Promises, Prospects and Pitfalls of Digital Memory

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By Krista McCracken

People naturally forget things over time.  Details become vague, memories cloudy, and events are never recalled exactly as they occurred.  The act of recording history assists in preserving an authentic version of the past.  The way in which the past is remembered and recorded has drastically changed as technology and digital memory have improved.

Technology has created an abundance of new mediums.  Digital information is now cheaper and easier to store than ever before.  The cheapness of digital storage is a huge benefit for those interested in documenting the past.  Digital storage allows heritage institutions to preserve fragile and valuable information at a lower cost, while simultaneously saving space.

However, it has been suggested (here, here, and here) that there are some problems with digital memory.  You probably don’t remember every internet search you have made in the past three months, but Google does.  Digital memory remembers things which humans may have naturally forgotten and is far more comprehensive than human memory. For better or for worse, an offhand comment online has the potential to be remembered indefinitely. The ability of technology to collect information you would never personally remember does have the potential to be historically valuable.  But, digital memory also has the potential to be a reminder of something you would rather forget.

The way in which digital memory is stored is drastically different than the way in which human memory is kept.  Digital memory is often saved in snapshot format.  Photographs, emails, search histories, tweets, etc are often archived separately and are usually saved amongst thousands of similar records. Properly cared for archival records are stored in an organized and methodical way.  Digital memory is often stored by date of creation, broad theme, or in the worst case scenario in no real order.  This difference in organization has the potential to remove digital memory from its proper context.  Born digital items need to be properly organized and sorted in a way which links them to events, people, and other digital records.  Properly created metadata can greatly improve the context of born digital items.  However, a lot of digital information is saved without metadata and without thought toward later use.  This lack of context begs the question, how valuable is information if you cannot piece it together to create a larger picture?  Information is only as valuable as the insight it provides and insight is a lot easier to come by with context.

As Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger argues, technology can “capture the words that have been said, but not the thoughts that were thought.” Technology is a great tool for accessing previously untapped information. However, more traditional forms of collecting history should not be forgotten. Historians and the interpretation of history are still crucial in a world ruled by digital memory.  Recording every action, a la Gordon Bell, can provide a look into the past, but without context this information is not living up to its full potential.

Krista McCracken is a public history consultant and is currently working with Knowledge Ontario as a Digitization Facilitator.

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