Like a post-millennium Brutalist building, the hexagonal chambers are deep enough to make the bookshelves lining the inside edges look like a simulation of an insurmountable steel wall. Without sufficient lighting (there are only two small bulbs on each shelf), the contents look more mysterious, the books mustier, each crevice full of meaning – it’s an arcane image that conjures deeper imaginations, each one open to vast interpretation. In every sturdy 410-page volume, forty lines form each page, each line containing eighty perfectly-kerned letters, perhaps in 12-point, double-spaced Garamond. There are no identical books. Every possible order of letters, every permutation of human knowledge is here.
Though it’s not certain what the books really hold, the idea that somewhere within lurks the sum of all knowledge brings about a kind of unhinged ecstasy. Everything seems possible; the likelihood of vindication suddenly more attainable. Like looking deeply into a tarot card reading, or trusting the guidance of artificial intelligence, it finally feels as if the profound universe could be explained in a way that everyone can understand. Look up: do other people exist? Another: what’s the difference between liberal and conservative? Cults form, policing select bits of knowledge they deem nonsensical. Squabbles ensue, one group believing in a truth that another group vehemently holds on to as pure fallacy. The books contain an avalanche of information that, if deciphered, will make us look more worldly; but where is that one all-knowing ‘Man of the Book’?
When Jorge Luis Borges published The Library of Babel in 1941, the World Wide Web was, of course, 48 years from being born. But his short story could very well be an allegory of our ever-mushrooming ‘information superhighway’, even if that’s a term that’s laughably outdated today. The ‘huge collections of data’ that state leaders, artists and scientists sang about in the 1990s continue to spread its tentacles deeper than ever. Nam June Paik surely did not anticipate this glut even as he alluded to it in his (albeit US-centric) video installation Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii – if it seemed like an inexplicably unfathomable thing in 1995, it’s undeniably even more ambiguous now.
There’s plenty of information around what’s now termed as ‘information overload’. This has been particularly evident since 2010, in the wake of heightened influence of tech behemoths such as Google, Facebook and Amazon. We’re sifting through an array of information that may or may not be immediately relevant to us, but we’re stuck looking at the screen anyway. News about political unrest in a distant country; human rights injustices at home; the latest celebrity’s social misdeeds; thinkpieces about the problems in a recent TV show; a certain influencer’s opinion; new nieces are born; a mate’s shenanigans from the night before; sex pests are outed. #TIL blowing out birthday candles increases bacteria on cake by 1400 per cent. Maybe I should just cancel everything and go to sleep forever. James Baldwin was known to flick through TV channels to distract himself in the morning – I look through my social media feeds.
We’re sifting through an array of information that may or may not be immediately relevant to us, but we’re stuck looking at the screen anyway.
But ‘information overload’ could be just as quickly passé as the ‘information superhighway’ is now. In 2017, writer and technology ethicist L.M. Sacasas suggested the more accurate ‘affect overload’, which happens when people experience mental exhaustion and apathy as a result of being inundated by too much, too quickly. As Sacacas wrote, ‘If it were only information we were dealing with, then we might be better able to recognise the nature of the problem and act to correct it. […] Twitter says, “feel this,” we say “how intensely?”’
Within psychology, the links between emotion and memory have been widely reported – the prevalence of either positive or negative affect impacts memory retention in the long term. Since Aristotle tried to understand the workings of human memory more than 2,000 years ago, many more developments have been made, some of which include what is now popularly known as short-term, rote or sensory memory. Yet memory is one of the biggest contradictions of the self: there is virtually no limit to the amount of things we can remember, but our short-term memory only allows us to remember a handful of things at once.
Furthermore, our brains are capable of creating false memories that become true over time. Due to what’s termed as the ‘misinformation effect’, a person’s recall of events can change and become less accurate as a result of what happens or is known later – information becomes misattributed, or newly believed based on how suggestible someone is. I have a vivid memory of myself angrily refusing the help of a male classmate at the age of six, but I’m uncertain if this is something I’ve actually remembered on my own or if it’s embellished by my current feminist sensibilities, i.e. ‘my most ‘on-brand’ memory.
