Sunday 1 January 2023

The web is the most conservative force on earth - Charles Leadbeater 'The Spectator', 12 July 2008

Digital technology has made us a society of mass archivers, says Charles Leadbeater. Far from rotting our brains, the web enables us to preserve all our memories

Archiving is not regarded by most people as sexy, glamorous or even interesting. Odd then that most of us, and especially the young, hip and trendy, seem to have become avid archivists without even realising it.

My archive, which I keep on the web, and in my computer, mobile phone and iPod, is neither particularly extensive nor interesting: several thousand digital photographs, play-lists of songs, endless dull policy reports, papers and presentations, some internet postings, Facebook friends and connections. Teenagers, however, are archiving their lives as they happen through blog entries and photos taken on camera phones, much of which they organise collaboratively, in semi-public, on the web. We have become a society of mass archiving.

At first sight it seems obvious that these rapidly expanding digital archives should enrich our individual and collective memory. We are more able than ever to capture, store, search, retrieve and share reminders of people and events. By tagging our digital photos with descriptions we are less at risk of forgetting who we were with, where, when and why. By sharing photos with friends on social network sites we create multiple copies and perspectives, so we should never lose anything and we should have a richer interpretation of events.

Social networking sites will keep us in touch with friends even when our ageing minds cannot retrieve their names. That clever Sky+ box will remember to record an entire series of television programmes for me even as I struggle to remember crucial things like the location of glasses, keys, credit cards and past holidays.

My parents have a large box of black and white photos in their loft, mainly of groups of smartly dressed people looking slightly uncomfortable at the seaside in the middle decades of the last century. I have no idea who most of these people were. When my parents pass away the meaning of this physical archive of family history will be lost. In future families with digital archives should not suffer this catastrophic memory loss.

From early on the computer revolution promised to create vast shared stores of memory. When Lee Felsenstein became chair of the Homebrew Computer Club in the early 1970s he had just started a project called Collective Memory for people to share their memories using computers in public places around Berkeley. Similar projects on a much larger scale are now being run all over the world. Our expanded capacity for collective memory will make us more productive and politics more accountable.

One of Tim Berners-Lee’s motives for creating the software that spawned the web was his poor memory; he tended to lose things. One of the attractions of digital files is that it is easier to trace their history. If a software project runs into the sand, the programmer should be able to trace his way back to the fork where he took a wrong turn. Digital technology keeps older versions of the same document. That makes it easier to retrace our steps to ideas that were prematurely discarded, often one of the richest sources for innovation.

Our collective capacity for instant recall should help to make power more accountable. Hillary Clinton’s mistaken memory that she arrived at Tuzla airport under sniper fire was quickly corrected. The powerful will find it more difficult to impose on us their version of the past.

The expansion of our shared memory in millions of mini-archives should be an unalloyed good, especially for an ageing society in which millions of people will be losing their memories and, as a result, their sense of themselves in the decades to come. Yet a growing group of thoughtful sceptics -- the neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, the technology critic Nicholas Carr -- argue that far from supporting our minds, the web is rotting them, including our capacity for memory.

Carr argues that the web is engulfing us in a culture of distraction in which it becomes impossible to focus and think clearly.

Greenfield and other neuroscientists warn that this culture of distraction is reshaping how our minds develop: destroying our capacity to organise our memory for ourselves, reducing memory to mere bits of disconnected stimulus and so, in the extreme, undermining our capacity to develop a distinct identity based on our own narrative of our lives.

Certainly cues for individual memory will be even more social in future and so in some ways less under our control. Your past will be recorded on your friends' social networking sites, warts and all. This will have downsides. I for one am very glad that YouTube and Facebook were not around when I was 17. Employers will no longer have to trust your account of your history set out in your CV; they will be able to look at your social networking profiles, blogs and other online activities. As yet the generation growing up with the web, however, seem pretty relaxed about this public display of private memories: if everyone is putting embarrassing material online, why worry?

We will have to make quite different judgments about our memories and archives. For my parents' generation any memento sparked a precious memory of an important family event. Anything that could be preserved became precious just because it had survived.

Writing history is mainly an exciting act of detective work to piece together the story in scraps of material left behind by earlier generations. Historians of this period of history onwards will have the opposite problem: too much material to choose from.

We, the mass archivers, will face the same issues. Now we can keep so much, so easily, the question becomes how to distinguish the significant from the merely everyday. That is why the most contentious issue in the Wikipedia community has been the dispute over what counts as a notable entry. When everything and anything could have a Wikipedia entry -- my local cheese shop for example -- why disallow something from being recorded for posterity?

Sceptics like Carr and Greenfield are following in the footsteps of the American poet William Stanley Merwin who, long before the USB stick and the iPod, predicted that the fallibility of human memory would lead to the creation of personal remembering machines which would preserve both what their owners experience and their perspectives on that experience. Writing in 1969, Merwin warned these machines would eventually become substitutes for experience itself and a man who lost his machine would become 'a ghost'. Far from creating a reliable outboard memory, digital technology is encouraging a dangerous dependency, the sceptics warn.

Yet we have always partly stored our memories outside our heads, in everything from holiday memorabilia to the landscape we inhabit.

The range of ways we can support the organisation of our failing memories is expanding.

Off-loading mundane tasks to technology to allow us more time to think and dream should make us better off. The alarmists are wrong: the web is not rotting our minds. More people than ever will be able to live for longer with a richer set of memories which they can show to and share with other people, giving them a stronger sense of identity.

Now pass me that USB stick. I'd like to upgrade my memories.

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