Technology, AI and ethics.

The Digital Madeleine


The Digital Madeleine

By Roberto Simanowski

Translated by Susan H. Gillespie

first published in Roberto Simanowski: Waste: A New Media Primer (MIT Press 2018)

A few years ago, when a friend who has since died gave me a book of “what-if” questions, I immediately put them to good use and asked him: If you could receive a telegram from a person in history, who would it be and what would the telegram say? His response: Rainer Maria Rilke with an invitation to dinner at Duino Castle. Since then, I always think of this friend when I think of Rilke, which happens more frequently than I think of my friend, which naturally also always makes me think of Rilke. What I know about this friend today is the result of an imaginary moment that followed a fantasy question: I see him strolling to the Golfo die Trieste with Rilke, talking about loneliness in life and especially in love relationships; I recognize him by the words that I, in my imagination, put in his and Rilke’s mouths.

The answer to my question that day, a long time ago, turned Rilke into the madeleine that reliably reminds me of the friend. I refer here to Marcel Proust’s madeleine, which, dunked in tea and ingested, reawakens memories of the childhood of the narrator in Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time. This provides an old-fashioned contrast to the ultra-modern memory activators of social media. While the madeleine, involuntarily, literally provokes the memory in the interior of the subject, in the framework of social media the activators are as external to the person who is remembering as, basically, the memories that are being invoked. They are the counterpart to the automatized world and the narrative of the self on which they draw.

Making History

The Facebook function “On This Day” reminds us of what we posted on Facebook on this same day x years ago. So that the harvest does not appear too meager, other people’s posts in which we are mentioned by name are also displayed. The application Timehop functions similarly, by presenting earlier user comments and photos from diverse sources (Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox) for 24 hours, based on the same day a year before. To the extent that social networks have made the public realm a space for private things, it is only logical that applications like this should translate the concept “Today in History” – with which we are all familiar from television – to individual lives. But while on television the memorability of a news item is backed up by its coverage 10, 20, or a random number of years before, here it is simply assumed, based on the passage of time.

At the same time, this enforced recollecting does not correspond at all to the recollection the madeleine inspires in Proust. The impulse comes from outside in Proust’s case, too, but it merely activates a link that already exists in the unconscious of the remembering man, as something that is meaningful for him. If this were not the case, the madeleine would remain a small French pastry that is consumed without any sense that the person doing so is passing up an opportunity to remember. Precisely this option of meaninglessness does not exist for the memories served up by Timehop and Facebook. Here the occasion for recollection also signals a duty to recollect, and not remembering betrays a corresponding, perceptible lack of capacity.

This incapacity, admittedly, is less a negative statement about the subject than a comment on the technology of automatized narration that precedes the notion of recollection: When photographs, comments, status updates and other information about our activities on and beyond Facebook are more or less automatically and unconsciously deposited in the archive, it is hardly surprising if later on they cannot be called up in memory. The temporal logic that is embodied in anniversaries may be an established means of both individual and collective remembrance, but in each case it is based on the presumption of an undoubted meaningfulness: birthday, graduation, marriage, establishment of a state, conclusion of a peace agreement… With the anniversary logic of Timehop and Facebook, things become important without having proven their importance, like the gigantic ice cream sundae we had at the mall that time. The photo was semiconsciously transmitted to Facebook, spontaneously and routinely, while our thoughts were already halfway into the whipped cream. Now the image is back, as a representative of past life, as the hero of that day exactly five years ago.

To the extent that social networks have made the public realm a space for private things, it is only logical that applications like this should translate the concept “Today in History” – with which we are all familiar from television – to individual lives.

Alien Memory

The result of this process is the production of memory under the sign of a meaningless logic of anniversaries. Emphasized by its repetition, the shopping trip lives on in our mind without further technical assistance and is remembered again, in the future, because technical assistance once reminded us of it. The automatized reference to an anniversary multiplies the automatization that originally determined the creation of the entry. Automatized remembering is the end of forgetting, which after all is the precondition for every reasonable memory process. Thus, it devalues the emotional power of what is ultimately remembered. Memory is no longer a seismograph of one’s own life, but the product of diverse technologies.

