User:ThomasW/Notes The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory

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The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory Author(s): By Wendy Hui Kyong Chun Source: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Autumn 2008), pp. 148-171 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 22/09/2015 09:06

It would seem that presently existing media objects are rather boring or have a short lifespan. p151

According to Lovink, “because of the speed of events, there is a real danger that an online phenomenon will already have disappeared before a critical discourse reflecting on it has had the time to mature and establish itself as institutionally recognized knowledge.”9 p151

“the speed with which new technologies are assimilated in the United States makes them ‘invisible’ almost overnight: they become an assumed part of the everyday existence, something which does not seem to require much reflection. p151-152

Lovink’s theory is a “living entity, a set of proposals, preliminary propositions and applied knowledge collected in a time of intense social-technological acceleration.” It is not only on the run because it engages the present but also because it “expresses itself in a range of ways, as code, interface design, social networks and hyperlinked aphorisms, hidden in mailing-list messages, weblogs and chatrooms and sent as SMS messages.” p152

Further, ephemerality is not new to new media. Television scholars have been grappling with this very question for years. Focusing on actually existing shows, rather than future episodes, they have theorized TV content in terms of flow, segmentation, and liveness. p153

Digital media, through the memory at its core, was supposed to solve, if not dissolve, archival problems such as degrading celluloid or scratched vinyl, not create archival problems of its own. The limited lifespan of CDs will no doubt shock those who disposed of their vinyl in favor of digitally remastered classics, that is, if they still use CDs or an operating system that can read them. Old computer files face the same problem. p153-154

John von Neumann in his mythic and controversial First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC (1945) deliberately used the term memory organ rather than store, also in use at the time, in order to parallel biological and computing components and to emphasize the ephemeral nature of vacuum tubes. p154

Regardless, digital media was supposed to—in its very functioning— encapsulate the enlightenment ideal that better information leads to better knowledge, which in turn guarantees better decisions. As a product of programming, it was to program the future. p155

By conflating the memex and the internet, the ephemerality of digital media is covered over and, more importantly, questions of forgetting and degradation are turned into problems for media to solve, as one medium becomes the “memory” of the next. p155

Bush did not undersell the importance of the memex. He argued that man needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment [human civilization] to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory. His excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important. [“A”] p157-158

According to Bush, man should not be burdened with repetitive thought processes like arithmetic, for which there are powerful mechanical aids. The creative aspect of thought, Bush writes, “is concerned only with the selection of the data and the process to be employed and the manipulation thereafter is repetitive in nature and hence a fit matter to be relegated to the machine” p158

Thus the scientific archive, rather than pointing us to the future, is trapping us in the past, making us repeat the present over and over again. p158

The difficulty supposedly lies in selecting the data, not in reading it, for it is assumed that reading is a trivial act, a simple comprehension of the record’s content. p159

Bush’s argument assumes that human records make possible the construction of an overarching archive of human knowledge in which there is no gap, no absence—a summation of human knowledge. The scientific archive thus restores or should restore to man everything that has eluded him.28 So if there is discontinuity in history it is due to a historical accident, to our inability to adequately consult the human record, to human fallibility. This accident, however, can be solved by machines, which are viewed here as surprisingly accident-free and permanent. p159

A machine alone, however, cannot turn “an information explosion into a knowledge explosion" p159

Repetition is thus not the evidence of thought wasted but of thought disseminated. Repetition, as Derrida has argued, both makes possible and impossible the archival process; it is the fever, the destruction, at the heart of the archive.31 The pleasure of forgetfulness is to some extent the pleasure of death and destruction. p160

This belief depends on our machines as more stable and permanent and, thus, better record holders than human memory; it depends on an analogy between digital and analog media. This belief is remarkably at odds with the material transience of discrete information and the internet. p160

Digital media is not always there. We suffer daily frustrations with digital sources that just disappear. Digital media is degenerative, forgetful, eraseable. p160

It is perhaps a history-making device, but only through its ahistorical (or memoryless) functioning, through the ways in which it constantly transmits and regenerates text and images. p160 The age of a computer memory device rarely corresponds with the age of the memory it holds; the device and its content do not fade together. p160

If computer memory is like anything, it is like erasable writing; but, if a penciled word can be erased because graphite is soft, a computer’s memory can be rewritten because its surface constantly fades. p160-161

Von Neumann’s First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC introduced the concept of stored-program computing and memory to the U.S. military and the academy. Intriguingly, it also began the freezing of memory and execution, key to the emergence of computers as media machines. p161


Memory, which von Neumann initially viewed as afferent neurons, was also not a simple borrowing from biology. By calling certain parts of the computer a “memory organ,” von Neumann was asserting, against biological evidence, that such an organ existed. This memory, unlike Bush’s imaginings, was digital in form. Von Neumann’s analogy between computer and human memory depends on a leap of faith. It is an analogy to something, which, he admitted over ten years after the draft, is unknown but logically necessary. In The Computer and the Brain, von Neumann writes:

It is just as well to admit right at the start that all physical assertions about the nature, embodiment, and location of [human memory] are equally hypothetical. We do not know where in the physically viewed nervous system a memory resides; we do not know whether it is a separate organ or a collection of specific parts of other already known organs, etc. It may well be residing in a system of specific nerves, which would then have to be a rather large system. It may well have something to do with the genetic mechanism of the body. We are as ignorant of its nature and position as were the Greeks, who suspected the location of the mind in the diaphragm. The only thing we know is that it must be a rather large-capacity memory, and that it is hard to see how a complicated automaton like the human nervous system could do without one.37


--- The Institute for Advanced Study machine used a Williams tube (basically a television tube) as its primary memory.p163

Interestingly, the devices listed as possible secondary memories were also other forms of media: teletype tapes, magnetic wire or tapes, or movie film. p163

Storage cum memory also links computers to genetics. Von Neumann included genes within his category of memory, erasing the difference between memory accessible to the human mind and memory accessible to the human body. p164

Crucially, memory is an active process, not static. A memory must be held in order to keep it from moving or fading. Memory does not equal storage. p164

Today’s RAM is mostly volatile and based on flip-flops, transistors, and capacitors, which require a steady electrical current. Although we do have forms of nonvolatile memory, such as flash memory, made possible by better insulated capacitors, they do have a limited read-write cycle. Thus, as Wolfgang Ernst has argued, digital media is truly a time-based medium, which, given a screen’s refresh cycle and the dynamic flow of information in cyberspace, turns images, sounds, and text into discrete moments in time. p165-166

Digital media, which is allegedly more permanent and durable than other media (film stock, paper, and so on), depends on a degeneration actively denied and repressed. p167

If our machines’ memories are more permanent, if they enable a permanence that we seem to lack, it is because they are constantly refreshed so that their ephemerality endures, so that they may store the programs that seem to drive our machines. p167

Rather than getting caught up in speed, then, we must analyze, as we try to grasp a present that is always degenerating, the ways in which ephemerality is made to endure. What is surprising is not that digital media fades but rather that it stays at all and that we stay transfixed by our screens as its ephemerality endures. p171