Sunday 11 December 2011

In conversation with... Gregory Povey and Simon White

A near-perfect storm of a contemporary culture that revels in the past, combined with mass computing power and storage to record seemingly everything, has changed the way in which we view the one thing which is uniquely ours – our memory. The ever-fragile relationship between subjective and collective memory is being transformed through what, on the face of it, is an increasingly ironic world: where everything is personalised within the context of a global shared experience.

To discuss the past, present and future of memory, Imperica invited two leading thinkers – Simon White and Gregory Povey - to come together for a discussion. Projects from the participants include MemCode and My Earliest Memory.

Gregory Povey, Simon White. Photographs by courtesy of Gregory Povey and Simon White

What is memory?

GP: To me, it's an intangible record of a thing. That sounds fairly vague, but I think that memories are vague. They become more solid the more you recall them, and add and subtract detail. Sometimes the record is deeply personal; sometimes it's a collective 'remembering' more than an actual thing.


SW: To me, at it's most infant, a memory is a moment in time, that compels an emotional response, that a person (or group of people) wants to hold on to, to archive or store and use later to tell a story about an experience. Even as I write that, I want to define it a million different ways.


GP: It's interesting that Simon posits memory as a moment in time. I think that's one of the strangest things about them. They're pretty isolated: bits of your brain that have logged things, but there is a need for them to be ordered and contextualised to make any sense. Memories are essentially a tool for narrativising ourselves.


Are we increasingly guilty of surrendering memory – such as remembering phone numbers?

GP: I think it's the other way around. People have been more guilty of holding onto memories. They create a personal story and a structured meaning of who they are through this process, and are often quite unwilling to let go of this construction. Holding onto memories, and maintaining the illusion of a meaningful narrative, keeps them locked in specific behaviours, routines, opinions. Worse, they become stuck in those moments in time like Ms. Havisham. Memories can stop us from moving on and progressing.


SW: Yes... and no. With the proliferation of technology that 'remembers' for us, we have no need to retain strings of numbers - or even names, something that may prove a killer technology in the future. However, emotional memories are still being retained in the brain - people's first phone number, first kiss, first time riding a bike. These are inherently personal and therefore have an emotional attachment. For me, that's the key: emotional.


GP: I'm pretty happy with surrendering some of my memory skills to exo-brains. I can outsource the boring bits of memory to a box of zeroes and ones. Why do we need to remember phone numbers, addresses or even where we left our phones, if it can be done by external agents? Maybe, and I'm going to indulge an unusually utopian view for a change, surrendering some of these things to the machines means we have more capacity to be human. We can use that extra capacity to remember more meaningful things, more emotional things. Feel more, experience more.


SW: Obviously, it depends on what the memory is, to an extent - even a phone number can add an emotional layer. Maybe it's not that memory is emotional, but that it provokes an emotional response - which is, perhaps, why people continually draw certain memories forth because it makes them feel secure, happy as they were in a particular time of their life.

Image capture has a harder time documenting emotion for most people. Memories, being so personal, traverse this. As tech gets smarter, a layer of emotion may be added. Instagram, Hipstamatic, et al attempt to infuse photos with a nostalgic filter; in essence, they are trying to capture and document emotion. They only do half a job. The Disposable Memory Project is the closest I've seen to getting it right. Because there is no context added, it's raw and there, and makes you think or feel something... like tech meets art. Emotive tech really interests me.


GP: That's an interesting point. Filters in Hipstamatic/Instagram are a massive part of an active narrativisation of memories. People are making a decision that this, this is how this moment was. They are deliberately, and justifiably, skewing their own memories by tweaking the tone of them when they're shared. I'm a massive fan of Instagram for its ability to have properly harnessed that concept of the meaningful throwaway. Passing memories, moments.


SW: I spent ages trying to create empathetic bots on Weavrs, but virtual memories are often about facts: particularly visual-virtual ones. Words, however, are more often about emotion - or creating an emotional response. Look at We Feel Fine. Actually, Jonathan Harris is doing great work in making tech more emotional - or at least its output more emotive. The same goes with companies like Mudlark, Made By Many, BERG and a whole slew of others.


How can digital media help to enhance memories, and to enhance stories around collective and individual memory?

SW: I believe that finding a way to add a person's emotional response to something will take digital archiving to the next level. Think how photography began and how fact-based it was. Only later did it capture emotional response to situations. Digital media is at the same early stage and once the emotional layer is (more) easily added - not just a set of offered filters someone else has decided represents your emotion - will it start to enhance memories and help create better, richer stories with deeper meaning.

Maybe digital will show itself to be as good at archiving emotions as it is at capturing facts.


GP: What we're really asking is whether people will use digital in ways that will do this. Whether anything can actually 'enhance' memories is a different question. There's a bit in Lost Highway that has always stuck with me as Bill Pullman's character explains why he doesn't like video cameras:

"I like to remember things my own way.
How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened."

