Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Problem with Memory 1: The Memory Boom

The Protector: Siste, Viator (2010). © By Juniae. Reproduced with kind permission.

Like any profession, academia has its fads.  Over the past several years, Cultural Studies departments have focussed on memory - how it works, what it means.  Politicized debates have sprung up over how to interpret the past, whether some areas of the past (such as the histories of the World Wars) are the preserves of particular political camps.  That is not new.  Nor is it completely new that techniques and theories previously developed in cultural historical studies - are now applied in branding strategies and social networking, along with some psychological and anthropological data.  Intrusive marketing methods already attempt to find out what makes us tick in order to target us with products.  For example, there is a report out (here) that movie screens will be equipped with infra-red cameras to gauge people's reactions to advertising and probably the film itself.  The cameras will scan audience members' faces and record their emotions.  What is new is that marketers also aim to get into our past personal histories - and change them.

There is a post on Read Write Web (here) that suggests that Facebook will likely start product placements in people's private photographs. Our memories and our pasts constituted marketable territory.

Inception trailer (2010). © Warner Bros. Video: Youtube.

Mucking around with people's histories so that they can be plugged into our Brave New World more easily is sinister.  Once some Facebook affiliate inserts their product into your prom photo on Facebook, you could be lumped in with the bundle of people who like that product and related products. You could be entered into a category, whether you belong in that category, or not.

Keynote for the John Seely Brown Symposium at University of Michigan from Aza Raskin on Vimeo.

Facebook has not actually done this. The Read Write Web post is reporting on a keynote speech delivered at a conference in at the University of Michigan School of Information; the speech was posted online on October 18 (here). The keynote speaker, Aza Raskin, Creative Lead for Mozilla Firefox, gave dire warnings about the longer term aims of social networking sites - in a phrase, he said, "Your memories will be rewritten."  From the Read Write Web report:
The human brain's predictable fallibility leaves us susceptible to the creation of false memories by brand marketers through retroactive product placement into our photos posted on Facebook and other social networks ... .  "Changing pictures on Facebook to include product placement will create false memories," Raskin warned at the conclusion of a 45 minute presentation about the plasticity of human memory. "We will have memories of things we never did with brands we never did. Our past actions are the best predictor of our future decisions, so now all of a sudden, our future decisions are in the hands of people who want to make money off of us. That makes me very, very scared. I can see this happening and I can see it happening very soon."

Comparing popular culture to several examples of neurological research on the topic, Raskin says: "[The movie] Inception made it seem like implanting a false memory was hard, but it turns out that it's really easy to make false memories. It takes one session of less than an hour, or a couple of paragraphs [of written text]."  Raskin, aged 27, is one of the most prolific inventors at Mozilla and a serial entrepreneur besides ... he makes a call to arms for information professionals to try to stop this dystopian future of cognitive brand subterfuge of free will, but he notes that no one knows how to inoculate people from it. Even people aware of the tactics remain susceptible to them, he argues.
Raskin has a business interest in describing what he calls an "ecosystem of competition" and possibly in criticizing Facebook (I don't know the nature of Mozilla's competition with Facebook).  Regardless, if Raskin is right, and it is true that false memories can be implanted, then rewriting the past to answer present marketing agendas within a social network would be insidiously straight out of Stalinist-era politicking, where less-favoured politicians were cut out of earlier group photos and replaced by their more favoured up-and-coming competitors.

1937 photograph of Stalin with Nikolai Yezhov, General Commissar for State Security, followed by a later version in which the secret police czar was edited out. Image: Wiki.

Changing the past to suit the present is also the job of the protagonist of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith rewrites past news or changes photos, altering history to suit the perceived needs of the current régime and time: “The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.”  Another motto from the book: " "He who controls the past, controls the future."  Winston's experience of having seen earlier records confirms the existence of someone previously decorated as a hero, now condemned as an 'unperson.' His memory of reports on this man is one of the things that starts to make his reality unravel.  He knows that the past was different than the official version of the past now given, because he was the guy who changed it, and burned the evidence of what actually happened.  For Orwell, messing with the past like this was the sign of psychotic politics and demented statecraft.

In comics and other serialized forms of pulp fiction, there's a term called retroactive continuity, or 'retcon,' which is used by comics writers to change past storylines they do not like.  In the 2004 film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman speculated on what would happen if people could retcon their own lives, by selectively erasing unpleasant memories.  The film implied that such tinkering, in this case, the removal of the memory of a boyfriend after a bad breakup, would incite extreme distress in the ex-girlfriend whose mind was erased.  The film suggested that memory would reassert itself, that the alternative was just too twisted.  Given that this kind of market intrusion into our personal lives potentially belongs to our near-future, according to Raskin, it is not just wrong ethically. It is an anachronism that violates the natural course of human life and our whole understanding of the flow of time.

David Lynch interview on product placement in films. Dallas Film Festival, 2007.  Video: Youtube.

The above video is credited: "This is a clip out of an interview shot at the AFI Dallas Film Festival. Edited on location by Confidence Bay, mobile edit suite. www.confidencebay.com.  Videographer: Chris Johnson."

