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how technology is taking over your memory
A well-established narrative device in visual culture—the use of black and white film in a colour movie— informs us that we are in a flashback looking at something which happened in the distant past in an age before colour film; and in the eventuality that the black and white scenes show events of the recent present, we feel cheated, as though the film is trying to make the events older than they are.
As audiences our senses have been trained for years through popular media—and old photographs kept somewhere in our family home—that anything in black and white happened long ago in the past; even though colours existed in real life in the past in the exact same way as they do now. If the past in visual culture equals black and white images, we may be led to remember our own events in desaturated shades, as if they were to be recorded on film and projected in a cinema. This phenomenon (past = black and white images) doesn't concern only traditional visual culture and media but also Facebook, Instagram and all the other social media platforms we use on a daily basis to show who we are, and to learn more about others. All media mediates memory. Sometimes this is obvious (black and white flashbacks), but more often than not, it is subtle.
The history of visual media can be interpreted as the attempt to find better ways to document and re-enact memories. From 15th Century printmaking to the early years of photography, from motion pictures to contemporary social media platforms, our general aim has always been to keep track of the experiences and narratives that drive our lives. Any technology used to record one’s experience helps establish a narrative by shaping the experience according to the features of the technology. For instance, one can use a webcam to record a daily diary, but the resulting video clips are affected by the resolution of the camera, the quality of the microphone, and its position in the room; in the same way, an old-fashioned typing machine forces the writer to type only the characters built into it and to use the font style chosen by its producers. In both these cases, the resulting documents orient a passive memory which is being actively molded by the technology involved.
In 1927, the German writer and critic Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966) wrote Photography, an essay as dense as it is enlightening, in which he indicated how the birth of modern photography and the formation of historicist thought—according to him—emerged simultaneously. Generally speaking, the exponents of historicism believe they can explain any phenomenon purely in terms of its origin, reconstructing the course of events without any doubt of their temporal, chronological succession. While historicism seeks to provide a temporal continuum, photography presents what Kracauer defines as the "spatial continuum”.
If historicism is “concerned with the photography of time”, the photographic equivalent of this documentation of events should be “a giant film depicting the temporally interconnected events from every vantage point”.
At this point, the German critic compares photography to human memory, which is full of gaps: while the latter is not interested in dates and, on the contrary, skips and compresses time periods that may be several years long, photography captures what manifests itself within a spatial (or temporal) continuum. In other words, images within memory retain only what has a certain degree of meaning. Since what is significant is not reducible to merely spatial or temporal terms, the images created by memory are in open contrast with the photographic representation which appears, from the point of view of memory, as “a jumble that consists partly of garbage”. The image produced by memory is the sum of a series of factors which autonomously edits itself. In doing so, it is as indefinite in its outlines as it is precise in the conservation of the most significant, memorable elements.
Kracauer points out that history requires the destruction of the flat surface of photography in order to present itself. The selection made by human memory, only impressed by the most meaningful information, must inspire a new way to look at photography as a historic and coherent document.
The activation of visual media through the active participation of viewers is explored by Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). McLuhan’s definitions of hot and cold media, when incorporated with Kracauer, offer some interesting insights that I return to later on. McLuhan writes:
A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in "high definition." High definition is the state of being well filled with data. [...] Hot media do not leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience. [...] Our own time is crowded with examples of the principle that the hot form excludes, and the cool one includes.
Imagine a given medium as a bonfire. If it is already lit and hot, it won't need activation by its public but if it is extinct and cold, one will need to do something to make it work again. In this sense, photography cannot be "cold" because it provides a high amount of information that limits the participation of the observer, who must not fill any lack of data. The image created by memory, as understood by Kracauer, we can interpret as "cold" since it needs the involvement of the individual to fill in the absent parts and give meaning to all the elements that, arranged in a fragmentary manner, compose it.
Kracauer’s definition of memory also connects with the work of Russian film theorist and director Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) in that memory can be compared to the practice of film editing, in particular the stylistic montage for which Eisenstein is famous. Editing, like memory, is intended both as an act of selection—and consequently, exclusion—of contents, as well as the creation of meaning that goes beyond the individual images chosen. If images created by memory retain only what is most significant, the selection of these elements that comprise one’s memory is a montage.
Let’s explore this further. Any selection (of images or memories) requires a preliminary group of elements to choose from, stored in accessible archives. Accumulation is a mandatory premise for selection. But when the material is collected, an arbitrary choice is already made: why this and not that? The selection is applied even before recording anything. The problem becomes even more convoluted when the content is archived, because it must be labeled so that it can be reviewed at a later moment. This is a necessary step that delimits the memory of an experience or a narrative and their possible meanings on the basis of an arbitrary choice that, at least in its premises, is arbitrary. There's a conscious attempt at organising one’s life and ideas. “Christmas Holidays 2019”, “Cousin’s Wedding” and “First Day of School” are tags one can use to delimit the meanings of pictures and video clips that, otherwise, would be raw information lost, potentially forever, in the “Other” folder.
