This is a snippet from Mayer-Schönberger (2011) that I happened to read soon after the Digital Blackness Symposium in Ferguson, Missouri. In one panel presentation we heard from a group of activists who spoke in part about how they wanted the records of protest in Ferguson to reflect how the activists changed as individuals. This was actually a theme that continued on from the first meeting a year earlier, where one of the main takeaways was that the archive needs to reflect voices in time–voices that are in the process of becoming. In Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, Meyer-Schönberger draws on similar ideas and specifically focuses on how digital media’s ability to collapse time can actually work to to prevent change from happening:
But there is one further dimension of how digital remembering negates time. Earlier I mentioned digital dossiers and results of person queries in search engines. They are odd because they are limited to information available in digital format, and thus omit (possibly important) facts not stored in digital memory. Equally odd is how in such dossiers time is collapsed, and years–perhaps decades of life–are thrown together: that a person took out a loan a decade ago may be found next to the link to an academic paper she published six years later, as well as a picture posted on Flickr on last week. The resulting collage with all the missing (as well as possibly misleading) bits is no accurate reflection of the person themselves. Using an ever more comprehensive set of digital sources does not help much either. The resulting digital collage of facts would still be problematic. It would be like taking a box of unsorted photos of yourself, throwing on a table and thinking that by just looking hard enough at them you might gain a comprehensive accurate sense of who the person in the photos actually is today (if you think this example if far-fetched, just look at Flickr, and how it makes accessible photos taken over long periods of time). These digital collages combine in-numerous bits of information about us, each one (at best) having been valid at a certain point in our past. But as it is presented to us, it is information from which time has been eliminated; a collage in which change is visible only as tension between two contradicting facts, not as an evolutionary process, taking place over time.
Some worry that digital collages resemble momentary comprehensive snapshots of us frozen in time, like a photograph, but accessible to the world. Actually, digital collages are much more disquieting than that. They are not like one, but hundreds, perhaps thousands of snapshots taken over our lifetime superimposed over each other, but without the perspective of time. How can we grasp a sense of a person that way? How can we hope to understand how a person evolved over the years, adjusting his views, adapting his (changing) environment? How can we pretend to know who that person is today, and how his values, his thinking, his character have evolved, when all that we are shown is timeless collage of personal facts thrown together? Perhaps, the advocates of digital memory would retort that we could do so with appropriate digital filters, where through visual presentation time could be reintroduced, like color coding years, or sorting events. I am afraid it still might not fully address the problem. Because I fear the real bottleneck of conflating history and collapsing time is not digital memory, but human comprehension. Even if we were presented with a dossier of facts, neatly sorted by date, in our mind we would still have difficulties putting things in the right temporal perspective, valuing facts over time … From the perspective of the person remembering, digital memory impeded judgment. From the perspective of the person remembered, however, it denies development, and refuses to acknowledge that all humans change all the time. By recalling forever each of our errors and transgressions digital memory rejects our human capacity to learn from them, to grow and evolve.
Part of me wants to say that this was the case with physical folders full of paper documents, and photographs too. It’s interesting to consider how digital media functions differently because of the way it implies completeness and obscures its gaps and inconsistencies. Indeed, Meyer-Schönberger points out that digital media actually is much more malleable on scales that are inconceivable with paper documents.
Mayer-Schönberger, V. (2011). Delete: The virtue of forgetting in the digital age. Princeton University Press.