I think the best memories have a level of ambiguity to them, that perhaps too much information can erode. It's the uncertainty in memories that enable you to embellish your stories, play around with what did or didn't happen. There's a fine-line between not having enough information to form a memory and having too much information that it becomes a sort of self-evident truth that is known to all.

What we will struggle with is the inherited knowledge of existing art forms and media. As Simon notes, film started as documents, then moved slowly into capturing more intangible things such as emotions. Whilst this digital stuff seems new, our understanding of how to use new technology is not. Like I said in my previous answer, there is a lot more manipulation of the truth and ownership of how people present themselves now. There's an innate knowledge of what a lens means, what a filter presents, even which pose is correct for your identity, at a very young age. I wonder how much of these documents will actually provoke emotional responses when revisited.


SW: Ambiguity is important to making shared memories personal rather than seeing it through other people's eyes. And, as Greg points out, the whole notes in the margin analogy makes personal memories different, even for the person who experienced them. They can be changed, moulded somehow... whether that's through criticism, a LOL, an affirmation; commenting on an individual's memory somehow diminishes it. But, again - as I keep saying - invariably these notes are factual and rarely emotional, or they are banal and add nothing but noise, obscuring things. In a way, this is like censorship through deflecting attention away from the original capture. The element of competition that comments can adopt, further diminishes the importance of the original memory. There is a place for it, yes, but maybe we should be choosy - especially with the important stuff. Nobody likes someone who interrupts a story without adding context in a seamless way.


Does a collective sharing of memory reduce or enhance subjectivity?

SW: The more granular stories or memories become, the more the hierarchy of truth gets distorted. Just look at the fights that break out on Wikipedia. Nothing is accepted as truth in the digital world, unlike the way oral histories were accepted. That's not to say mistruths didn't exist then, it's just our perception and associated trust in what we're told has changed.

Knowledge used to mean power, now the playing field has been levelled the power has shifted. I think we're unsure what to do with this new-found freedom. It's disorientating for many. That's why structure and form in services like Facebook are popular. People like knowing the boundaries - and having them. Humans like order; perhaps a Victorian hangover? Will we see Phylum and Species - or some other new taxonomy - of memory in the future?


GP: It's a tricky ground, really. As we all share memories, documents and records of the time we live in, we're probably enhancing access to subjectivity, but historical records are about organising collective stories into cohesive narratives. Without being too much of a Marxist (or worse, Adam Curtis) about the whole thing, subjectivity has always been everywhere but the reportage of it will always be informed by the dominant politics. We have always adhered to the concept of history being written by the victors, those that control the means of dissemination of 'truth'.

With the current technologies available, pretty much everyone's record of what happened is now documented. It doesn't mean that there is any less or any more subjectivity, but it does mean that it's harder to write the Grand Narrative from one perspective. That's why, as Simon has noted and James Bridle spent some time exploring, Wikipedia edit arguments are very important barometers of the time. The subjectivity is in the side-debates, not the article's content.


If digital storage preserves our memories (Facebook updates, Tweets et al), then how does digital media affect our view of these memories? Are photos which we publish to Facebook different to photos that we don't publish to Facebook?

GP: I'm not sure that these tools are quite there with regards to preserving our memories. Certainly not Twitter, as (with the exception of things like Twitshift and maybe Stellar), they're quite disposable and ephemeral. Twitter's own records don't go that far back, so it's a bit tricky to revisit three or four years ago easily.

Facebook and Path 2.0 are certainly taking dead aim on the whole idea of logging memories into a meaningful timeline of 'life events', but they will always be subject to how people choose to interact with them.

There's definitely a selectivity in the things people choose to share, and how they share them. I don't think there's a lot of tenderness in public statuses, and that's a major thing that people recall. I find my younger Facebook friends to be more in control of the things they share. They may post a lot more, but they're definitely directing their identity through it. It's far more performative than how my older contacts use it — oversharing, dumb videos, chain letter-style status updates — and as such it's difficult to understand what that memory will be in the future. When they learnt how to do a duck-face pout? It's important not to confuse 'document' for 'memory'.


SW: Reasons for sharing and what is being shared are as personal as memories themselves. I can't speak for the masses. The way I see it is, these aren't memories, but - as Greg points out - more of a slideshow, a way to express a memory (or memories) so others' understand it. The closer we get to computers that mimic brain activity and neuron development, the closer digital will get to becoming a memory bank.

As for Facebook et al, I don't think people 'consider' what they're posting - it's as if, unsure of what they want to remember, people are uploading anything and everything. It's become more of a document management system with a broadcast mechanism layered on top. Memories aren't a collection of everything you've done. The brave person deletes it, choosing to archive important things. I think Greg nails it with the statement that we should not confuse 'document' for 'memory'. And age plays a huge part in getting this right.

