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memory : digital amnesiacs
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Digital Amnesiacs
Thoughts on the Sophisticated Fragility of Digitized Memory
by Hervé Fischer, translated by Timothy Barnard

We all know how fragile paper, canvas, recording tape, and photographic or cinematographic film are. To remedy this fragility, we have seen a great movement, nourished by a solid faith in technology, to digitize everything of importance in the collections of museums, libraries, and film archives. Wealthy governments have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in this endeavour, with the feeling that they have done their duty. And yet, while it is true that digital technology facilitates the remote (and low cost) consultation of cultural objects once they are placed online, it is no less clear that the preservation of our virtual heritage has become an immense challenge, one that is generally underestimated and could take on disastrous proportions.

Today we can see two technological modes of cultural production and dissemination at work: material and immaterial, analog and digital, using a local medium or the Web. And many people have come to believe that they can reduce the dissemination and preservation of objects of the first mode (which is fated to become archaic) to the technologies of the second mode, which promises eternity and a universal accessibility in space. It is an immense temptation, just like the Utopia underlying it.

Cultural memory is not just a question of technology but also, we must emphasize, a question of culture! Knowledge itself has grown considerably: since its archaic oral tradition, and from the authoritarian institution of sacred books, codices, and precious parchments, through to today's conception of the book as something disposable bought in airports or paperback editions, continuing on to digital e-books, and finally to what are called the "knowledge industries" proper to the information society. A true desanctification of knowledge is at work, a seemingly irreversible phenomenon. The book is becoming splintered and fragmented, it is dissolving in the digital networks we are so legitimately proud of today. Broken, cut up, glued, erased, dematerialized, the sacrosanct Book of humankind's origins appears to be in the process of becoming mere electronic files, subject to the search engines which tag them and treat them like packages in sorting stations of knowledge and merchandise before sending them to their destination on demand.

We are confronted no longer with shelves of books bound and classified by genre, subject, or alphabetical or chronological order, but rather with an immense hypertext, swollen with billions of Web pages, both indexed and "hidden", always more extensive, growing exponentially like our technological capabilities, and no doubt also increasingly ephemeral. This hypertext is not organized according to a linear logic of coherent meaning, a cause and effect relationship, but instead according to configurations of proximity and associations of ideas in an arabesque or non-linear arborescence. In short, according to a system of syntactical fragmentation out of which emerge aleatory sequences, wherein serendipity can be as much a creator of new meaning as a factor of chaotic disorder and obscurantism.

Furthermore, the "proper forms" of the associations and configurations of ideas or references which traditionally produced meaning (if only at an elementary behaviourist level of thought) are diluted and disappear in the leaps of the hypertext, becoming nothing more than heaps of knowledge fragments, granules that can be detached from the things to which they are tied. This new paradigm of information and thought in fragmented capsules, in detached pieces which can be endlessly recombined according to chance or necessity (another paradigm of modern science), imperils the stability of memory. This destructuring of meaning, of the "proper forms" of associative logic, corresponds to our new mental structures in the digital age, but also to the present day patchwork or hybridization of cultures. In addition, it contributes to the dissolution of forms of memory, much like the reduction of cathedrals to unnumbered bricks or stones, by rendering superficial memory fragile. Syntax is a structure that is essential to memory, whether superficial, rational, or biographical (as Marcel Proust illustrated so well in In Search of Lost Time): it is, precisely, what the non-linearity of the hypertext destroys. Memory does not proceed by the accumulation or collage of fragments, but according to a structuring, aggregative grammar; according to already-visited configurations. It is like reading: up to a certain point, it is complete. The fragmentation of knowledge and memory go together. This brings into play a post-rationalist cognitive revolution, expressing the crisis of postmodernity. It may be audaciously creative, but it is also very risky.

Let's go even further. We are witnessing a veritable Copernican revolution in the universe of knowledge. Traditionally, knowledge was highly structured and referenced into sequences bearing meaning which asserted their primacy and permanence in relation to the person acceding to it. At the centre of the universe of knowledge stood the book. Today, the consumer has become the point of reference, the centre of the universe of knowledge. And customers recombine these elements of knowledge according to the diversity of their interests. They no longer have any consideration for the permanence of the building of knowledge, but destroy it so that each person can construct their house with stones that have been taken out of the whole and transported. Like barbarians!

In the same vein, we are witnessing today the transformation of this knowledge into knowledge industries which have attained a new function of accumulating products destined to be consumed by many different users. Today it is knowledge that is managed for sale or export, like stocks of merchandise, according to criteria which are no longer tied to values of truth, but rather usefulness and demand in a growing market. It is clear that the transformation of the edifice of knowledge, belonging to a universe of truths in a warehouse of consumer objects, reflects not only a change in knowledge's value but also a radical transformation of our cosmogony. From being more or less sacred and durable it has become fleeting and circumstantial; it asserts its ephemeral status, its status as consumption and destruction. It reveals its dependence on fashion and the needs of the marketplace according to a meaningless utilitarian conception. Ideas - like the memory of these ideas - are no longer the subject of reference, the organizing principle of our thought, but an object of consumption: exhaustible and disposable.

A basic law exists which it would be well to state explicitly here: The more that knowledge becomes a consumer good, the more that it spreads and becomes "everyday", then the more it becomes fragile and ephemeral.

This is appropriate in the case of the information found within daily media, in newspapers or on television, which evaporates almost as soon as it is put out. This is also what is involved in the uncontrollable inflation of the mass of this information, which is growing exponentially and is erased with each new production, like the imprint of a new wave on the sand of a beach. This is no longer information or bricks of information with which to build, but sand, grains of sand which are constantly recombining, oblivious to their previous shape. Knowledge has become sand suspended in the waves.

