The Greeks spent so much time memorizing the old that there was “little room for original thought or emotional disagreement” (Bronfen 20). As society outgrew the mind’s capacity for knowledge, new preservation systems were invented. The book became an extension of the mind, holding what the mind could not. The book’s storage durability was superseded by the invention of the computer. “With each new metaphor we place a different filter in front of our perception of memory” (Randall 613). None of these systems are concrete; in fact, all are manipulatable. If we examine the computer and the book as extensions of the mind, using Orwell’s 1984 and Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom as exaggerations which criticize our dependence on preservation technology, we can come to the conclusion that both mediums are as manipulatable and ephemeral as mind memory itself.
“For Plato memory is the golden path to the highest intellectual and spiritual truths a human being could know” (Brockmeier 16). He believed that life without the ability to memorize would be as mundane as an infant’s life, a sort of “shadow-world” (16). When looking at the life of an infant versus an adult, we can see that memory is a “the currency of everyday thought and interaction” (Randall 612). With basic knowledge of the world, humans are able to function as rational beings. Those who are enlightened are those who acquire more and more knowledge, filling up their mind stores. Knowledge itself is an imprint of the past, which only existed in Ancient Greece as the metaphorical “all-encompassing storeroom” called memory (Brockmeir 16). However efficient memory seemed to the Greeks, the mind was and is limited in its capacity and ability to remember and recall. Compacting large amount of knowledge into such a small container resulted in “the stacking of items [memories] in layers, one on top of the other, so that buried items are more difficult to reach” (Randall 618). “Life in any true sense is absolutely impossible without forgetfulness,” nor are the moments we remember best those most recent (620). The human mind conducts an inadvertent “automatic editing over which we have little or no control” (619). As cultures continue to evolve, “so do their memory practices and their ideas of what is worth and desirable to be remembered” (Brockmeier 20). Our minds are continually being conditioned. We only remember the instances where something unusual happens; the memories become like signatures, conveying “something significant about us and about the distinctive perspective fromwhich we” see the world (Randall 619). The term “selective perception” has been used in describing person who “only hears what they want to hear” (Brockmeier 22). However, the cliché applies to all memories. Just because a person does not remember all of what was said does not mean that they are deliberately omitting information. “The words of the master were most important to Socrates. He saw manuscript as unnecessary, for what was said would always remain, or at least he hoped (Choynowski 2). What is significant about the content of a speech to the author is not guaranteed to be the same as what the listener values.
It is highly unlikely that the brain will recall an event with 100% accuracy because “actual experiences are constantly being broken up into their component pieces and are being added bit by bit such that no coherent whole remains” (Randall 622). Life is essentially a series of events, constantly creating “gaps, distortions, contradictions, and other incoherences” (Brockmeier 22) in our memories. During the process of reconstruction, which we more commonly refer to as recall or remembering, whatever is not concluded by the brain to be important is thrown away, “to drift from a short life in consciousness into oblivion” (22). Thus, “every act of remembering is not a “straightforward recollection of the past but always a reinterpretation” (Randall 623). Memory by itself is dangerous because it is “a writing that is written over a previous writing” (Brockmeier 25). It is a “kind of sedimentary layer of insights and impressions” (Randall 624). For these reasons, we should never place truth in memory alone.
“Man, because of the methods of preservation, had been "little given to analysis" (Havelock 49). New knowledge could not come about because mankind was so concerned with preserving the past. The invention of manuscript was essentially “the removal of pressure to memorize” (101). The mind no longer needed to fill to capacity because books became an extension of the mind. Not only were new discoveries being made, but as manuscript became more available “the literacy rate rose because the usefulness of the knowledge of reading and writing grew rapidly” (Gorniak-Kocikowska 455).
Swarms of people were now able to be enlightened like never before. But the public then became dependent on text to supply them with knowledge; people took what was being printed as absolute truth. “As the dissemination of texts greatly widened, the [authority’s] control over people’s thoughts became more and more tenuous” (455). This realization is best demonstrated by Orwell’s 1984, a post World War Two commentary on the world’s superpowers. The protagonist, on a daily basis, receives in his inbox “articles or new items which for one reason or another it was thought necessary to alter, or, as the official phrase had it, to rectify” (39). Essentially, Winston was copy-editing history, rectifying “the original figures by making them agree with the later ones” (40). Nothing “which conflicted with the needs of the moment” was “ever allowed to remain on record” (41). The evidence was then thrown down tubes aptly titled “memory holes” (39). The essential aim of the Party’s tactics here was that if a person remembered something contradictory from the past, they would have no evidence to back it up with. And, since everyone else “had no memories of anything greatly different” (and wouldn’t dare admit it if they did indeed recall), the person would just assume that their memory was wrong and would go on continuing to trust the Party (61). They have been conditioned to not be able to spot “the difference between an alleged illusion produced by the media and a real reality” (Brofen 23).