We have access to tools to archive visual and sound materials that were unthinkable until recently. There are few experiences that cannot be recorded and posted on the internet within a few minutes. The user-friendly interfaces of devices and social media platforms lead to a self-generating phenomenon, namely the alimentation of 24/7 global conversations that demand, as a sort of bigger-scale Pantagruel, more and more contents to be fed, a never-ending task that needs the effort of many. The ever increasing urging of updates and contents shared with friends and strangers has as a consequence the widening of the social and ideologic parameters with which each user selects the material to be shared online. The terrorising prospect of dealing with a tremendous amount of information that goes beyond our human conception of memory has become a central issue in the practice of many artists who are not digital natives. For Photography In Abundance (2011) by Dutch curator Erik Kessels, all the images uploaded within 24 hours on Flickr were printed and piled in the rooms of the exhibition space. In this installation, Kessels has given a physical and material form to the continuous flow of images and materials that are shared online by users from all over the world. The result is the sensation of drowning in the representations of the experiences of other people. In this sense, Kessels' installation suggests that one way to relate to this abundance is to learn to filter or, rather, select what interests us in a playful way.
The so-called "Web 2.0", a term coined in 2004 by Tim O'Reilly, differs from "1.0" due to the different configuration of the Network, now understood as a platform in which the users can act, upload their own materials and interact with websites and online services. Social media are designed with the predisposition to host content regarding the personal experiences of users, who publish them on their online personal spaces. Users are implicitly called to select what to show about themselves and to build a narrative of their experiences involving other people as much as possible. Archiving and sharing become the same act, as the published element quickly becomes obsolete, a detritus of the past which, unlike the photographs in Kessels' installation, will likely become less accessible, explored and, in short,
experienced. The archiving of files published by a user takes place, in addition to the databases of social networks, in the memory of those who view them, enriching and modifying the image created by their memory.
The problem is to foresee which posts on social media platforms will receive the greatest feedback from audiences whilst manifesting one’s own persona in building a memorable and genuine life-story. Following this, one’s daily life and special occasions become structured in such a way as to be adequately documented and narrated on social media. The user becomes an editor of their own personal story on the basis of what is generally perceived as "memorable". However, the question is: how can we understand what is worthy of being published? What direction should we give to our story?
Popular media such as TV series, films and novels establish how stories must be told in order to be perceived as interesting, and in the context of social media the moments that best resemble successful posts become the most favourable. For the most part, we try to assemble our memory and identity by reinforcing parameters imprinted by other representations of life. Social media is only the most recent case of this phenomenon whose origin is as old as humankind, i.e. the conformation of one’s lifestyle and behaviour after the most broadly accepted narratives; whether these are myths passed on, generation after generation, in a limited group of people, or marketing-driven, stream-lined style trends promoted by corporations through contemporary mass media. In this regard, social media platforms are the evolution of what films and TV shows did until a decade ago, in that they not only provide an efficient interface that allows users to be educated about how to narrate their own stories, but also a space where they can share their contents.
The webpage where each user views all the materials uploaded by other contacts is a space in which two selection methods converge: firstly, those implemented by the users themselves when they decide which documents of their experiences to publish and make visible to their contacts; secondly, those exercised by the online platform that analyses the uploaded materials to show a user only those that are potentially the most interesting for them. This mechanism takes place on the basis of various parameters, such as the number of interactions that have been generated up to then between the user and their contacts, the potential virality of the content itself and the set of topics that most attract the user, inferred from the terms they have most used and researched in the past on the same platform. The assembly of these materials is not free from external interventions and, on the contrary, is strongly influenced by the quantifying marketing-driven logic of the online service.
The two selections, the one implemented by users and the one applied by the online platforms, often lead to a flattening of the signifiers. Most of the materials displayed share methods of communication, both because some are created to be as viral as possible and because others are rewarded for actually being popular. The narration of one's own memories and existence is therefore part of a flow of images and representations similar to one another. The originality sought by users results in a social space where everyone is original in the same way. As Kracauer wrote about the illustrated magazines: "the assault of this mass of images is so powerful that it threatens to destroy the potentially existing awareness of crucial traits". As with the assembly of photographs published in magazines, the infinite sequence of contents on the webpage where users see posts from their contacts invades perception without leaving the opportunity to really interact with their meaning. In other words, we are faced with two hot media, to resume the subdivision postulated by McLuhan, earlier. In both cases, the magazines or the home page of the social networks “do not leave much space for the public to fill or complete; therefore involve limited participation.” To return to my earlier point; passive (indeed mimetic) memories are actively molded, or edited.
Automatic editing is the process of selecting materials without the intervention of any human agent. Information is processed, analysed and recomposed on the basis of criteria that should lead to an optimal result in the eyes of those who selected them. In other words, we pass from a "hot" recording to a "cold" montage: the high definition material, the starting material, is subjected to a process that makes it low definition. Once edited, the material needs the activation of the viewer to fill the gaps of information that have been left out because deemed insignificant by the automated editor.
Users have access to many software and hardware products that allow us to automatically edit visual and sound material. Often these are created to meet the expectations and needs of a non-specialised audience that records and accumulates material without the time and energy to take care of post-production.
