Saturday, July 7, 2018

After Santayana

Those who do not consider digital media are condemned to serve them.

I thought I had better look up the source of the Santayana quote I was rewriting. It appears in a paragraph headed "Continuity necessary to progress". The context is quite shocking a hundred and ten years later. This is how it reads:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
(George Santayana, The Life of Reason: Reason in Common Sense. Scribner’s, 1905: 284).

The pretence that oral cultures do not 'retain' is simply silly: that is why we use the term 'traditional cultures' – because they have tradition, which overdeveloped societies lack. Though it is true, as Liam Cole Young argues in his excellent book List Cultures, that the argument that writing stuff down ensures the loss of memory is at least as old as Socrates, far riskier is our delegation of remembering to databases, especially to commercial platforms from diary apps to 'Your memories on Facebook'.

Risky because, as Young says in his intro, there is "a general trend in media studies to conflate layers of form, content, technique, practice, and habit under totalizing categories like 'media' or 'network'" – and not just in media studies. The human and non-human work of remembering the past, which today is inevitably embroiled in the digital, means that a great deal of remembering is undertaken by machines which are decreasingly repetitive. Functioning AIs like Google Translate, for all their limitations (no semantic function, just vocabulary and grammar; constrained by initial design parameters) evolve quasi-autonomously from humans.

Haraway's bon mot, that 'Our machines are disturbingly lively & we ourselves frighteningly inert' requires a different response in the social media era than it did in 1991 before the launch of the first mass browsers. Our machines remember more and more stuff. We have then the job of remembering that they are machineries of remembrance.

To consider is to think through the multiple operations and factors in play in the thing we are considering, including the many historical paths that lead to this one unique encounter with a unique situation. Not only are the devices concrete aggregations of ancestral 'dead labour'; we are increasingly acting like ancestors. Their skills have been assimilated into machines: our knowledge is uploaded daily into vast databases whose operations we mostly fail to observe, let alone understand.

This is why it is so important to restore history: not, or not only, as remembrance, but as process. By and large we no longer believe in progress as Santayana did: as buzzword, 'sustainable' indicates only the modest desire to survive economic, political and environmental catastrophe. The more we act like people who are already dead, uploading our memories at the point of generation to WhatsApp and Instagram, the more urgent it becomes both to understand how databases might operate otherwise than as profit engines, and to engage in making history – not under conditions we would have chosen, but nonetheless making it; and simultaneously, because that is the condition we haven't chosen that is most propitious for making history, making the new 'we' beyond the limits of exclusively human society

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