This malleability of memory, as cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus discovered in the 1970s, emphasises the instability of human recall; memories change over time as we age and re-encounter them. In an attempt to archive our own lives, we can edit, revise and re-interpret the stories we tell about ourselves even as we are bound by the facts. Traumatic experiences and PTSD can also rewrite our recall.
In the process of creating visual documents that can be both intimate yet trivial, its retrieval is highly dependent on external entities. As such, memory anchors play a central part in re-envisioning the self, contributing to coherent life narratives that help with personal development and change. When we come up against previous versions of ourselves, it takes us into that realm of memory where we become the recording medium; self-actualisation and agency correlates with the ability to remember.
There are no memories, and several – tens of thousands, perhaps – at once. They swirl repeatedly in a whirlpool of near-erasure, longing, fantasies and projections. The thought of a memory brings about a sensation akin to taking out my contact lenses in front of the mirror every night: what was assumed to be crystal clear before, abruptly brought into a miasmic haze. Every memory is never new, never old; they repeat themselves anew this way.
Since I began using the internet, I’ve found myself relying more and more on the many available repositories of memory to enhance, or at least, assist, my own. Where I once had printed photos, I now use my phone’s camera roll or Instagram to store the many pictorial moments of my life, either on my feed or in temporary ‘Stories’ that are stashed away in an archive. Random observations and research are saved in my laptop, as bookmarks in my browser, as tweets, or in the Notes app; recipes are saved as links or within documents that are tied to the cloud. Even the way I speak (text) is retained via predictive text. All the places I’ve ever lived in or been to can be relived on Google Street View.
There are no memories, and several – tens of thousands, perhaps – at once. Every memory is never new, never old; they repeat themselves anew this way.
It’s like Timehop’s slogan: ‘it’s like #tbt everyday!’ The smartphone app mines old data from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Dropbox to rejig your memories of the past. Since its inception in 2011, Facebook and Instagram have also joined the throwback party, each app containing a ‘Memories’ function that you can readily use to look back on the content you posted on the same day today, years ago. They can also pop up without warning, bringing back painful memories that you may very well end up deleting. Revisiting an old diary, but digitally. A memory anchor, not unlike the discovery at age 16 that Kurt Cobain died on my 10th birthday, arbitrarily affirming a ‘grungy’ aesthetic I then saw as my own.
Unlike my own working memory, these institutions regurgitate a kind of memory that remains unchanging. Time is irrelevant as I look back every 18 July on a social media memory that recurs year after year. But there’s a visible element of performativity that comes with social media engagement too, one which distorts this way of remembering – like photographs, which can be contextually reinterpreted based on angles and moments, or as Susan Sontag has written, is ‘simultaneously fact and documenting fiction.’ As memory is both created and spat out on these platforms, it dances a dance with the fallibility of our own human memories to conjure new images.
Events that I have forgotten come back to me online like revelations. And as I find myself feeling pleased that our memories are revealed back to us in the algorithmic cloud, they’re repackaged as epiphanies towards a self that can be quantified through the algorithm. The things I don’t document in such a visible fashion slowly fade away. In an essay on the ways ‘ruin porn’ is consumed online, Sunny Moraine refers to the ‘atemporality’ of memory; time is rendered insignificant in images of an abandoned hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York, a Soviet-era bus-stop in Kyrgyzstan, ghost towns in South Australia – they haunt us in the unending present as symbols of static, enduring beauty. As Moraine writes, ‘Technology changes our remembrance of the past, our experience of the present and our imagination of the future by blurring the lines between the three categories […]. We remember the future, imagine the present, and experience the past.’
