Category Archives: Document

Writing, memory and freedom

Is this memory?

One of the reasons we write things down is to help us remember. That seems clear; I don’t want to forget your phone number or what I was supposed to get from the grocery store, so I write it down.

Some ancient philosophers worried that writing would wipe away our capacity for organically remembering things. Even today, writers such as Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, make analogous arguments.

But those worries seem secondary to the problem that writing (and information systems generally) creates the sense that all memories have been recorded and are retrievable.

First of all, this is an illusion. It is impossible to record everything, and gaps are inevitable. Frighteningly, we may not notice when things are missing, and we fill in the gaps through inference. We know this in everyday life as “jumping to conclusions.” The idea that we think we can record everything seems to come from the 20th-century enchantment with computing, whose metaphors have permeated many aspects of life.

Psychologist Arthur Glenberg argues against this position in his 1997 paper What Memory is For. The idea of total recall—that our brains are recording everything we ever experience but that it’s locked away and can be coaxed out through psychotherapy—is a myth, Glenberg argues. Rather, Glenberg advances a view of memory as a facilitator of action in our environments, and something that is not totally accurate (and shouldn’t be!). More recently, Julia Shaw makes similar points in her book The Memory Illusion, in which she goes over many ways that our memories can betray us. The pernicious thing is not when we forget—it’s when we misremember things and think we’re correct. You can watch an animated abstract for The Memory Illusion here:

Second, remembering may not always be the best thing. Also in 1997, Geof Bowker published a paper on the importance of organizational forgetting. Organizations need to manage a lot of information and knowledge. Normally we think of this only in terms of remembering, but organizations also need to think about forgetting—especially that which no longer serves.

In the everyday lives of individuals, too, memories can sometimes be straightjackets. Sure, it’s easy to argue that forgetting an unpleasant memory could be problematic, but the ability to forget aspects of one’s past is also important for moving forward.

Modern technology has made this so much more complicated. Consider, for example, that you once had an abusive lover. You’ve since broken up, but remembering that person feels more painful than helpful. In the days of yore, you could simply burn all the photographs of the two of you and that would be that. But today, traces of your past relationship may be strewn about Facebook forever. For another sort of example, the work of Oliver Haimson on the intersection of gender transition and social media also presents a fascinating case.

The point is, the (im)possibility of forgetting becomes a crucial ethical issue today. Philosopher Luciano Floridi writes in The Ethics of Information:

Recorded memories tend to freeze the nature of their subject. The more memories we accumulate and externalize, the more narrative constraints we provide for the construction and development of personal identities. Increasing our memories also means decreasing the degree of freedom we might enjoy in defining ourselves. Forgetting is also a self-poietic [creative] art… Capturing, editing, saving, conserving, and managing one’s own memories for personal and public consumption will become increasingly important not just in terms of protection of informational privacy… but also in terms of a morally healthy construction of one’s personal identity.

We should remember that memory slips are not all bad—both mental forgetting and missing written information. And we should also be more humble about what we do “remember,” because it may very well be wrong.

Documenting the self

I’ve been hard at work on my dissertation proposal—I’m studying the processes of artistic self-portraiture—and I’ve been thinking about self-documentation. In modern society we seem to be compelled to write about ourselves. We make resumes and CVs, and we write bios for our social media profiles, which are becoming central for everything from everyday communication to dating and business. There are, of course, also many non-verbal ways in which we document ourselves, which is a focus of my dissertation.

The later work of Michel Foucault suggests that self-documentation is not new. On the contrary, many in Ancient Greece and Rome apparently kept hupomnēmata, or notebooks “to collect what one has managed to hear or read, and for a purpose that is nothing less than the shaping of the self.” These were fragmentary notebooks, but their result was not merely a collection of disjointed scraps; rather, they contributed to a new whole, along with the writer themselves. According to Foucault, the purpose of the hupomnēmata was to care for the self, which was an ancient directive. (Foucault laments that today we only recall know thyself, having forgotten about care for thyself.) As Foucault writes, “writing transforms the things seen or heard ‘into tissue and blood.’” People regularly returned to their hupomnēmata for nourishment.

The function of the hupomnēmata is quite different from the modern genre of autobiography, whose purpose is not to care for the self but to care for others. Autobiographies and many other self-documents are packaged for sale (in various senses), but the hupomnēmata were intensely private. They were more about the process than the product.

Today, some of us keep hupomnēmata. Mine, if you could call it that, is in Evernote. But I think this is a rare practice. On the other hand, many people cultivate something like hupomnēmata in their social media feeds. A Twitter feed, for instance, presents a seemingly disjointed collection of thoughts and snippets from the world, and it seems to be both like and unlike hupomnēmata. On Twitter (and other social media, or even ICT-made self-documents in general), are posts revisited as a means of self-care? Is the primary audience the self or another?

Feeling the texture of text

Cross-stitched book sculpture by Lauren DiCioccio

The word text and the word textile have a shared Latin origin. This is readily apparent, but still it begs the question: What do texts have to do with textiles?

The word text comes to us from the Latin textus (via the Old French texte). In Classical Latin, textus referred to the construction of a linguistic work; in Medieval Latin, it had come to refer to written treatises or, more specifically, Scripture. The term textus, in turn, came from the word texō, meaning “I weave.” Textile, then, refers to a literal weaving of cloth and other materials, whereas text refers to a metaphorical weaving. Also related is the word texture, which refers to the quality of a weaving—I can talk about the texture of an argument or the texture of a tapestry.

But a text is never really just a metaphorical weaving. It is, always, also, a literal weaving of material and idea. We don’t always seem to appreciate this. For instance, we likely consider two different copies of a book to have the same text, even if they are different editions. However, a text must be written—otherwise it would just be a series of words or an idea. Therefore, the writtenness of a text must have something to do with its meaning.

This was the insight behind the Texts and Textiles conference in 2012 at the Centre for Material Texts at Cambridge. (Wish I could have gone!) This conference celebrates the meaning that materials contribute to texts (as, I must meantion, does the Document Academy on an ongoing basis, for those who are interested).

Still, our tendency to ignore the material side of texts is unignorable and worth exploring.

I’m not sure the extent to which this aspect of our view of texts is modern or new, but if it is, then the work of Michael Heim may shed some insight on the matter. In his book Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing, first published in 1987, Heim writes:

In the psychic framework of word processing, text is increasingly experienced as data. … As the writer or reader now controls the search process through a logically determined program, certain random and intuitive kinds of reading and consulting will no longer be possible in referencing procedures. … What one accesses on line will tend to be precisely what one is looking for—always filtered in advance by the terms of Boolean logic.

Ron Day, in his book Indexing It All, makes similar observations: He discusses how the concept of document has been eviscerated and fragmented as the modern concept of information.

In essence, the motto of information systems seems to go: “If you want to be more successful in giving people what they ask for, then limit what they can ask for.” Soon people come to ask for only what they know they can get… and this provides the grounding for two big information-age issues we’re facing today: filter bubbles and fake news. Overcoming these phenomena, it seems to me, requires that we remember how to feel the texture of text.