I was privileged to be invited to speak at Figtree's Figtalks event as part of Digital Shoreditch last night. When I have to stand up and talk to people I will often write something long form before turning it into speakers' notes and delivering the same thing in mangled form. So here is my talk in its original wordy glory. Apologies for the lack of hyperlinks or pictures... and thanks to Simon for the Gibson quote at the start, and to Justin for chipping in the interesting bits.
I'm going to talk about the business of digital remembering, and I'm going to start with a quote from William Gibson:
We are that strange species that constructs artefacts intended to counter the natural flow of forgetting...
Our ancestors, when they found their way to that first stone screen, were commencing a project so vast that it only now begins to become apparent: the unthinking construction of a species-wide, time defying, effectively immortal prosthetic memory.
I started making websites 15 years ago. Back then we threw stuff online and pretty much hoped for the best. We certainly gave little if any thought for the implications of how it would look in a decade's time. Indeed outside of academia, that would have been an odd question for anyone to ask. It was an age of experimentation, and if we did think about the deep future we probably would have guessed that most of what we were working on then would be replaced as the technology marched on. That's proved largely true - if a website from that time has survived, it's the exception rather than the rule, and we see it as a quaint museum piece. It will also have survived, if at all, as a bundle - content, presentation & structure all bound together in a way that is only useful if you want to approach the website as a single artefact, but pretty useless if you want to make any other use of the content - and forget about anything like structured data. So - looking back at William Gibson's words - to the extent that we were constructing a species-wide, time defying prosthetic memory, it was certainly unthinking but quite a stretch to describe it as immortal.
But the past was, even then, beginning to creep into the present. Digression for a minute - does anyone remember the scene near the end of Brazil where De Niro’s swashbuckling plumber turned freedom fighter Tuttle is overhelmed and eventually obliterated by scraps of paper?
That image for me (apart from being one of the great moments of cinema) seems an apt one to convey the pitfalls of remembering by accident. The unthinking accumulation of stuff is at best only part of the way to good remembering. Our computers have a thing called memory, which creates the illusion that by putting stuff there we are remembering it. But good remembering needs more than just storage - it needs storage of selected things in a structured way, and with therefore the possibility of the right kind of access. Why do we bother remembering if it's not natural for us? We have developed tools for remembering in our families and our institutions to supplement the limitations of our brains and lifespans as carriers for a complex culture. At its best, remembering helps us to be human and enhances our identities. But often, we don't do so well. What happens to Tuttle looks a lot to me like the happenstance remembering that we tend to do if we're not careful - we end up with things like bureaucracy and family baggage that instead of enhancing our identities tend to diminish us.
And that was pretty much our default way of dealing with the passage of time in the early Internet. Menus, indices and lists were simply getting longer and longer, and eventually awkward decisions began to be needed about what to keep and what to lose. Those of us working at the BBC began to reach for the Get Out of Jail Free card that was 'mothballing' - a banner along the top of our websites stating when the page was last updated, and that 'we have left it here for reference'.
Nowadays, things are different. We seem to have reached a turning point of sorts, where it's clear that the Internet no longer exists in a breathless eternal present, and it is now rare for smart people creating digital content to ignore time & memory altogether. Hooray! At this point I have to mention Facebook. Sorry.
Facebook has realised that the past is at least as compelling as the present. It started life as a service focusing on a wide cross-section of the present; serving its users snapshots of each other's lives and doings in the very recent past. Sam Lessin, one of the brains behind Facebook's newish Timelines feature somewhat hyperbolically described that approach as 'the single biggest lost opportunity in the history of human story telling'. Timelines takes a wholly different cut of the data that its users have generated, realising that, properly structured and exposed, it offers them the opportunity to curate the stories of their own lives. In other words, Facebook realised that it had unwittingly turned itself into a machine to generate biographies.
I made a distinction earlier between conscious & accidental memory. Facebook became conscious that it was doing a kind of remembering that it hadn't noticed before, and invited its users to make the same switch from accidental to deliberate - to become active curators, filling in the gaps in their digital records between their birth and the present.