This atemporality spills over to the ways we forget and remember when mediated by new media. Via individual stories, our prescriptive memory is catalogued like episodes of a Netflix TV show. Like most people, I savour the promise of an automatic archive that doesn’t vanish; this unrealistic hope manifests in the mnemonic abundances that present themselves technologically. Everything will be remembered for me.
When memories are not given any external support, whether in the form of reminders or retellings, they eventually fade. How does this change individual memory, generational memory, public memory, cultural memory, national memory, global memory? During public catastrophes, the epithets ‘history repeats itself’ and ‘never forget’ are often simultaneously invoked, becoming redundant almost as soon as they’re uttered. The Holocaust is continually used as an iconic cipher to characterise modern atrocities – but Nazism is still alive and well. There’s no forgetting, but there’s no remembering either.
This sense of cultural amnesia, especially during instances of national myth-making and dispossession, is self-perpetuating. So-called Australia’s ahistorical denial of the countless atrocities committed against Aboriginal people, as well as the ongoing incarceration of asylum seekers in detention centres, hover as spectres in a national consciousness. Yet they are completely engulfed by the fact of their sheer weight – either senselessly refuted, helplessly regurgitated or conveniently glossed over. And amid displacement, either forced or voluntary, and the desire to assimilate into a more coherent sense of self in a new home, settler-migrants forget too.
Just like our Facebook or Instagram memories, we end up consuming the pasts that we want to see. And when something is regurgitated often enough, it becomes truth.
Accordingly, cultural amnesia works alongside media-mediated affect overload to generate new kinds of amnesias: historical patterns are inadvertently repeated, and old news carelessly re-circulated. Shock is expressed online at current affairs as though they are unprecedented. At its worst, versions of historical memory are de- and re-legitimised to prop up state power.
Just like our Facebook or Instagram memories, we end up consuming the pasts that we want to see. And when something is regurgitated often enough, it becomes truth. Search engine algorithms further entrench these filters as objective facts, which, due to their tendency to prioritise ‘relevance’ over accuracy, end up reinforcing society’s biases. As the poet Aimé Césaire once wrote in his Discourse on Colonialism, ‘start the forgetting machine!’
In Andreas Huyssen’s book Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory, he asks, ‘Is it the fear of forgetting that triggers the desire to remember, or the other way around?’
Social media knows things about us that we’ve long forgotten. I look through my tweets from 2010 and see a past me echoing thoughts I don’t remember having. How eerily cute! I’m reminded of the scene in David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997): a Mystery Man confronts Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) at a party, claiming they’ve met before. Madison is sure they haven’t, but the Man insists they have – that in fact, he’s at Madison’s house right now. The Man urges Madison to call his own landline – Madison dials, and the Man, impossibly, answers the call, cackling ominously in two places at once.
Through technology, the past has become part of the present in ways that are simply unimaginable in earlier times. Futures are based heavily on pasts, especially as we rely on machines to be better record holders than human memory. As I experience affect overload, I may also be experiencing memory fatigue – but I can trust that my memories will recur, even if they are recurring through the veil of amnesia. In a world where the lines between ‘URL’ and ‘IRL’ become less and less stark, how can we re-imagine a universe where we can see ourselves in many rooms, yet aren’t completely disconnected? This is especially more pressing as ‘logging off’ becomes less and less of an option – for many, being online is more and more an extension of our livelihoods, or one of the few ways to seek connection with others.
When the social and political self is increasingly haunted by a sense of disorientation that comes with contemporary affect overload, what Huyssen poetically terms a ‘phantasmagoria of loss’ forms its backdrop. I painstakingly document my memories in electronic form, hoping only to augment them such that I can literally hold on to them forever; at the same time, I’m deleting Facebook posts from friends long broken-up, or a tweet that doesn’t correlate to the way(s) I see myself now. Unlike Proustian involuntary memories, my memories are carefully curated. They exist in different rooms. Like lost treasures, they await to be uncovered.