Very often the same portable devices that record photographs, videos and sound tracks feature built-in automatic editing software, demonstrating the increasingly pressing need to manage a large amount of data. The Narrative Clip, a small camera that can be purchased for just under $200, is built to be carried by the user throughout their day: its battery lasts over 48 hours, weighs 20 grams and can contain 4000 images, captured by the integrated camera with a resolution of 5 megapixels. As the claim on the product’s official website suggests, "you can be sure to never miss a moment": the device automatically records everything that happens, unless it is switched off by the user. At the end of the day, once connected to the computer, it shows the images that have been captured in the most memorable moments of the last 24 hours. The criterion for which one image is preferred to others is quality: only images with the highest definition are chosen by the automated system to be mounted in the daily “best of”. It is only the image that features a lot of information—the “hot” image—that can tell the story, while the out-of-focus material, not bearing the largest possible amount of data, gets deleted.
A depository containing every single picture taken throughout the day would be overwhelmingly inexplicable for anyone looking for a specific moment. To use an example suggested by Italian semiotician Umberto Eco (1932-2016) in The Open Work (1962), it would be like watching a football match on TV and, suddenly, having the cameraman pointing the camera on what is happening outside the playing field, showing the buildings outside the stadium, the cars driving on the surrounding streets, ignoring the match and the players. What happens beside the match certainly exists but it is not what you want to enjoy. Automatic editing records everything but keeps only the most memorable events, the football match. By doing so, it shows a selection of stills that, without the active participation of the public, would feel disconnected, frozen, puzzle pieces that don’t work together. In other words, automatic editing is the attempt to bring order with invisible methods to “hot” material so that it can become more engaging - in short, “colder”.
Kracauer observed that we are in a world that has never before been so much represented: people are the first to record and document their lives, transforming them into manifestations, both visual and textual, which constitute the memory and the narration of one's own story. Kracauer’s observation is even more impressive if contextualised; he was referring to the dawn of popular media, when it was relatively up to top-down media as motion pictures, magazines, radio shows that trained people to experience their lives and memories according to their taste and narrative devices or tropes. We can only imagine what Kracauer might have thought of TikTok, Instagram hashtags and live-streaming, services and cross-referencing tools that result in a much more pervasive mediascape.
The ways we remember and the strategies we implement to mould our life events are shaped by technology and its media. If, until the invention of photography, our goal was to develop technologies that could record as many details as possible about a given event or subject, then with the high-definition recording devices currently available one has to worry about the opposite; once our database is crammed with data we don’t need, how are we going to find what we’re looking for? Automated editing comes in helpful, but in doing so raises further questions: what information is worth keeping? Which details won’t pass the selection and end up on the cutting room floor?
The implementation of automated editing systems in almost every single digital platform, whether its Spotify with its “On Repeat” playlist featuring “the music you've been streaming nonstop”, or Instagram’s homepage showing contents in an order that favours the degree of how much they are potentially interesting to you, fuels the so-called filter bubble, a state of intellectual isolation that, in order to keep us engaged, makes us blind to whatever is happening beyond our customised feed. If it’s true that our experience is heavily affected by design choices, it is paramount we understand how the automated mechanisms that regulate the technology we use to express ourselves, and learn about others, work.
It would be naive to think that technology won’t play any role in how our memories are made in the future. We have always liked, not needed, a medium or tool that helps us to remember what our mind is not able to recall. In this sense, a pen is not too different from a keyboard or a voice recorder. What changes is the degree to which our documentation of events are affected by design choices that are driven by the needs of corporations and governments.
To safeguard our memories and ensure that they remain unique, we are at a point where we must be skeptical of the end goal of social media and technology. Doing so has ramifications for our future, for how we remember our past.
Kracauer, S. (2014). The Past’s Threshold: Essays on Photography (Annotated ed.). Diaphanes.
McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media. McGraw-Hill Education.
Eisenstein, S., & Leyda, J. (1969). Film Form: Essays in Film Theory (First ed.). Harcourt.
Musser, J., & O’Reilly, T. (2007). Web 2.0. Van Duuren Media.
Pariser, E. (2012). The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think (Reprint ed.). Penguin Books.
Eco, U. (1989). The Open Work. Harvard University Press.
FILIPPO LORENZIN is an independent art writer, teacher and media theorist based in Italy. He has over 10 years experience in the fields of contemporary art and digital culture, collaborating with international venues, including Goethe Institut, Paris College of Art, and Arebyte. Alongside this activity, he worked as manager at the Victoria and Albert Museum. His research focus is digital culture and art within the broader context of art history. Twitter.
(Image credits, courtesy of WikiArt, all rights reserved: Memories of Travel, 1911, Gino Severini; Lilies, 2000, Gerhard Richter; Radio City Music Hall, 1978, Hiroshi Sugimoto; Marilyn, 1962, Allan D’Arcangelo; Footballers Prefer Shell, 1934, Paul Nash; The Reflection, 1915, Edward E. Simmons.)