The Way We Remember Now

Are Digital Natives forgetting how to remember? This was Anne Balsamo’s parting suggestion at the Berkman luncheon last Tuesday, and it chilled the gathering instantly. Up to that point, Balsamo’s talk had been largely upbeat, a primer on the power of what she calls the “technological imagination” — the “quality of mind the enables people to think with technology, to transform what is known into what is possible, and to evaluate the consequences of such creation from multiple perspectives” (as she explains in her essay “Taking Culture Seriously”). Balsamo highlighted many positive aspects of the Digital Age, including the development of new kinds of literacy and the transformative influence of technology on education and art. Nevertheless, her final thought reminded us that with the great gains of digital technology come inalterable change and inevitable loss.

What Balsamo intimated was this: Digital Natives are unconcerned with remembering events and data because they can usually find the information they need online. My own experience indicates this is true. Take, for example, the act of remembering the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. In a pre-internet age, a young person might have felt compelled to memorize its approximate date, the circumstances that led to its collapse, and, just maybe, the fact that someone named Edward Gibbon wrote a giant book about it. A Digital Native, on the other hand, can say, “I’ll look it up later on Wikipedia,” and leave it at that. This nonchalance towards remembering facts applies to experiences as well. For Digital Natives, a party, rock concert, or political rally is no longer a prized moment shared with a select few, no longer an ephemeral event that will live on only if attendees choose to remember it. Before a concert has even begun, before tickets are even available, a Digital Native can network with other fans, buy merchandise at the band’s website, or download tracks that will be played live on stage. If a Digital Native can’t make it to a political rally, he or she need only follow the event’s twitter feed. And if the Digital Native can’t remember what, exactly, he or she did last night, no matter – it’s all been recorded in a friend’s Facebook photo album for the entire school to see. In Balsamo’s view, the Internet has become a prosthetic memory; as Digital Natives rely on it, their own capacity for recall only grows weaker.

These days, it seems the cry of memory has never been louder. We are told to “never forget” 9/11, urged, in the face of Darfur, to remember the Holocaust. Amidst all this remembering, the Internet breeds crisis. On the one hand, anything we do online — be it traveling from page to page or uploading content — is logged. Our information persists whether we want it to or not, preserved by the collective digital memory of the web. On the other hand, as Balsamo puts it, “Every day, the web forgets more than it remembers.” The face of the Internet can change in an instant: a headline altered to reflect breaking news, a picture photo-shopped to exclude political dissidents. While proof of all these changes should be lurking in a cache somewhere, the sheer volume of information online can prevent the average person from finding it. Web users, too, exercise willful forgetfulness. As blogosphere culture demonstrates, new is in. Old news is no news.

All the same, this “memory crisis” may not be so new. Older generations have also experienced great and terrible things to remember – The Revolution, the Great War, Vietnam. Always, it seems someone is urging us to remember something. This is not, moreover, the first time technology has changed the nature of memory itself. With the advent of writing came the fear that people would lose the ability to recite oral histories; the art form would disappear, and history would be forgotten. Although many did lose that bardic skill, it was a small price to pay for the birth of a new art form, a new way to log history, and a new way to spread knowledge.

So, how do we deal with the changing state of memory today? As when writing became widespread, we will have to recalibrate our notions of what it means to remember. We need to exercise the “technological imagination” Balsamo describes, to “think” with our technology and examine how we can harness it in service of, and not counter to, memory. Memory in a Digital Age is collaborative. Whereas one person could easily forget the details of an event, a community of users can now swap pictures and stories to let the moment endure. As a result, facts and experiences take on their own life, presences greater than any one person could render. At the same time, the web’s shifting nature demonstrates that experiences – and our memories of them – are as tenuous as ever, that they are something to be cherished. Perhaps the Internet can actually teach us reverence for memory. If that is the lesson to be learned, it is no wonder internet-savvy thinkers like Balsamo are so concerned with remembering to remember.

Nikki Leon

(Special thanks to Jacob Kramer-Duffield for his thoughts on the impact of writing.)