The more social variant of this other-directed remembering can be found in the response of the network, that is of the Facebook friends whose Likes, Shares and Comments basically co-determine the contents of our own Facebook page. The network is the second co-author, along with the software that is working in the background. It can respond, in turn, to the software’s memory offerings by applying Likes and Comments to entries that were made years ago and that the software is now re-collecting. Something that at the time already didn’t mean anything further thus gets a chance to gain more recent emphasis, if it is ennobled by a sufficient number of Likes. Thus my “Friends” assign a specific value to the various signs of my past, a value that adheres to the signs and that henceforth determines my gaze at my own history. And who, among our friends, doesn’t, in one way or another, love gigantic ice cream sundaes?

Memory is no longer a seismograph of one’s own life, but the product of diverse technologies.

When we look at automatized memory through the lens of memory politics, we locate its deeper meaning in the equal rights that are afforded to all potential objects. The constellation of seemingly meaningless reports and re-collections extends beyond culturally canonized events like school graduations, family gatherings and vacation trips, and provides even ordinary things with access to the narrower circle of memory. The logic of photography, which, as the first great advocate of the banal, made it visible and memorable, is now applied to the photographs themselves, which are summoned for recollection irrespective of whether they have been witness to our marriage or to the shopping trip. If it is true that after our death we will be recognized by the things that were important to us, our posterity may be more than a little astonished to find this in our digital legacy, ahead of all other keepsakes: an ice cream sundae with chocolate sauce and whipped cream.

Technical Introjection

With increasingly high levels of performance by the algorithms, however, even automatic remembering could become meaningful. Let’s imagine a time-leap app that calls up occasions for remembering based not on banal anniversary logic, but on correspondence with our actual situation. Just as Google’s goal for the future is not to tell us what we should do next (for example something we haven’t done for a year), but rather what (without already knowing it) we want to do next, the algorithmically skilled memory-prompts that we can expect to see in the future would likewise have to originate within us. The technical system would have to compute, from our present and past data, the specific recollection that is located close to a specific moment in time, and to call up the precise occasion for the memory that we ourselves would have generated if our neuronal system were still capable of doing so.

Concretely, in relation to the first example discussed here: The real-time purchase of a madeleine (after the abolition of the cash economy the system will undoubtedly have access to this information) will call up an image from childhood in which our aunt (this information will also be present in the system of the future) dipped a madeleine in tea for us. The only problem: The memory should only appear after the madeleine comes into actual contact with the tea and our palate. But that can be resolved, too, once the teacup is connected to the Internet of Things.

This closed circuit of technically generated recollections may be frightening. But who knows what we will think about it once we have arrived there? Humanity changes along with its technology. Who, nowadays, is disturbed by the fact that software reminds us who has a birthday when? How could I be opposed if, when reading a Rilke text online or watching a film, it reminded me of the friend who had once “liked” it?

The only certain thing is this: my lost friend remained longer than a day in Duino, Rilke’s Elegies in his bag and the thought in his mind that “everything here,” this “fleeting world,” needs us, to find shelter from the ignorant attention of these times, “us, the most fleeting of all,” shelter in us.

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Roberto Simanowski

Roberto Simanowski is a scholar of media and cultural studies and holds a Ph.D. in literary studies and a Venia Legendi in media studies. He is the founder and editor of the journal on digital culture and aesthetics (1999-2014) and the author of several books on digital culture and politics, including Digital Art and Meaning (University of Minnesota Press 2011) Data Love and Facebook Society (both Columbia University Press 2016 and 2018), Digital Humanities and Digital Media: Conversations on Politics, Culture, Aesthetics and Literacy (Open Humanities Press 2016) as well as Waste: A New Media Primer and The Death Algorithm and Other Digital Dilemmas (both MIT Press 2018). Roberto worked as professor of German Studies at Brown University and as professor of Digital Media Studies and Digital Humanities at the University of Basel and at City University of Hong Kong. He lives as media consultant, op-ed contributor (to Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Die Zeit, Salon, Deutschlandfunk Kultur, among others) and author in Berlin and Rio de Janeiro.

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