Last Wednesday I spoke at the launch for the Digital Humanities at Cal program, and the opening of the Future of Memory Exhibit at The Magnes. It was an absolute joy and honor to be there. This is what I said (more or less):
To talk about memory and its relation to the future, is of course to talk about issues of archiving, preservation, and access. This is a historical problematic that the arts and humanities have dealt with in many ways–how to keep a record of history and memory? what was the past like? what do we learn from it and through what mechanisms?
Nonetheless, the issue gains a new relevance when talking about digital memory and the synchronic base of digital-born cultural production that easily becomes unreadable due to machine obsolescence and the constant and rapid development of newer computing or encoding standards. Memory in the digital world is a question of material preservation and curation. The question relates to medium (as the device) as well as the experiences of it, like manipulating it and reading what is or works inside of it.
I only have five minutes to talk about this, so instead of giving you a survey of digital humanities theories surrounding the issues, I would like to give you an example, to tell you a little story, which I hope will illustrate what I mean.
The story relates to my particular artistic discipline: literature. Back in the 1990s a group of writers started experimenting with a new type of hypertextual narratives. Narratives that would be conceived in a computer, experienced in a computer, and that took advantage of the capabilities of these machines–such as hypertextual functionalities. Written on a new software platform called StoryBoard, writers like Michael Joyce, Shelly Jackson, and Stuart Moulthrop created the first commercial series of electronic novels, built on EastGate Systems software and distributed in floppy disc form. Their works are some of the earliest examples of electronic literature.
As I am currently teaching a class on the subject of electronic literature and its relation to Hispanic traditions or influences, I turned to the library to find a copy of Moulthrop’s Victory Garden which is loosely based on a short story by Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges. And I did find a copy of the novel there indeed, this is Berkeley after all, we have a record of everything! And this goes to show how libraries, and museums such as this one, are the places of memory and archive, places where we turn to find stuff.
But what was my surprise when, even though I had managed to get a copy of this 1991 first edition novel, and I was holding it in my hands, I was unable to read it. I asked the librarians for an “obviously obsolete” computer to read it on that was nowhere to be found. They seemed puzzled. I was puzzled. I was in the place for memory and yet, I was unable to access its records.
I asked around a few different media labs. No where on campus seemed to have the necessary equipment to run this floppy disk. No hardware, no software to make sense of this literary piece either. The novel, its memories and stories, trapped in the disk. Hidden, forgotten. I have the floppy disk now in my office waiting to be read, but I am still trying to figure out where to do it.*
It became clear to me that digital objects are more than the file (however material), but part of a larger media ecology, that requires us to engage with devices in distinct archaeological ways. Digital objects, digital memory if you wish, rests upon very material storage devices, which turns memory preservation into a deeply material question–one that paradoxically we never think of when working within the realm of the virtual, the digital, etc.
The increasingly burgeoning field of Digital Humanities has, up until now, focused much of its energy and resources on making digital or datifying a variety of non-digital objects and/or taking humanistic practices into the digital realms. The advantages of this approach are evident. And wonderful. Nonetheless, as media becomes obsolete so quickly, and we increasingly rely on things like the cloud to store our information, bringing these material conditions and devices to the fore becomes an important necessity, one that might be addressed thanks to museums and exhibits of digital media.
* I have now found many possible places to read the floppy–I was mostly making a point when I read this