However, Facebook does allow people to access their memories through their photographs. It provides that access, as all photos and diaries do. They help release emotions, the true source of memories. And with emotion it becomes easier to create memories rather than document your day or life choices.


Why should, and are, we submissively surrendering our memories to private companies? Will 'the future' be about collective struggles to re-acquire our memories while companies fuck with them for commercial gain?

GP: This is a concept we've been mucking about with a bit at Mudlark. In the late summer, Richard and I started this light-touch thing called MemCode. It is playing about with the idea of memory harvesting, sharing and distribution, but it's essentially a little publishing project. How much - and what level of intimacy - are you willing to surrender to a faceless organisation?

The idea behind MemCode is essentially to collect memories, real or imagined, from people as well as create a few of our own, before sharing them in different ways further down the line. We've posted one so far, and the next might be in three weeks, six months, a year. Hopefully, they will come out of the blue and nudge people into some form of memory. It's supposed to inspire real memories in the user, not foist them on them. Again, it's important that there is ambiguity and slippiness in the memories, so that they're loose enough to be anyone's. I find the practice of cold reading quite fascinating, in this respect, and that's something I'd like us to play about with. Companies don't need our actual memories to fuck with them, not whilst there is a consensus on what 'our' collective past is as told through I ? 19** clipshows and the never ending retro-revisionism.


SW: I have already interacted with MemCode. What I liked most about it was that the memory was completely out of context and without context - context was what I added to the memory when I read it. I can understand what Greg means when he says that they are so loose they could belong to anyone. Also - and maybe this is important - the MemCode memory unlocked a similar memory of my own, allowing me to 'own' someone else's experience. In that way it had more in common with art than anything else... particularly advertising and its way of distorting memories for its own ends.


GP: Certainly, advertising is deeply guilty of the dark arts of cold reading, actively taking and distorting memories. There was a lovely piece in Wired earlier this year of an imagined memory of sitting on the bleachers drinking Coke from a glass bottle which demonstrates the ability of advertising to implant memories, as much as it can throw everything you might recalll from childhood at you in the hope it sticks or simply abuse songs you're quite attached to.



Think Blue Symphony for Volkswagen. 515 Milan, 2011


SW: Yes, we are surrendering our memories - and I'm actively asking people to do this. But it need not be about money, although that's usually most people's end goal. Greg says it best here: people are keen to share. I'm genuinely surprised by the level of trust people have afforded me with My Earliest Memory - and that to date only three have asked to remain anonymous.

I wonder about the trading of emotion, though. That surely has a part to play here. Is that even possible, to pass my emotion on to someone else? I think it is - if something made me sad or happy and I shared that in an emotional sense, that could make someone else feel the exact same way. And while I agree with Greg about memories being sullied through association - mostly in advertising and something I'm therefore guilty of - it's the easiest way to add emotion to the (some would say) clinical nature of buying and selling stuff.


What is the relationship between memory and shared experience? Is it meshing or fragmenting?

GP: There is a possible division between the personal and the public, here. It's meshed in Grand Narratives, but fragmented on a personal level. I've seen it many times, and often experienced it, where a person's memory or experience of an event shifts markedly when retelling that, or frothing it, with others who have experienced the same, with different views. Eventually there becomes an agreed reality of What Actually Happened, but privately there is still fragmented perceptions and memories. It's when the public, shared 'experience' overlaps and influences the personal memories that's interesting.

This is something that is as old as time. The idea of a shared experience is about identity and being part of something - whether it's a nation, a religion, a gang or a company. The stories we tell each other and ourselves to prove we exist, exist as part of something greater than just us, the development of an ethos through repetition of stories, memories and experiences. It's why nations go to war, it's why old punks hate emokids, it's why I have a strange affinity to Scandinavia: we have a sense of 'hereditary memory' from these cultural, shared experiences. If a story is told enough times, it becomes a memory, true or not.


SW: Memory and shared experience are both fragmenting and meshing - depending on what the shared experience is and the memories being created through that shared experience.

What's interesting here is the point Greg makes about how memories can be falsified through their continual telling and re-telling. Many religious tomes and urban myths are perfect examples of that.

I'm particularly intrigued by Oliver Sacks' work on memory - especially as he is now suffering from a neurological disorder that will see his memories lost - and fictional titles like The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey and Even The Dogs by Jon McGregor. The former deals with the nature of memory and what is actually remembered and what is borrowed; the latter is about the memories of others that, together, give the shape of a person's life.

Emotional memories will always be shared among small or niche groups; the rest is history and is, at best, an attempt to capture a collective memory and can't come close to achieving the former. Digital will enable us (humans) to capture more about ourselves like never before. What we choose to accept and ignore will be the history of the future.


Gregory Povey is a Producer at Mudlark. He has a Tumblr at Mount Analogue, and is @topfife on Twitter.

Simon White is a senior creative in advertising. He has a Posterous, and is on Twitter at @purplesime.


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