Mnemophagy1 is an exploration of the impact of technology on memory. Meaning literally, “the devouring of memory”, this thesis uses the case of the Checkpoints community, a digital community whose point of congregation was deleted by YouTube, as an example of the dangers of relying on technology as a repository for memory. This research provides novel contributions to the field of cyberethnography, the study of digital communities, and digital ontology, the study of the nature of being in the digital age. It seeks to hypothesize current and future impacts to memory by technology. Additionally, it clarifies the phenomena surrounding the erosion of memory in the technological age. By way of Frederich Kittler and Martin Heidegger, it traces the interplay as one where technology eats away at memory through “mnemophagy”.
When we consider the devouring of memory or “mnemophagy”, we are essentially asking a question of legacy. Oftentimes, thinking of our digital footprints, we imbue digital deeds, posts, and interactions with a contradictory transient permanence. Transient because digital history is one drop in a firehose of content being created every day on Earth and because their preservation is often outsourced to third-party under the guise of cloud storage. The drive to miniaturize devices led to a need for extra-device storage which in turn increased the demand for personal storage space on external servers. Hard drives and USB keys have made way for Google Cloud, Dropbox, and iCloud. But is relinquishing control and stewardship of one’s data the method that ensures the endurance of one’s legacy?
This question applies at the individual and at the community level.
In my first exploration of the importance of Checkpoints, I wrote:
“I stand at quarter life quartered between the pharaoh and William Stoner.2 The hubris of wanting a legacy and the knowledge that even a regular life is worth living. That there is beauty in everything, daily sadness, the silence of loved ones, impossible love, and dying unknown. But part of me breathes Napoleonic ambitions to conquer the world and leave a mark. By any means necessary. Though it is not my own legacy that I wrestle through my investigations in memory but yours. The Ramesses in me recognize the Ramesses in you.”
When an individual comments on the Checkpoints YouTube video, they are engaging in a tradition that began on April 26, 2012, when the video was first posted.3 They are using the infrastructure of the internet to leave their mark to tell their story. They acknowledge the importance of these daily melancholies and wish to carve them into digital cement. It is worth noting that there is a transgression at play here on the part of the user. The comment section was not designed for “Checkpoints” but like the teenager tagging a city wall, the members of the Checkpoints community decided unilaterally to use this space as their own.
This transgression comes with a problem which is exemplified in this research. In spite of the overall trustworthiness of YouTube, there is a risk with building a community on someone else’s platform.
On digital frailty, earlier this year, I wrote:
I have seen evanescence. Woken up and entire histories vanished in a click. In ways that only atomic calamity could reproduce in the physical reproduce I fear sometimes that I am the only remaining vessel of their tales and folklores. Only I remember, alas, what happened on webpages deserted.
The Checkpoints video was removed. Suddenly, that entire history was gone. A large impetus of this paper is the desire to give a second life to the stories which inhabited the comments. Technology provides a sound locus of storage for memory, but this comes with second order effects such as the potential for deletion and the looming risk of oblivion.
The impact of technology on memory can be intuited from the quotation from Kittler: “As soon as optical and acoustical data can be put into some kind of media storage, people no longer need their memory. Its liberation is its “end”.4 This act of storage estranges humans from their memories.
Personally, I believe memory is a radical act. I see power in remembrance.
Evanescent shapes cannot hold a people together. Memory is the safeguard against the perversions of History. We cannot claim to know if we do not remember, if the knowledge is not within us, if we do not own it.
Checkpoints are an emergent digital behavior which began in the comment section of a YouTube video. Two concepts are required to understand their significance. First, an overall comprehension of what YouTube is and the types of behaviors it begets. Second, what is a checkpoint?
To begin, YouTube is a video sharing platform launched in 2005 by Steve Chen, Chad Hurley and Jawad Karim. It emerged in the wave of Web 2.0 platforms which sought to get users to publish their own content. Web 2.0 was a paradigm shift in internet technology which pushed for more user-generated content and more collaboration. In comparison to the previous internet, sometimes called Web 1.0, the new web put users at the forefront and allowed them to “broadcast themselves”, to use YouTube’s original slogan. Additionally, it allowed other users to opine on what was being broadcasted. This affordance is usually called comments. Comments on YouTube have unfortunately gotten a bad reputation over time for being toxic.5 Because YouTube is less profile-based than social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, commenters are somewhat shielded by pseudonymity. This afforded users the possibility to say whatever they wanted and unfortunately oftentimes, this “whatever” veered towards the negative. Howbeit, this same affordance can also allow for positivity to emerge and for communities to build around videos, as with Checkpoints.
There are over a billion videos on YouTube, but only certain ones become checkpoints. It is unclear who decides which videos become checkpoints. Checkpoints are comments posted on specific videos that read like confessions or secrets or simple emotional divulgations. The term “checkpoint” is inherited from video game culture. In video games, a checkpoint is a location on a map which after being passed guarantees that the player will respawn at least at this location should they die. They are a guarantee of progress.
