The Internet and The Problem of Multidimensional Memory

Amanda Peters

We are the custodians of knowledge.  Except, we really aren’t.  The internet is.

It sounds like some kind of new science fiction theme.  Like we should be expecting to hear about Keanu Reeves’ newest fringe blockbuster: Multidimensional Memory, an oddly timed remake of Johnny Mnemonic.  But no, the theory of multidimensional memory1 forms the basis for a new way to interact with our perceptions of content archiving – specifically, the way each of us archives and consumes information, the way it’s stored, and exactly what the word “memory” means.  This essay/blog post has been typed with the intent of exploring that relationship, the very idea behind memory occupying a fifth dimension outside of ourselves, with a particular focus on exactly what that means with regards to our society and ourselves.  The idea of multidimensional memory is an interesting one, no doubt, but the most interesting thing about it – at least in my opinion – is the fact that it has been building since before we were conscious of the idea that memory was a thing, and that we’re accelerating its development with no apparent care for what that might mean for us as humans.  Though the argument has been made in the past that we’ll lose touch with our memories thanks to mediums like print, I don’t know that we put enough thought into how the Internet effects our own personal archives of memories.  “Pics or it didn’t happen”, right?

The most obvious place to start a discussion about multidimensional memory is with the assertion that memory has taken the shape of a collective since the first instance of human communication.  Sharing experiences and building knowledge based on second-hand information acquisition isn’t just the best way to succeed as a species, it’s probably the only way.  Before there existed the necessity to report that the political climate in a city halfway across the world is poor, there was the need to teach a child that carefully hitting a tough-shelled nut with a rock was a better way to get it open than potentially breaking a tooth.  Once released into the ether, that information becomes a point of commonality – experience shared, learned and built upon by more than one individual who then carries it forward and remits it to mind after receptive mind until the genesis of the information is lost but that memory remains, held in perpetuity by the greater mass.

That is what constitutes multidimensional memory for me.  It’s a construct that’s working towards becoming bigger even than the human race, an entity that can not only exist separate from human interaction, but does and has for longer than the internet has existed.  The big change has shown in the fact that the Internet has led to humanity treating information in new and innovative ways – the means of collecting and curating entries into the collective archive that constitutes our memory as a whole has changed considerably with the advent of a system of submission that allows anyone to contribute, to change, and to interpret information that then becomes a part of our intellectual historical canon.  Humanity’s collective memory has been in development from the moment that the first mark was made on clay to denote information2, thereby extending man’s ability to reference knowledge above and beyond what the human brain could handle.

Having established that, I move on to what I perceive as the precarious problem that underlies this explosive growth of our collective memory (what I might, for the sake of argument, also call the development of the gaping, nigh cartoonish maw of this fifth dimensional sphere of influence).  As Farhat Shahzad mentions in his article on collective memory, “the construction of collective memories is a material, mediated and dynamic process for the reason that collective remembering is a process of mediation between human agents and different cultural tools or technologies of memory available in a particular socio-cultural setting”3 – or at least it was, in a sense, until the internet was opened up to every Tom, Dick, and Harry with a keyboard and an opinion.

In the hopes of making my argument a little clearer, I’d like to use for illustration’s sake the image of a set of scales.  An imbalance of weight invariably leads to a skewing of results, and that’s the lynchpin of the bone I have to pick with the way our collective memories are being handled in today’s day and age.  Back in the olden days, mediation wasn’t just built into the system; it was engineered into it on purpose.  The inaccessibility of written language to the average person on the street and the rarity of literacy made sure that the archives that existed were more or less maintained unchanged.  The cultural memory that was archived was rarely accurate because it came from single sources that weren’t contested, and the perspective of the author was often skewed.  It took the advent of the printing press to really get the act of archiving off of the ground, allowing for more and more people to contribute more and more material to the collective.  Responses to circulated information could reach readers in time to be pertinent, and eventually technology caught up to the creation and curating process that allowed a kind of optimal critical mass4 wherein the number of contributors releasing and amending information allows for the truth to come to the forefront and more or less be maintained and updated as it is discovered.  Things more or less continued to chug along with publishing being curated and maintained as a mediated system.

And then, there was the Internet.

Admittedly, there’s never been a means for so many people to contribute about so much at the same time.  The ease of access that anyone with an Internet connection has with regards to getting their hands on any information from anywhere in the world has allowed for the perfection of the fifth dimensional sphere that we call ‘memory’ to expand in directions that we may have never even thought possible in the past.   The archive that allows for consumers to consume and decode information in their own ways5 has passed the point of critical mass and started to tip the scales back towards chaos.  True, when the opportunity arises, in the right environment with the right conditions, truth does tend to percolate to the top of the informational heap eventually, but it’s gotten back to the point where finding that truth in amongst all of the information available – in the form of arguments, counterarguments, dissenting voices, and the few indomitable trolls who just want information included in the lexicon that makes no sense and has no relevance to anything – is a nearly impossible task.

So, fellow blogosphere purveyors, there you have it – my standpoint on our multidimensional memory system.  May it and any responses it provokes be absorbed into the ever-expanding mass that may one day outlive humanity, chugging along in the servers that have already more or less become part of a super sophisticated brain designed and upgraded constantly in order to be exactly that.

 

Bibliography:

Bridle, James. “The internet considered as a fifth dimension, that of memory”. Booktwo.org. NP, July 24, 2012. Web. January 25, 2014. http://booktwo.org/notebook/internet-fifth-dimension-memory/

Recuber, Timothy. “The Prosumption of Commemoration: Disasters, Digital Memory Banks, and Online Collective Memory”, American Behavioral Scientist Vol. 56 (2012).  Web.  January 26, 2014.

Savoie, Hillary. “Memory Work in the Digital Age: Exploring the Boundary Between Universal and Particular Memory Online”. Global Media Journal Vol. 9, Issue 16 (2010).  Web.  January 26, 2014.

Shahzad, Farhat.  “Collective memories: A complex construction”. Memory Studies Vol. 5 (2012).  Web. January 26, 2014.

Weiss, Aaron. “The Power of Collective Intelligence”. Collective Intelligence September (2005), 16-25. Web. January 26, 2014.

2 Replies to “The Internet and The Problem of Multidimensional Memory”

  1. yes! As soon as I saw your title, I hoped you’d explored that Bridle post. It was something I wanted to explore in my essay but didn’t have nearly enough space or time. So glad you tackled this topic.

  2. Intriguing essay on multidimensional memory Amanda. I love the notion internet has created a collective memory that is being used in unimaginable ways. And that this memory continues to grow and expand with little regulation or intervening (to its benefit or detriment). I didn’t know what multidimensional memory was before reading this essay and I really appreciated the analogy about teaching the child how to open the nut.

    I disagree with the notion that finding truth on the internet is “a nearly impossible task.” I think with the internet comes an understanding of how people on the internet act. Of course, the internet misinforms about matters that should be clear (when the actor Paul Walker died, there were articles denying his death created by people simply looking to stir up controversy). But these trolls are usually proved wrong in a matter of days. I feel (and this may be a personal bias) that most internet users know that wikipedia articles can be edited by anyone and so should be used with caution. There are legitimate sites and encyclopedias online that are easy to find that have credible information.

    I would like to talk to you more about your idea of internet “truth” entails. Who defines this truth? At what point does this curator control information on the internet in the same way the Church controlled information from the printing press?

    Awesome essay Amanda!

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