Memory and Media

“The present is trivia, which I scrible down on fucking notes”,  Leonard/Memento.

CNN had an article last week on how we use technologies as archives of our past Do digital diaries mess up your brain? :

“…today’s technology creates opportunities for greater, moment-by-moment record-keeping. Archives of your blog, Facebook or Twitter feed — both in text and in pictures — might reveal exactly what you ate on important occasions, the papers you were proud of and the outfits you wore”.

The article made me think of Leonard in Nolan’s film Memento who says: “The present is trivia, which I scrible down on fucking notes”.


He is a great example of a contemporary virtual/human mind where the present moment suppresses the past. As Leonard so elegantly puts it at the end of the film: “Now, Where was I?”.  In this connection one could use my all time favourite Henri Bergson’s description of “the memory-image”, which are past experiences, that are unrepeatable because in our consciousness they are placed in the past in spatial and temporal contexts. The “memory-image” was to Bergson that what constitues “actual memory” – the essence of human consciousness.

I often regret that Bergson does not live today to experience the effect of technologies in our everyday lives. I wonder what he would have thought about Microsoft’s SenseCam (described in the CNN article) – an attempt to create “memory-images, that is, exact recollections of what happened. Or the status updates on Facebook that places our narratives of the present in a temporal context with the exact time of the status update.

However, what intrigued me the most in the CNN article was the thought that our behaviour and path in life might be effected by our consiousness about the technological archives we are creating about ourselves on e.g. Facebook, Twitter etc. As Barry Barry Schwartz, professor of social action and social theory says in the article:

“If we have experiences with an eye toward the expectation that in the next five minutes, we’re going to tweet them, we may choose difference experiences to have, ones that we can talk about rather than ones we have an interest in,”

Increasingly, and I really think this is the case, we will change our actions according to the archive we are creating about ourselves. Of course we are nothing without a memory of the past, as Bergson believed and as Leonard 100 years later became the perfect image of in Memento. And thus we are everything our past presents; that is, both our physical actions in the past and our (and others!) virtual actions on social network services such as Facebook and Twitter. This is really what is interesting about the technological archives we are creating – that they influence the way we choose to live our lives. This is also what Joshua Meyrowitz refers to as a new “sense of caution” effected by the different “sense of place” that we are experiencing with digital/electronic media. But then again, is it a new thing? People have always been more or less aware about the narratives they present about themselves. Perhaps the new thing is an issue of control. Who or what controls the individual’s personal narrative today?

It’s a bit scarry actually that in my work with raising children in the network society, I am working exactly with this issue. Telling kids to be aware of the archives they create, telling them to be cautious when developing their  identity. It’s a dilemma between letting kids develop their identity in their own generational framework and attempting to mold them in my own generation’s image. But I guess this has been the all time dilemma. Being an adult that has to protect both children’s right to free expression and participation and to protect their rights – and others – to exercise this right in a somewhat “risk reduced” framework. (I am in a way saying the same thing in this article: “”When moblogger met little brother – Or how new technologies influence behaviour”)

Update 2013: A great interview in the Guardian with  Viktor Mayer-Schönberger from the Oxford Internet Institute on this topic and the internet governance aspects of this: Right to erasure protects people’s freedom to forget the past