Following below are three calls for papers that show the terms in which scholars are discussing these problems within the field of history right now. They have not reached the field of informatics, but the themes are all the same: collective and individual identity; the impact of historical traumas; group psychology; and contending with efforts to manipulate these factors to the benefit of various agendas. Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona is calling for papers on the so-called 'Memory Boom':
Memory has lately become a central concern in contemporary culture and politics of all societies in a global scale. This “memory boom”, originated in socio-historical, political, cultural, technological and market-oriented reasons, is articulated around a certain “memory industry”, which in turn generates identity discourses. Cultural products play a fundamental role in the formation and consolidation of these discourses. On the one hand, the rehabilitation of the memory of wars, dictatorships, killings and genocides tries to rescue from oblivion a traumatic past. There is also a willingness of discursive democratization (represented by the promotion of testimonial literature), looking to break through that version of history written by the winning side. Also, the need to look towards the past as a means of understanding the present is often emphasized, to increase the new generations’ awareness of the need to avoid the repetition of the same atrocities. Therefore, new historiographic methodologies have vindicated the incorporation of new and different perspectives that had traditionally been excluded from the construction of discourses.  Nevertheless, the notion of discursive elaboration of memories, together with the fact that discourses about the past are always filtered by the interests and beliefs of the present, make it necessary for this new historiography to be constantly under scrutiny by a critical analysis. This would reveal possible “abuses of memory” (term coined by Todorov in the text with the same title) denounced by many authors, politicians, journalists and human rights activists. It is particularly interesting as well as complex to work on the relationship that can be established between the constant re-writing of the past and the construction of collective identities. As Halbwachs explains, collective memory puts together the past and the present, as well as the individual and the social group. It is in this sense that we are also interested in the different discursive strategies that several authors have developed to reconstruct their memories from a subjective vision of the present. This also allows us to establish a link between certain forms of narration and the different underlying ideological intentions. One of the characteristics that make memory studies difficult is the specificity of each political vindication, and also their fluctuating character in relation to present-day socio-political factors. ... Taking as starting point, then, the fact that the restoration of the past is subject to the ideologies of the present; and also that memory studies are not only a tool for analysis, but also for the transformation of contemporary contexts, we want to vindicate a critical role that can distinguish between the "obligation of memory” (which introduces an ethical evaluation of its own look towards the past, as pointed out by Lozano Aguilar in Decir, contar, pensar la guerra), and the possible political abuses that derivate from these vindications. We also believe that a fundamental role of criticism is to suggest, as long as it is possible, new strategies to go beyond militaristic discourses.

Todorov's essay on the uses and abuses of memory. Preview of source: Googlebooks.

Call for Papers - Nostalgia and Amnesia: Avenues of Remembering and Forgetting. Location: California, United States.
The Graduate Student History Association of Claremont Graduate University is pleased to announce its third annual spring conference: “Nostalgia and Amnesia: Avenues of Remembering and Forgetting.” This conference will focus on “Nostalgia and Amnesia” as guiding themes for understanding how the past has been idealized, commodified, re-presented, and consumed, while often simultaneously being forgotten, sanitized or anesthetized. Nostalgia and amnesia are often inseparable and also mutually reinforcing phenomena, yet both concepts offer a distinct prism through which to explore the past. Whether in film, television, literature, non-fiction, comics, commercials, art, photography, museums, monuments, architecture, sculptures, or the internet there has never been a time period with more technology to preserve the archive of the past, and representing the past has never been more popular or wide-ranging. These various media and modalities influence all levels of society—political, social, and cultural. By exploring these phenomena, this conference hopes to record and analyze the multiform ways we forget, represent and code the past.
Call for Papers: “Death, ‘tis a melancholy day”: Dying, Mourning, and Memory in the American South. Location: North Carolina, United States
On April 1-2, 2011, the History Department at NC State University will host an interdisciplinary conference to provide an exchange of ideas and perspectives on issues related to death and dying in the American South. The goal of the conference is to initiate and support research projects and conversations that will lead to a forthcoming collection on Death in the South. The region has long enjoyed a reputation as the Haunted South, one built upon the persistence of death in the forms of the malarial environments of the colonial South, Indian wars, the atrocities of slavery, dueling, high maternal death rates, the Civil War and the Confederate dead, lynching, the struggles of the Depression, Civil Rights assassinations and murders, and most recently Hurricane Katrina. But historians continue to examine the South without attention to death as a formative influence on southern life and culture. We invite scholarship on a variety of topics, including

* murder, political assassination, lynching, war deaths
* the right to die (suicide, euthanasia, self-sacrifice)
* the right to kill (death penalty, eugenics, assisted dying, and sacrifice)
* bodily disposal, including implications of the shift from burial to cremation
* acts of commemoration, mourning practices, and rituals
* burial customs, graveyards and cemeteries
* treatment of human remains in archaeology, pathology, and museum practice
* poetic, literary, and musical interpretations of death
* dichotomies between history and memory
* mourning, bereavement, coping with grief
* death and sex
* representations of death in public history interpretations, including thanatourism
* religion and the meaning of death
* ritualization of death
* privacy/intimacy of death
* the cult of death

Visit the website at http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/ctfriend/death
See all my posts on Memory.


  1. Here, in Spain, long ago that politicians has taken to "review" our historical memory. And that historical revisionism is generating many lies ...

    Thank you so much for using my image in such an interesting post!! Kisses

  2. You're most welcome Junio, it's a lovely image, I was happy to post it. Regarding memory of the Spanish Civil War, George Orwell said that having seen it for himself, no one would ever know the true history of it, because both sides would have their own versions of the truth.