Naturally, this description does not constitute a value judgement, which tends to condemn this public (democratic?) consumption of knowledge and information in the name of an antique tradition of solid, permanent, and sacred knowledge (controlled and used as a means of power by an elite group of initiates). Humankind, moreover, weathered millennia of oral tradition, perhaps within social organizations as interesting as those based on written language (whether pedantic, religious, or democratic in form). We might fear that the rise of the digital, the return in force of a logic of links suggestive of the alchemy of the Middle Ages, and the growing role of the emotions (emotional intelligence) and of event-based thinking, which works to destroy the fortress of rationalism (and to limit its excesses), will encourage a return to obscurantism. But this is another debate, which we should not make up our minds about so quickly (see my book La planète hyper).

What is at issue here is to analyze more closely the epistemological paradigm of digital information flows, and the new structure for managing knowledge that it implies. And here is where new tools come into play, tools which themselves are digital and potentially very powerful: those of artificial intelligence. Search engines, Web semantics, tagging, meta-language, spyware, cookies, intelligent agents, systemics, laws of chaos: there are enough of them to convince us of the manipulability and permanence of these electronic files, these capsules, fragments, and sequences which are accumulating in our networks. Since information is passing from a structure of stable and protected silos to another structure, made out of the unstable magma of digital objects which can be lost and forgotten in the endless cyberspace of knowledge, it is necessary to establish grammars to tie them all together, to place call signs, to create links between these electronic files, using indexed configurations which can bring them out of the dark folds of the crumpled universe that the virtual space of the cybertext has become. To do so, we should use the up-to-date cosmological expression that the astrophysicist Jean-Pierre Luminet applies to the universe itself. How else to avoid the disappearance of these objects into the oblivion of the Web's immensity? Because, like the universe itself, the cyberspace of knowledge is in large part uncharted - perhaps not as much as 94 per cent of it, which is the figure astrophysicists use to quantify the unknown portion of our universe, which is full of black matter and energy. But perhaps 40 percent of the Web is unknown today, and inevitably in ten years time 60 or 80 per cent will be unknown, as new information is continually sent into cyberspace.

We must recognize that cyberspace is in no way transparent, homogeneous, or accessible to all, as we hear repeated endlessly with Utopian satisfaction. On the contrary, the more that cyberspace grows, and the more objects that are deposited there by people, the more it becomes abstruse and hidden. It too has its proprietary territories, its secret access codes, its zones of oblivion and erasure, its black holes, worms, viruses, pirates, and bugs that can destroy entire countries. And, quite simply, the dynamic of technological progress that we justifiably seek, and the impossibility of constantly adapting an ever greater number of digital files to new formats, new algorithms, new software, readers, and navigators, leads (according to the technology's own logic) to obsolescence and the loss of data we had believed to be deposited there in complete security forever! Will technology resolve this paradox, which comes about because technological progress leads to the disappearance of prior technology?

Now is the time to mention one of the thirty paradoxical laws that I listed in my book Le choc du numérique: The more sophisticated our technology becomes, the more fragile and ephemeral the digital memory of the content that we store within it.

We must stress this paradox at a time when Heritage Canada has decided once again to increase its budget (2004-05) for the digitization of cultural objects, at the cost of reducing the budget allocated to cultural creation.

The content of an optical disc lasts far less time (about ten years) than a paper book, a reel of 35mm film, a Dead Sea Scroll, a prehistoric painting in the Chauvet Cave (32,000 years old and still intact!), or the clay footprints of three hominidae, two adults and a child, in Laetoli, Tanzania, which are 3.6 million years old. Digital camera buffs, remember: it would be wise to print your pictures on paper!

We can always bet that the current phase of digital memory's almost complete vulnerability and ephemeral quality will be fleeting. We might hope that we will attain standards which will stabilize the accelerated progress of technology. But that doesn't seem to be our priority at the moment! My collection of cd-roms from the 1980s can no longer be read, except using old Macintosh equipment, which must be maintained. So to me the bet seems quite risky! Nearly 100 per cent of the earliest Web pages have vanished forever - they have been improved, enriched, brought up to date, and reworked over the years in order to keep up with technological progress and respond to the needs of the day. A few prudent people, of course, have opened free cemeteries in cyberspace and asked all those who redo their Web sites to send the previous versions off to cyber-storage! And how long will they survive there? With which budgets? For whom? We can already state that, since the 1980s, an entire chapter of our digital cultural creation, online or off, has been lost forever. And that's in only twenty years! With which budgets will online magazines be preserved? Who will do it? How will they go about it? And what will become of HorizonZero, which we appreciate so much today? How long will it last? Will we still be able to consult it, and others like it, a century from now? It would be better to print everything, starting tomorrow! But this, at best, would only be a documentary memory, which would not restore the qualities of multimedia.

With the rise of printing, we lost the memory of orality. But digital memory, in whose hands we place ourselves today, is even more volatile than oral memory. We will thus quickly lose, it would seem, the memory of our digital culture. And that horrifies me, because we cannot dash into the unknown future of the digital like amnesiacs without exposing ourselves to all the dangers of obscurantism. No memory: no future. Whether digital or not!

Hervé Fischer (www.hervefischer.net) is an artist and philosopher. Among his publications are Le choc du numérique (vlb, 2001), Le romantisme numérique (Fides, 2002), Les défis du cybermonde (direction, PUL, 2003), CyberProméthée (vlb, 2003), La planète hyper - de la pensée linéaire à la pensée en arabesque (vlb, 2004), and Le déclin de l'empire hollywoodien (vlb, 2004).

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