Media Theory for the 21st Century

February 18, 2008

In Search of Lost Data

Filed under: Discussion — reneehudson @ 6:39 am

Reading the Vesna caused me to speculate further on the relationship between media and memory, particularly since we’ve come across different methods of using media to augment our memories (the Memex, the Chronofile, etc).

While thinking about memory, I couldn’t help but recall the association between writing and forgetting that Plato articulates in Phaedrus. He tells the story of a conversation between the gods Thamus and Theuth (a discussion Derrida later takes up) in which Theuth tries to persuade Thamus that writing is a tool for memory. Thamus replies, “In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. you have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality . . .” (79-80).

As I reflected on the quote from Phaedrus in relation to the Vesna article, I realized that what I was actually doing was speculating on the anxiety media induces in all of its forms precisely because of its tendency to take everything down, to attempt to remember / remind everything / everyone. Jane Newman, in “The World Made Print: Luther’s 1522 New Testament in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction” questions Luther’s motives for establishing the authenticity of certain editions of “his” Bible: “Had the man whose message it had been to allow everyone access to the Word come to resent the very proliferation of Scripture he recommended, because it took the ‘truth’ out of his hands?” (98). Elsewhere Newman speaks of widespread, “uncontrollable dissemination in print” (101-102), describes how the massive reproduction of Scripture was viewed as a spark growing into a fire (104), notes the continued proliferation of pirated editions (104), etc.

Vesna’s description of the Chronofile exhibits a similar proliferation: “In addition to the Chronofile, which is considered to be the heart of his archives, he left behind the Dymaxion Index, blueprints, photos, patents, manuscripts, and a large amount of random elements. He saved all his correspondences, sketches, doodles made during his meetings, backs of envelopes, and newspaper-edged notes – everything possible that was a record of his thought” (24). Like Luther, Fuller is also unable to deal with the massive multiplication of materials – he ends up hiring other people to help him work on the Chronofile. Interestingly, the Chronofile comes to represent not only his life, but also the world as he knew it.

Yet while Fuller’s challenge was to continue to amass data relevant to his life and the world, Vesna also points to the dangers of obtaining data and maintaining it in our collective memory. She describes her project in which people sign legal documents and provide personal information without hesitation, she says of RFID tags that “Such tracking may be usefule in other arenas that are perhaps not so innocent and could be embedded in objects without our knowledge or awareness” (27) and briefly notes the dangers of what information “secret military missions around the world” (31) are obtaining.

I suppose what I’m trying to get at (if anything) in this very long post is 1) do we see print / media as static the way it is described in Phaedrus (81) or as the ability “to be brought back to life” (25) as in Vesna? 2) Are we constructing memory machines like the Chronofile because we acknowledge that writing, etc. is not a tool for remembering but for reminding? 3) What do we make of the fear that the media are proliferating beyond our control? Are we trying to remember or to forget? What’s at stake in our remembrances?


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