Digital Forgetting And The Future of The Past: Dis-Membering Social Memory Into Bits And Bytes

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    The concept of memory invokes the dynamic and self-referential interplay between forgetting and remembering as the basis for the construction of a past aligned to what the future is expected to bring. Conceived of as the construction of sameness into difference, memory is to be seen as the process of filtering singular details of events in order to make them comparable with other events according to gradually emerging categories. Forgetting means dis-membering singularities into categories; re-membering, by contrast, is the construction of an event out of these categories. Thus conceived, forgetting is the rule and remembering is the exception.
    Brought into a societal context, forgetting and remembering can be observed as social phenomena sui generis – social memory - with respect to socially constructed systems of categorization and classification. In particular, the librarian catalogue created for a closed-shelf arrangement is a highly sophisticated and abstract practice of social forgetting. Since books are stored according to size to save shelf-space, the closed-shelf repository can only be navigated by means of the catalogue. If one loses the catalogue, the collection of books turns into noise bereft of any organization. This setup, however, enables a library to manage, in principle, an infinite number of books by relying on abstract classification criteria used for their description and the arrangement of catalogue cards the books are represented by. The books themselves are forgotten. What is remembered, are the rules of cataloguing. In more abstract terms, the more elaborate the classification system, the more details can be filtered out. However, the more elaborate the classification system, the more can be remembered as well. The more we forget, the more we remember. The more we remember, the more we forget.
    Given these considerations, social memory presents itself as a more complex societal structure than concepts of information storage and retrieval would reveal. Propelled by the immense capacities to store data, the ideal of information technologies as a remedy against forgetting seems to be an overstatement considering the fact that digital media are based on the most radical classification possible – the classification of everything and anything into only two classes of 0 and 1. Digital memory is the dis-membrance of singular events into binary digits leading to the counter-intuitive conclusion that the storing of binary-based data itself is a way of forgetting. Re-membrance, in turn, is the computational reconstruction of artefacts composed out of binary digits. Thus conceived, binary-based digital media are very ill-fitted for mnemonic purposes, since, for the first time, the conservation of a communication medium as such is not enough for societal remembering. If we lose the catalogue, the books themselves, if conserved, remain. By contrast, without appropriate computational processing, bits are mere noise devoid of any inherent meaning, which poses a serious threat to the capabilities of future generations to reconstruct the past based on authentic documentation. What we thought was safely stored in our computational silos of knowledge, may have slowly decayed into rotten bits and bytes.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publication[Abstract Booklet for] The workshop 'Digital Memory' Ispra 16th and 17th January 2014
    EditorsAngela Pereira, Alessia Ghezzi, Estefania Moreno
    Place of PublicationBelgien
    PublisherEuropean Commission
    Publication date2015
    ISBN (Print)9789279351013
    Publication statusPublished - 2015
    EventWorkshop on “Digital Memory” - Ispra, Italy
    Duration: 16 Jan 201417 Jan 2014


    WorkshopWorkshop on “Digital Memory”
    Internet address
    SeriesJCR Science for Policy Report
    NumberEUR 26446 EN

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