Not only were texts that contradicted the Party removed, but any literature that contains the mention of something that could possibly undermine the Party’s authority was required to be removed. A man is imprisoned and tortured because he “allowed the word God to remain at the end of a line” of poetry (Orwell 237).
Perhaps 1984, which was published in 1949, was in part a response to the infamous Berlin book burning. The Nazis, “in a spectacular demonstration of their recently acquired power burnt about 20,000 books by democratic, socialist and Jewish” (Brockmeier 29). Part of their power came from their ability to destroy, and therefore make people forget, “those elements of the past that are no longer in meaningful relations with the present” (31). The ideas contained in the 20,000 books didn’t fit into the Nazi’s reconstruction of the world. The German poet Heinrich Heine [a Jew] once made a remark, which is now taken by many to have been eerie foreshadowing, which stated “where they burn books, in the end, they too burn men” (38). Assmann calls this Orwellian Nazi tactic “structural amnesia” (31).
“Social and cultural truths” are “governed by clarity of thought and language” (Brofen 25). Rather than just erasing evidence of contradiction, and therefore manipulating memory, the Party further skewered memory with the invention of Newspeak. Syne, a proponent of the system, speaks of it as the process of “destroying words cutting the language down to the bone” (52). The objective of Newspeak was that by replacing and eliminating words with new ones (hence the “new” in Newspeak), “thoughtcrime” (the occurrence of a feeling or memory that directly contradicted or went against the Party’s beliefs) would not be possible. “There will be no words in which to express it” (53). There will no longer be a possibility of defying the Party because the words with which to vocalize the memory will not exist. The thought will stay inside the person and die.
One of the most blatantly open displays of memory manipulation occurs when Winston and Julia are standing in a square in Oceania during Hate Week. Two criminals from the “war” with Eurasia are about to be executed. It then is announced that Oceania was not (and thus never had been) at war with Eurasia. The Party had decided that they were now at war (as they “always had been”) Eastasia. The one huge factor: the square, which was filled with thousands of people, was covered in Eurasian hate propaganda. The materials had been there all week, as had news reports documented the war’s “progress”. But the “documents and banners with which the square was decorated were all wrong” (185). The contradiction had to be due to sabotagers. The people began to rip down the “offensive material”. Winston realized the horrible truth that even though thousands of people had seen the banners, posters, and pamphlets (physical proof of the Party’s deception), that “within one week no reference to the war with Eurasia, or the alliance with Eastasia, should remain in existence anywhere” (186). There would be no way to prove otherwise. The people would just assume that their memory was either a creation of their imagination or yet another sabotage from Goldstein. “Human memory is an instrument which, if the need arises, lies and deceives” (Randall 628).
Though Orwell’s work was completely fictional, he wrote the book as a commentary about people’s belief in the concrete truth of text, as well as the material nature of the manuscripts as well. Technology journalist Laura Wonnacott remarks that “you can now outlive your will” (54). As the demand for (cheaper) paper grew, it “began to be manufactured using processes and chemicals that were highly acidic” (DeCandido 16). “It is estimated that 70 percent of all books printed in [the 19th century] will be unusable” (54). The acidic paper, after about 30 years or so, begins to rapidly decay (this is why your parent’s wedding photographs are yellow and cracking). There has been a recent movement in using “acid free paper”, which will last “a minimum of 300 years” (54). Aside from the paper itself, the ink used in the printing of documents is “susceptible to fading” (Wonnacott 54). Dye ink fades after about a decade, while pigment ink fades slower (a century). A recent solution has been to print on acid-free paper using an ink made from carbon and plastic, which “literally gets melted on the page” (54). Despite recent innovations in manuscript preservation, much of our history is still sitting on shelves, slowly deteriorating.
Due to the vulnerability of manuscript preservation, and the importance we continually put on the preservation of memory, yet another extension of the mind, or “memory device”, had to be invented: the computer (Brockmeier 25). It was meant to transcend the physical barriers of deterioration of manuscripts while at the same time providing near-lightening recall of documents, whose storage space is aptly titled “memory”. There are other obvious parallels between the titles of functions of the computer and the mind. Inputting, when referring to mind memory, “involves tripping the events of our lives from what we can immediately use of them or consume from them” (Randall 618). Applied to a computer, it is entering into the system data that can be useful now or later. Encoding is another one; the conversion of speech into written language and the transformation of data into binary code for input both fall under this category.
