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Posted by on Oct 11, 2010

Digital Nostalgia: There is no forgetting

Since our discussions of digital culture seem to encapsulate so many emotive elements, it stands to reason that they would include one for nostalgia. In the interests of research bias disclosure, I must forewarn that I am a nostalgic sort. Sitting here knee deep in the throngs of a Princeton autumn lends itself to that, to remembrance of things past (Proust=the original glitch in the Matrix, a fading sense of memory), to plans made, to friends lost and found. Continuing on this thread, I began to wonder what the memory of digital culture might look like. What our collective nostalgia might refer to.

We often assume the tapestry of all this memory, the Internet, is a fickle, fleeting, ephemeral beast. Indeed, it is, not unlike casual conversation, awkward glances, sights, sounds, and smells. In isolation, they are easily forgotten. However, someone remembered to remember in this instance. Someone recorded it all (birth of religion? an entity that remembers all and therefore predates all?). It exists in digital and physical form. It is a collective knowledge store of ephemeral events. It is called the Internet Archive and it is basically a snapshot of the Internet taken on regular intervals. It captures iterations of sites over a course of time, sites long since forgotten, and stores them perpetually. Fittingly, it is located at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the new edifice built on top of the ruins of the ancient Library of Alexandria in Egypt. It is a record of our digital culture; every conversation, every thread, every passing fancy of it.

Curious to revisit what interfaces looked like in 1997? Give it a whirl. I personally came directly to the birth of my interactive phase with the Internet. When I began to help write it. A 2001 version of Blogger. You can try as well through the portal at the Internet Archive. Remind yourself how you have changed with the interfaces, with the spacing, the coloring, how your perception has altered along with the container presenting information. We are bound in a nutshell, counting ourselves kings of infinite space.

So what does nostalgia mean? As the Library of Congress attempts to do a Twitter archive, I find myself wondering and questioning. Is life fleeting if we are able to capture it? Can nostalgia mean anything when we have artefacts everywhere? What will it mean to forget, or will that become anachronistic? Will life, both digital and otherwise, be a perpetual present?

I leave you with my childlike (infantile?) fascination with the elevator at the Cecil Hotel in Alexandria, once the home of Winston Churchill, Noel Coward, and me (for a week). An anachronistic elevator, a Flip camera, me, and YouTube will forever immortalize it. There is no forgetting.

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6 Comments

  1. Hi Michael,
    I remember a lecture on statistics that I attended many years ago. The lecturer clearly didn’t want to teach the subject, and I have to say that we were there on sufferance. That said, his lectures were interesting for their digressions – and on one occasion he discussed our culture in terms of what we will leave behind in thousands of years to come.

    If history follows its cyclic pattern, it is reasonable to assume that our civilisation and culture will eventually decline and be at least partially forgotten in the manner of the ancient Egyptians, or the indeed the less well known Hittites. However, they at least recorded their histories upon monuments that could stand the test of time, and be uncovered at a later point.

    So the question he posed was – what would we leave behind ? What do we produce that will stand the test of millennia ?

    Finding an answer had most of us stumped. The Voyager space explorer was perhaps the best answer – with experts asserting that it should be slowly eroded over the course of the next 20 billion years – as long as it avoids a direct collision with something. Whilst this was a good answer, it was somewhat limited by it’s inaccessibility to future archaeologists !

    Could this be the test of a truly digital culture – in that there will perhaps be almost no trace of it in centuries to come ?

  2. Thought provoking response, Mark. Much appreciated. What will we leave behind? I would argue that perhaps it won’t be a conscious choice, a decision to include or exclude items based on some time-specific criteria.

    Perhaps, and this is just me daydreaming here a bit, perhaps thee digital records and bits of information are indelibly tied to the structure of the network itself. Perhaps they will demonstrate patterns like tree rings, or a smooth stone worn by the crashing of the waves. The presence of endless artefacts will have shaped whatever present we encounter. So, metaphorically they never disappear.

    I think we have reached an age where things will be forgotten, but not those things of use. We live in an age of an endless present, a hyper-history constantly regurgitating lessons on us, the byproduct of a fast failure society. I believe this indeed to be a good thing, that history is never really that archaic, that these cycles have become much shorter.

    I am not articulating it well, but I suspect that utility will drive history, sort of the victor writes the history sort of mentality. I think digitally we will never forget as our digital culture has its own collective memory. But, I may lose my treasured memories of Zork long term.

  3. Really interesting post Michael and on a subject which has been preoccupying me as well. The seemingly ephemeral nature of much of what is produced, read and manipulated in cyberspace has made me wonder if we could really claim there is something called ‘cyberculture’. Culture has always been something transmitted from one generation to the next, as well as from one culture to another and one individual to another. What traditions and cultural practices are we passing on in cyberspace?

    I was fascinated to learn about the Internet archive – certainly it is ‘capturing’ events or instances but are these instances being transmitted to the next generation of Internet users?

    • Thanks for that, Noreen. Interesting point about transmitting culture and how that might be reflected or should be reflected in any digital culture discussion. That is a big question, but I do suspect there are things we are passing along here; however, I wonder if as technology becomes more ubiquitous, less a distinct “thing”, and more an appendage (post-human) if digital culture will permanently bleed into culture. I think all things want to merge eventually, if only to blow apart again at a later date so I suspect these two cultures will fuse.

      But you are right in regards to the Internet Archive, an amazing attempt at archiving. But digital archives are no different than dusty old archives in libraries; they are rarely used. What are we transmitting here? I suspect we will rely on the same thing we always relied on in the past: our social network. The scribes of yesteryear as the bloggers of today? Something like that. Somewhere in our midst, we will see a reversion to an oral tradition, perhaps? Of transmitting to the young that which has value in our culture. I suspect nothing will change there; it just might be mediated with technology a bit.

      Really got my brain working there, Noreen!

  4. I agree, I think the two ‘cultures’ will fuse but I do think that to some extent we have lost that link with the young, where the older members of a cultural group passed on the cultural heritage to young. My daughters have had some strong cultural influences from their online networks, most of which are exclusively also made up of young people. I think they have also been influenced by myself, my husband and their grandparents and older relatives but those influences may take longer to manifest themselves.

  5. Interesting, Noreen. Thanks for bringing this perspective as I hadn’t considered this connection to younger generations (not having children myself). How is this transmitted? What role will the older generation play in the development of the young?

    I wonder if these cultural transmission roles cannot be replicated in digital cultures as well? Or even if they should be? How can experience, wisdom, even authority be represented online? Let me think some more, Noreen. Excellent questions!

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