Social Memory and Digital History

Social Memory

In Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory, the authors define social memory as “how and what societies remember.” On the grand scale, social memory is essentially the continuity between generations that allow civilizations to persist over time. It’s a way for people to transmit traditions, ideas, beliefs and agreements. Scholars of social memory argue that it is consciously sustained through the efforts of individuals, groups, and institutions. For example, when people visit museums, they view the artifacts or artwork there through a framework created by social memory.

The authors argue that there are two different types of social memory. The first is “formal memory,” and is the type the above-mentioned visitors to the museum are engaged it. Formal social memory is how history and art institutions most often engage with social memory, and it focuses on accuracy, integrity, and the object in its fixed form.

However, there is also “informal memory” which is distributed through popular forms of remembering. People engaged in informal social memory, the authors write, “often [emphasize] updating or recreating the cultural object as a way of keeping it alive.” We can find examples of this in Dragan Espenschied’s website emulator project, or the way Cope and Chan worked to acquire the Planetary App not as a graphic design object but as a “living” system of interact-able code. While these tactics might not result in the most “accurate” representation of a digital artifact, they allow those interested in them to interact with and learn from them in ways they could not if they were frozen in time.

The Digital History Link

Why do we care about social memory in a class on digital history? Mostly because digital culture threatens to disrupt it. With new digital technology, cultural objects that used to be physical (artwork, newspapers, letters, books) are now increasingly digital challenging the stability of their future preservation. Not only that, but the way we interact with these objects, through documentation, archives, storage, and management systems are also increasingly digital. This causes concrete concerns because of how quickly digital technology grows and changes. Saving a piece of hardware is not enough to preserve a digital object, because in the not-so-distant future, that hardware may be unusable. The same issue can apply to software – in the Planetary App example, an iOS update caused the Planetary to become nonfunctional on iPads. Digital objects, then, change the way we have to think about preservation.

We’ve read a number of articles so far this semester discussing how challenging the preservation of digital objects is – the various ways they deteriorate, how important file-types are and more. Sometimes the authors give practical advice, for example, chose a file type that is especially popular, because it will be more stable. What I appreciated most about our readings in Re-Collection was the concrete steps the authors suggested as possible ways forward in collecting and preserving digital culture. These steps, importantly, were not just for archivists or curators: options for lawyers, dealers, sponsors and academics were all included. Some suggestions are seem relatively easy, especially when you’re not the one doing them, such as the one asking archivists to modernize metadata standards. Others are big asks, such as suggesting institutions begin building repositories of digital culture. As we begin to confront the realities of preservation in a digital age these suggestions – both big and small – are important starting places.

So what do you think about social memory and digital objects? Are there ways to keep digital objects alive without sacrificing accurate representations of their original state? Are there ways that we as public historians can contribute to these conversations? What do you think of the twelve suggestions the authors offered to “future-proof contemporary culture?” Do you have a hot new idea on preserving digital culture based on this reading?

One Reply to “Social Memory and Digital History”

  1. As someone who is pretty engaged in memory studies and memory theory I found this reading really interesting and very relevant to how contemporary societies experience digital objects and how those experiences factor into their construction of shared pasts. I think that Rhinehart and Ippolito’s concerns about the preservation of digital objects is right on the mark, however their conception of social memory feels a little under-theorized to me. As memory studies has developed over the last thirty or so years, the term collective memory has been challenged time and again. Scholars question if a “collective” memory exists since society is made up of multiple “collectives” (ethnic groups, social groups, and the like) that frame and interpret the past based on their own particular experiences and positionally. I think that’s an idea that the author’s here could consider more. I don’t know if there is a coherent “social memory” or perhaps multiple variations on it. If we think about digital objects and art in our current era, their meanings vary based on the collectives experiencing them–which I guess is another problem. Part of capturing or preserving digital culture means capturing its multiple meanings and interpretations. That’s an issue that goes beyond preserving the object itself, but to me they go hand in hand.

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