Back to the BBC for a minute. Their Head of Archive Development Tony Ageh last year made the point in a speech to a room full of European public service broadcasters that 'the Internet is turning us all... into memory institutions'. One passage of his talk looked at a recent project using the BBC archive to shed the light of hindsight on the 1980s Miners' Strike. Probably the key line is this: "The footage needs to be balanced by personal input – by witness accounts – by the voice of people and the opinions of people who were involved." In other words, organisations like the BBC (and more familiarly museums and galleries) - squarely "memory institutions" - perform the most useful service to society's collective memory by opening their content up & letting the participants in those stories reclaim and remix them.
But if we look again at the idea of Facebook as a machine to generate biographies - and in fact, an interlocking graph of biographies - we can see that that phrase 'memory institution' can also apply (in a very different way) to a social network. To understand quite how widely that metaphor actually applies nowadays - far wider than I think Tony Ageh intended it - let's turn for a minute to a business that would appear to be about the present par excellence: a newswire organisation. The Press Association is known as a provider of up-to-the-minute news that pretty well comprehensively covers whatever is newsworthy in this country. What happened yesterday, let alone last year, would appear to be the least of their concerns. And yet the PA have been busy working on a data map that enables them to publish their news not simply as text but as an ongoing and structured record that anatomises the news into events, individuals, relationships and dates. What's particularly interesting is that this isn't an altruistic attempt to provide a public service. Like Facebook, the PA have seen that there is commercial potential in the act of creating structure around collective memory.
So there are many reasons to get into the memory business. There are also many ways of doing it. For some, it will make sense to embrace the philosophy and principles of Open Data (have a search for Tim Berners Lee’s 5 levels of open data if you want to get more detail on this). If they do, there is an increasingly sophisticated and powerful community of practitioners ready to embrace and support them - you might be familiar with open government initiatives for example, that have already spawned some extremely useful things, such as theyworkforyou.com or fixmystreet.com. I often advise subsidised arts organisations of all shapes and sizes, and these days I rarely miss an opportunity to invite them to consider this kind of approach (whether they like it or not).
At a slightly less structured level we can look at the Guardian or the New York Times publishing topic-based aggregations of their articles, or the emergence of loose structures driven by public contribution through tagging for photos on Flickr, or music on last.fm etc. Or to take another example from the Guardian, the more subtle and less open approach of republishing its content inside Facebook and making itself - and its stories individually - part of the interlocking graph of user timelines.
Then at the opposite extreme, but an equally coherent response to the question of how to deal with the passage of time and accumulation of memory, would be another project I've recently worked on. In the redesign of its News website, ITV has deliberately opted for a latest-first live blog structure that focuses on the present and pretty ruthlessly pushes the past out of sight. And that's OK too. The point is that they have thought about it, there is a reason for this approach and they are not simply accumulating visible content and links by default.
I don't have a lot of time left to look at the parallel streams of digital remembering that's being done by individuals. I do need to point out (in case it's not blindingly obvious) that Facebook is far from the only option, and that we all as individuals have a similar range of choices to make about happenstance vs conscious remembering, levels of openness and structure, and the mix of content & data, involved in our remembering. In the case of individual remembering, we also need to throw in some additional considerations around privacy and ownership.
It is worth saying that, for individuals, the enterprise of fixing a fossil record of the present as the past of the future has increasingly been joined by that of reaching back into the analogue past and digitising it. 1000memories, a digital service that provides easy tools to encourage users to digitise their family records both genealogical and photographic, have carried out some research pointing to 2011 as the year when we collectively started to scan more analogue photos than we printed digital ones. This illustrates a wider point: after a transitional period where many of us were unsure where our personal archives belonged, we have realised that digital storage is not merely an experiment, a fad or a toy. It's here to stay in a way which the more apparently real, tangible and durable physical artefacts of our remembering are not.
What I think this all adds up to is a challenge to everyone who isn't Facebook to recognise that we all have reasons - from the public good through the need to update our business models and on to our desire to capture and preserve a personal legacy - to think about what time and remembering mean to us in the digital realm - and to get conscious. After all, have any of us in this room yet learned enough about how to do our digital remembering that we could teach it to our children?