Middle English Word of the Moment

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A brief thought on forms of memory.

If we can say that there is a time (say, the first two centuries after the Norman Conquest in England) when collective and individual memory shifted from being recorded aurally to written record. And that this involved not just a change of habits and accepted forms (though those are not to be underestimated in their effects on society) but a fundamental change in the way individual memories were shaped from childhood to be used, and therefore the capacity of each individual (generally speaking) to record and retain certain types of information. Then what are we to make of the current shift from the written to the digital, to the tendency to carry most information around on an external hard drive? More to the point, what will historians and sociologists make of it in a century or two? If, you know, we still exist by then.

Also, the change to written record had an obvious and fundamental effect on what information and how much of it is likely to survive to the next generations. The methods and platforms with which electronic information can be accessed are far more susceptible to change. Floppy disc, USB, bluetooth? Will we be able to access daily and personal records in ten years, or only the official ones that have been perforce updated as time went by? And how will this affect our perception of the past? Particularly as digitised information may prove to be more or less democratic than the book - potentially more generally and easily accessible, but literacy becomes even more essential and more complex, and more monolingual at that. The book is more lasting than the spoken word, but will the row of 0s and 1s be more or less enduring, and access to it more or less restricted by social parameters?


dgm said...

a good point.

while those of us who work in digital archiving talk about open formats open standards and the rest there seems to be a collective urge to ignore the fact that to maintain and upgrade the hardware and pay the people to look after it requires a funding model.

This is obscured by all of this free stuff, eg blogger, wordpress, wetpaint etc etc. These providers do not actually guarantee to continue to provide any of these services for a reasonably long length of time.

Also obscuring this is that that you can do a lot with relatively little money. However, we have already seen geocities disappear, plus a number of digitisation projects die because of funding cuts.

Consequently we need a funding model for persistence. Up till now only (Christian) monasteries and some of the older universities have provided this with any degree of success.

Tonsures anyone?

dgm said...

I should have also have mentioned Lockss and Clockss as two commendable initiatives to keep content safe, by replicating it over several locations - each hopefull with separate funding arrangements ....

tenthmedieval said...

Note that Michael Clanchy is working on a new edition of From Memory to Written Record, which seems to be what you're channeling here, which will push the date further back, or at least give due space to the Anglo-Saxon state's use of the written word in a new initial chapter. This comes largely out of the furore kicked up in the wake of Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe which you may find useful if you haven't already seen it.

But as to the basic point, yes! And you probably know I agree with you already. Your spin on it is interesting though. I'd never thought of what our Clanchy will say.

Ceirseach said...

Now you mention it, yes, I probably was channelling Clanchy! And thank you - I hadn't seen Uses of Literacy, but I shall look it up.

Ceirseach said...

dgm: I hadn't even noticed that geocities had disappeared! So much for my little collection of photos that I had on there when I was in high school and had entirely forgotten about for the last 5+ years. And yes, of course: blogger could choose to take this down tomorrow, or collapse accidentally, theoretically.

I hadn't heard of Lockss and Clockss, but I suppose they also need some form of maintenance and continued funding. As do universities and monasteries, of course, but at least their books don't vanish into the ether when they disintegrate.

I wonder what the digital equivalent of the Cotton fire would be? Probably a particularly rampant virus.