13 September 2005


There seems to be a subtle change in product marketing among some companies. Instead of taking the attitude of "I have a product, therefore you have a need," some companies are instead attempting to position their product relative to some of the cultural and social changes that are occurring as a result of our dramatically changing times.

Such is the case with Lexmark, which yesterday introduced a new photo-printing appliance that allows one to create an archival CD of digital photos while it prints them. This is all accomplished without a computer, working directly from the camera and/or memory card. I was asked by them to offer the benefit of some of the research done at the McLuhan Program concerning the history of memory, archives, and the nature of the ephemeral artefact with which we are now confronted. What follows on the main blog page is an abridged version of my comments. For the full version, please go to the full post page.

I’m afraid my memory isn’t what it used to be. But then again, the memory of our entire culture isn’t what it used to be, nor for that matter what it used to, used to be. Between two and three thousand years or go, give or take a century, the civilization at the heart of Western culture that was centred in ancient Greece, had a great memory. The mythic poems that have come to characterize that time – heroic epics like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey – also characterize a culture founded on memory. Before the introduction of the phonetic alphabet to the ancient Greeks by the Phoenicians, all of human history had to be remembered. The Greeks, and indeed all ancient cultures, developed sophisticated technologies of form, structure and composition, to ensure that the past would be preserved. The very fact that we have such rich, historical records of the battle of Troy is testament to skill and training of the rhapsodes – literally, “sewers of song” – representing a long line of practitioners of the ancient art of memory.

There is a story that Plato relates in the Phaedrus, in which the Egyptian god Toth presents King Thamus with the gift of writing, one of his more creative inventions, and tells him that it is specifically intended for memory and wisdom. Thamus declines the gift, telling Toth that the effect will be the opposite – writing will cause humankind to be forgetful, as the exercise of memory would instead become written remembrances. Wisdom, he said, would be replaced by the appearance of wisdom without learning, as anyone could have ready access to the written knowledge itself. As Plato recounts, “men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, will be a burden to their fellows.”

I suppose Plato was talking about academics. But he was right. The introduction of the phonetic alphabet into an primary oral society literally changed everything. Memory, that had existed only within the mind, was externalized and made explicit, visual, and fixed in time. But paradoxically, even as writing fixed historical experience in time, it allowed that historical experience to travel through time to the future, in a relatively consistent manner.

A primary oral society is necessarily obsessed with preserving its past, as memory tends to be somewhat volatile without continual refreshing. But once a culture’s history can be fixed as with writing, that society can begin to conceive of, and to create, the future. People can begin to conceive of things and places that do not exist, and then set out to discover or create them. Just as oral societies live in their past, literate societies live in their future. As an oral society is dominated by the ear, a literate society is dominated by the eye. And, coming forward through the end of the 19th century, and into the 20th, the addition of electricity and other modern technologies to this visual dominance gives us photography, and cinema as new archival media – ways of preserving our history.

But, electricity has another effect. Electricity accelerates communication in a way that transcends both time and space. For example, the use of sound accelerated and extended by electricity enabled us to “reach out and touch somebody,” regardless of where they were, whether we used telegraph, radio, telephone, television, or something else. Indeed, communication accelerated by electricity has recently made the experience of the instantaneous relatively common in our contemporary world, be it instantly connecting with another person via mobile telephone, instantly connecting with information through the Internet, or instantly connecting with someone else’s immediate experience, vicariously seeing through their eyes and tapping directly into their memory, through digital photography.

We notice the difference between oral cultures and literate/visual cultures in the artefacts that they produce. Oral cultures produce cultural artefacts that tend to stay in place, so that their past will effectively remain throughout all time. Think of Egypt’s pyramids, the Sphinx, or ancient Greek temples. Literate cultures, on the other hand, tend to produce artefacts that travel well – books, works of art, as well as means of transportation – so that they can effectively control their future by the time they get there. But our culture that is beginning to experience instantaneity, seems to be increasingly concerned with the “here and now” – especially because in a world of ubiquitous and instantaneous communication, everywhere is here, and every-when is now. It occurs to me that the defining characteristic of artefacts of our time is ephemerality. An ephemeral artefact exists precisely in the present, and can only be experienced at the moment of its creation. I submit to you that the cultural artefacts of our time are experiential in nature and ephemeral in duration.

Here’s a quick example. I’m sure everyone is familiar with the cliché of the “Kodak moment” – a scene or experience that has to be captured as a snapshot so that the moment is preserved for the future as a remembrance. This sort of “moment” is a characteristic artefact of the literate/visual age. Contrast this with the “Bell moment.” Some of you may have seen the television advertisement that runs every Remembrance Day, in which a teenager, walking along a desolate beach, pulls out his cell phone to call his grandfather. “I’m not in Paris, grandpa,” the young man says. “I’m in Dieppe. I was calling to say, ‘thank you’.” The teenager is connecting and sharing his experience of that beach by “reaching out and touching someone” very close and special to him. The act of sharing that experience is a characteristic artefact of our time that is ephemeral in nature – it exists for the duration of the experience and no longer.

As our society increasingly turns to digital media, recording both our lives and our culture, the “snapshot generation” that captured experiences and created archival remembrances has changed to become a generation that instantaneously shares experiences, no longer paying attention to the archival characteristics of photography. Photographs, clippings, scrapbooks, and even works of art and sculpture as forms of cultural memory give way to ephemeral artefacts that exist for a brief instant in the span of time, as a sharing of experience itself. If they are captured at all, they are as arrangements of electrons buried within ultimately disposable devices.

When a hard drive fails, or the memory card is erased or misplaced, or when a future computer can no longer read today’s media – by then long obsolesced – our culture becomes a little more forgetful, and a little more forgotten. The consequence of our technological advancement is that, centuries from now, historians may well look back on our time as a type of dark age. Compared to earlier generations, very little of our cultural history is being recorded so that it will actually exist into the future. We will literally be a forgotten culture, because those who will come after us will have technologically “forgotten” how to read, or even locate, our ephemeral artefacts. Thus, if we want to be remembered at all, we must additionally create artefacts that will travel through time, as the writings, art, and photographs of our forebears have come to us.
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