I explore media in transition. My research encompasses film, video, print, digital arts, and the web. I'm interested in what artists and writers are doing and in what critics and scholars are saying.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Writing and the Digital Life: Human Memory and Life Caching

Writing and the Digital Life (WDL), a listserv with a blog counterpart, has selected for its topic this month “How will the digital life affect human memory?” Sue Thomas, founder of WDL, posts a thought-provoking commentary on Sept. 8 in which she mentions “Life Caching,” a phenomenon that TRENDWATCHING.COM relates to the abundance of personal content being collected, stored, and displayed in the digital age. TRENDWATCHING.COM links this “emerging mega trend” with the popularity of blogging and moblogging (mobile blogging using camera phones) among members of Generation C (“C” for content) and with the preponderance of Life Caching consumer products both on the market now (e.g., Nokia’s Lifeblog) and in development (e.g., Microsoft’s SenseCam, an experimental prototype, and MyLifeBits, “an experiment in lifetime storage, and a software research effort” that is discussed in several papers and news articles, including “Telling Stories with MyLifeBits” by Jim Gemmell, Aleks Aris, and Roger Lueder).

According to TRENDWATCHING.COM, the infrastructure that supports Life Caching and the “lifelogs” this practice produces also includes Google’s Gmail and other email services, such as those offered by Yahoo! and Hotmail, which provide massive amounts of free storage space. Also noteworthy for the storage space they provide, claims TRENDWATCHING.COM, are key cord memory sticks and mini-MP3 players, popular fashion accessories in Asia that enable consumers to “wear their entire 'digital life files' around their neck, from music to movies to documents to photos to presentations.” To this list of Life Caching storage devices, TRENDWATCHING.COM adds Apple’s iPod—for carrying around entire life collections of music (and maybe soon video and data).

TRENDWATCHING.COM argues that Life Caching reflects “consumers’ gradual move towards collecting and storing experiences instead of goods (especially in mature economies).” If this assessment has validity, even on a limited scale, then the implications are far reaching, affecting not only business models but also a range of social, cultural, personal, and artistic practices.

In her blog entry, “Life Caching—remembering everything you ever did,” Thomas describes “a double anxiety” she feels coping with all the data she's saved and worrying about losing files. She contemplates downsizing her archive; commentators on the blog and on the listserv (where the discussion began) propose an “Art of Forgetting” for our era of information overload, a twenty-first-century complement to Frances Yates’s classic book The Art of Memory (University of Chicago Press, 1966), a historical study of mnemonics that scholars of new media continue to reference.

Carolyn G. Guertin, for example, groups Yates’s book with other texts she is indebted to for “mapping the terrain of different cognitive, historical and theoretical models of remembering and for situating them within the philosophical contexts they evolved” (see Quantum Feminist Mnemotehnics: The Archival Text, Digital Narrative and the Limits of Memory, Guertin’s dissertation, University of Toronto, 2003). Differentiating her study of memory from those she cites, Guertin identifies her objectives in a way that resonates with the “double anxiety” Thomas describes in the WDL blog. Guertin states:

“My concern is with quantisation and mnemonic overload, information overload, with chaos, and with what N. Katherine Hayles calls a state of ‘maximum information,’ in a positive revaluing of the condition of our time. I am interested in how these mental and computational states have contributed to a twin obsession with amnesia, the inability to remember, and with anamnesis, the inability to forget, in the age of network culture, as well as with how they have been realized in the speed of the medium in the spatio-temporal dislocating memory rooms of the new literatures.”

As background for her study of the archive and of what she considers its digital equivalent, the database, Guertin refers to Lev Manovich’s notion of the database and its anti-narrative logic (see The Language of New Media, MIT Press, 2001, and “Database as a Symbolic Form,” 1998) and to Jacques Derrida’s analysis of the archive as a construction associated both with remembering and with forgetting (see Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, Trans. Eric Penowitz, U of Chicago Press, 1995). Although I’m unprepared at this time to examine Guertin’s complex study of new media narratives—Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, M.D. Coverley's Califia, and Diana Reed Slattery's Glide and The Maze Game—I do want to make connections with relevant posts to VirtualDayz.

Meditations more than fully developed analyses, my blog entries raise questions rather than answer them: “Merce Cunningham and ‘Soft Cinema’” (July 10) reflects on Manovich’s new DVD Soft Cinema and his theory of database aesthetics; “Transliteracies 2005, UCSB” (July 8) draws attention to Hayles’s concept of “possibility space” as an alternative to Manovich’s database/narrative opposition; and “Christine Tamblyn’s Autobiographical Frames: Considering Archival Quality, the CD-ROM” (July 25) considers Derrida’s approaches to the archive and to psychoanalysis in relation to media technologies of the past, present, and future. From different yet related vantage points, these three examples suggest ways to study as well as produce memory texts for the digital age, but as TRENDWATCHING.COM makes clear, neither scholars nor artists have a claim on Life Caching.

This latest trend represents another type of personal narrative to add to the list of genres that Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson identify in their book Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives (University of Minnesota Press, 2001), which I discuss in a previous post (August 23). Also pertinent here is the anthology they co-edited Getting A Life: Everyday Uses of Autobiography (University of Minnesota Press, 1996). As these studies show, autobiographical genres and practices are being reinvented, redefined, and remediated all the time—in popular culture, community-based contexts, and the literary, visual, performing, and media arts. Crossovers from one position to another are common, and creative exchanges often travel back and forth. In new media, as in video (formerly known as a new medium), both professionals and nonprofessionals are documenting their lives and remembering their pasts.

Writing about video in 1996, media arts critic Christine Tamblyn addresses these tendencies when she proposes that videos by nonprofessional consumers who use camcorders, like videos by artists and independent makers who use small-format technology, serve as "vehicles for cultural intervention" in everyday life and thus promote “the democratization of video.” To support her contention that "consumer video" and "video art" overlap in this way, she equates home video genres, such as diaries, family albums, and travelogues, with analogues by women and men from the video art canon. Concerned about the “quasi-obsolete technology of video” and the shifting mediascape that the precarious status of video portends, she recognizes that an analysis of characteristics shared by artists’ videos and consumers’ videos could be beneficial to producers and scholars of the twenty-first century who look back on videos made in a pre-Internet era (“Qualifying the Quotidian: Artist’s Video and the Production of Social Space,” in Resolutions: Contemporary Video Practices, edited by Michael Renov and Erika Suderburg, 1996, 13–14, 17). Almost a decade later, TRENDWATCHING.COM updates Tamblyn’s scenario.

In terms of my research, I look for thoughtful, innovative work wherever it might be. As I’ve stated elsewhere, my current focus is on how documentarians, writers, artists, and performers are using new media technologies to record, preserve, frame, shape, evoke, archive, disseminate, and transform memory on both individual and collective levels. I alternate between examining other people’s work and creating my own. When these intellectual and creative mind-sets fuse, as they sometimes do, then I feel as though I’m getting somewhere.

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