Aside from the obvious parallels, the computer also runs into a similar problem as its predecessor did. The information stored in the machine fleeting, maybe even more so than the book. While “digitization could improve access to materials too valuable or fragile for regular physical handling,” computer technologies “may become obsolete, even forgotten, in a very short time as new media types are developed” (Lawrence 14). The average timeline of function for a software program is “3-5 years”; “seven years is often considered a lifetime” (14). Digital preservation is not “optimal for long-term preservation.” An ideal solution would be to migrate the stored data each time the digital medium needed to be upgraded. There are two problems with this “solution”; not only is it a pain (“imagine having to open and resave thousands of documents created in Microsoft Word every few years”), but the transfer of the data does not necessarily constitute an exact copy. “With each migration, [there is the possibility that] some level of functionality or even data will be lost” (Astle and Muir 69). The system may them read the inputted data as “strange renderings of your documents from which the original can’t be recovered” (14). Some computer storage systems use a combination of storage film which “bestows [a] 500 year shelf life” and a scanner to read the images, the issue of the ephemeral scanner technology still withstanding.
The computer’s storage facility is also just as manipulatable as print can be. Franciso Delich writes that the memory of the mind and the book can “never be perfect like a computer’s because it remains ever open to a reinterpretation of actions” (70). His idea of “perfect” constitutes a system whose memory can be partly or wholly replaced but nothing forgotten will come back, no memory will disturb the perfect order of the system” (69). There is no signature that can trigger a recall. Once deleted from the hard drive, the imprint is most likely gone for good.
The dependency on memory as digital preservation is satirized in Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. In Doctorow’s dystopic painting of the future, the assurance of life continuation depends almost entirely on your memory. Each person is required to frequently “backup” their consciousness into a computer database. Thus there is a cure for death; when someone dies, their backed-up “soul” can be uploaded into a stocked clone. The danger is that if you forget to backup your memories for a week or so, you “leave [yourself] vulnerable for an entire week until the next reminder” (31). If no backup is saved, a person’s mind will vanish with their earthly body.
In real life, sometimes “what we think are our memories are sometimes others memories about us, incidents we have overheard them refer to yet unwittingly claimed as our own” (Randall 621). In yet another literal interpretation, the Bitchum society has conquered the problem of vanquished memories. “Third party POV’s synthesized memories”(35) can be uploaded into the clone’s mind. Through literally fragments of data, a fuzzy storyline can be reconstructed to give the recently reanimated clarity on what has occurred. Of course, there are obviously ample opportunities for the people who did you harm to manipulate and digitally edit/insert memories to “give you” an account of what they want you to think happened. Though Jules is murdered and subsequently recovered, he loses memories from the 15 min between the murder and the backup. The people he suspects of attempting to assassinate him [which is really nothing more than a semi-major inconvenience, but painful and irritating nonetheless] have “offered to submit their backups as proof” (43) that they are guitless. Jules isn’t buying their [what he perceives as] fake sincerity. In order to execute a clean distraction from their revamping of the Hall of Presidents [which he was vehemently against], Jules believes Debra and her cronies had him shot and then “fucked with their backups” to ensure that no proof of the crime existed. Just as memory is constructed in the mind, fragments are pieced together in order to form a re-constructed reality that is not necessarily accurate. And, like when the transfer of data from one system to another occurs, some information is lost. “You’re not really an atom-for-atom copy. You’re a clone, with a copied brain-that’s not the same” (42). Jules’ fate towards the end of the novel, in which he realizes he will lose an entire year of his life due to not having made a back-up since before the murder, stands as a commentary on the impermanence and vulnerability of the computer’s storage systems
Plato once wrote that “everything flows [and] nothing stands still.” As much as we would like to deny that memories, “our renewable source for shared wisdom,” (Randall 628) are concrete and infallible, through a thorough examination of the natures and flaws of the three storage mediums (mind, book, and computer), we can come to the conclusion that while there is some sense of permanence about each, all are malleable and susceptible to manipulation. Flawed as they may be, both extensions of the mind can offer valuable forms of protection against the “shady villain” of “forgetting” (Brockmeier 15). Books can help clear the mind so that new knowledge was able to be acquired without having to loose what had already been learned. The computer can offer the preserved information freedom from physical decay and total oblivion. Neither, however, can last forever.
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