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digital rhetoric

Writing Memories

Writing Memories Plato’s Phadreus famously discusses the effects of writing upon memory. Writing is a pharmakon for memory, a word that might be translated as either cure or poison, as Jacques Derrida pointed out. Writing is a cure for memory in that it might preserve our thoughts, communicating them to readers who are distant either in time or space. Writing, however, is also a poison for memory inasmuch as literate peoples no longer have need of the extensive memories necessary for living in an oral society. Our ability to remember things fades and is replaced by either cognitive functions useful for a literate culture–such as the ability to search, process, and evaluate extensive bodies of written information. New media, as many have observed, puts us in a position not unlike that of Plato. New media is also a pharmakon for memory.

In the current issue of Wired, Microsoft CTO David Vaskevitch argues that computers are becoming extensions of our personal memories as they become repositories for our family photos, videos, etc. He responds to an earlier Wired article by Jim Lewis, who argued that these technologies would lead to a form of forgetting, to a loss of our ability to remember the past, which we will have, in effect, handed over to machines. As you can see, a very familiar argument. And just like print literacy, new media literacy (or what Gregory Ulmer calls electracy) provides us with new reading abilities: to sift and process even greater amounts of information, to incorporate multimedia into our reading practice, and to evaluate the ways in which image, sound, animation, and interactivity produce knowledge. However, just as for Plato, these technological developments introduce significant philosophical and social challenges.

Philosophically speaking, the “problem” with writing is that it is external from the self. In the Western tradition, knowledge is formed in the individual mind in the form of words that are primarily spoken. When we speak to one another, we are present to ensure that our intentions are communicated. But can we be “present” in our writing? If we are not, then how can we ensure the validity of what others read and interpret. If we are present somehow in this external form, what implications does that have for our concept of self? This problem is intensified by new media, where intelligent machines and automated processes increase the role of technology in the act of composition. What does it mean to claim “authorship” of a new media text when so much of what “you” have produced is a result of the software and hardware you have used? If you are indeed the author, then does that mean that your cognitive processes are distributed across a smart environment that includes personal computers, software, digital cameras, information networks, etc.? Many contemporary cognitive scientists talk seriously about this notion of “distributed cognition.”

This has social implications as well. The invention of writing helped to create the first “civilizations.” Writing allowed for laws, calendars, record-keeping, and histories. It led to new religions based on sacred “texts.” It required a segmentation of society where different people played different roles. Writing, in other words, allowed for more complex social organizations including larger numbers of people and larger areas of territory. Literary writing from the earliest poems and plays served to create a sense of community and written philosophy allowed thinkers to share knowledge and build upon one another’s work. In other words, along with some other basic technologies, like agriculture, writing was foundational to civilization right through the Industrial Revolution. Writing is, of course, still crucial, but it has been supplemented, and to some extent replaced, by other media over the last century. As we move toward a society that shares information via new media, we need to consider what social changes will result. Given the sweeping effects of writing, it is possible that the social changes connected to new media will be extensive. This is not to say that technology is deterministic. I at least don’t believe that the cultural effects of new media are pre-determined. The philosophical and social implications of new media are interconnected. As our notion of ourselves changes, we must change our ideas of how we will live together.

In these classes, ENG 300 and ENG 307, we will consider these philosophical-social problems. And we will consider them with the theory that the issue of memory is at the core. As you will see, the assignments in this course will ask us to bring personal spaces and embodied experiences into the context of new media. We will see what happens when memories intersect with the vast databank of the Internet and the processeing capacities of new media machines.

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