Checkpoints can be understood as an emergent digital behavior where internet denizens utilize existing semi-permanent digital infrastructure and use it as a mode of communication. This echoes Shannon Mattern’s essay on architecture, materials and memory “Of Mud, Media, and the Metropolis”.6 In it, she details the longstanding history of infrastructural materials being used both for buildings and for writing. She writes, “These building facades and walls, doorways and courtyards—of fired brick or terracotta, concrete (whose content of volcanic sand pozzolana, has accounted for its longevity), tufa (a volcanic stone), limestone, or marble—were not designed to be used as substrates for writing, but through the Roman’s social practices, ‘the fabric of the city’ ultimately served to record major laws, achievements, and legal transactions, as well as jokes, jabs, and private confessions”.7
Thus, when a user writes, “Checkpoint: My newborn son means everything to me, even if sometimes he’s a little shit and I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in months.”, it hints at the fact that YouTube has become our equivalent to a digital city and that the comment sections are its walls, a locus of exchange. These YouTube comment sections have become a “third place”, to borrow the term from Ray Oldenburg, a locus of collection and semi-anonymous sharing.8 They’re the urban walls and overpasses where lovers sign their angst and leave the mark of their memories. Whereas direct messages represent what Oldenburg would call a “first place” (private) and their antipode the “Facebook Wall” a “second place” (public), checkpoints represent the emergence of a third which helps surfers build a sense of place in the infinite expanse of the Web.
The areas Mattern mentions have a public nature very similar to that of the comment sections. It seems obvious that this digital infrastructure is being utilized as a writing substrate in a world still reeling from the Fall of the Facebook Wall. This use of Youtube comments is an example of unplanned activity where a place’s design is transferred, and its visitors define a new function.
The implications for the loci of these checkpoints are major, by inference they are the buildings and doorways of digital life, the structural repositories of digital memory.
Will these walls stand the test of time?
Or another way to beg the question, are these structural repositories the right location for memory? In this paper, I posit that they are subject to fickleness and that communities can lose their entire histories by relinquishing memory to these third parties. Technology presents itself as an ideal system of storage, but as theorized here, its presentation is a lure leading to the abolition of memory. This is what is intended by “mnemophagy”, the “devouring of memory”.
Cyberethnography is the study of digital communities. Its practice as with other ethnographies is predicated on the continuing existence of these communities, and in absence of existence, it requires that traces be left or that stories be kept. It requires the desire from individuals to create objects that endure or memorialize their existence.
None other represent the tragic figure of the quixotic monument-maker than Ozymandias, who wanted to build “the house of a 1,000,000 years.
Ramesses the Great is said to have lived until the age of 90. He lived a plentiful life filled with military campaigns, conquests, and battles. He reigned over Egypt for more than 65 years.
His story can teach us a lot about the pursuit of eternalization. During his reign, Ramesses ordered the construction of the Ramesseum, a large temple complex close to modern day Luxor, which celebrated the ruler. The centerpiece was a 17 meter tall statue of the enthroned pharaoh. It is said he sought to build a “temple of a million years”. The statue featured an inscription “King of Kings Ozymandias am I. If any want to know how great I am and where I lie, let him outdo me in my work.” which was catalogued in the “Bibliotheca Historica”, a series of forty books considered to be the first universal history, by Diodorus Siculus, a first century Greek historian. It is this inscription that inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley to write the sonnet “Ozymandias”, the main source of inspiration for this research.
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
“Nothing beside remains”. The poem exemplifies the folly of megalomania, the hubris of wanting to be remembered, the paradox of memory. Ozymandias beckoned all visitors to behold his oeuvre, his temple, but when later visitors did come, the site was in disarray, the yearly inundations had eroded the stones, the colossus had fallen, time had marched on, leaving very little behind.
Strangely, his tale has not dissuaded us in pursuing eternal memory. It is said that every pharaoh after Ramesses attempted to surpass the previous one in grandeur, creating more memories for time to eat.
Ô douleur ! ô douleur ! Le Temps mange la vie,
Et l’obscur Ennemi qui nous ronge le cœur
Du sang que nous perdons croît et se fortifie !
Time is the first mnemophage.
“In the old days, if someone had a secret they didn’t want to share… you know what they did? They went up a mountain, found a tree, carved a hole in it, and whispered the secret into the hole. Then they covered it with mud. And leave the secret there forever.”
In the excipit of “In the Mood for Love”, the 2000 film by Wong Kar-wai, Chow Mo-wan, the protagonist, is seen boarding a plane and taking a visit to Siem Reap, in Cambodia, the site of Angkor Wat, the Hindu-Buddhist temple built the Khmer empire in the 12th century. There, he whispers a secret in the cavity of the temple’s wall and seals it with mud. Preserving the secret for perpetuity.
There is this undeniable Ozymandian desire to safekeep one’s memories and to ensure they live on. Chow’s poetic gesture reminds us that memory-keeping can take myriad forms. The gesture is a paradoxical one. How can the memory be retrieved? How durable is its place of preservation? Why is mud, a permeable material, used to seal it?
Examinations into memory beget questions of time, history, and their paradoxes. A secret is by definition something that one does not share, a singular piece of information which must not be uttered, which must be taken to the grave. Even in the film, we do not know what Chow has muttered into the wall, that knowledge remains with him. In telling his story, one provides an account of how the memory was transmitted but not the memory itself. Encasing or media of transmission are the only artifacts that remain often from exercises in memory preservation. We are left, as viewers, to reckon with encasements, with exteriors, with barriers, only to imagine what is within.
The film ends with this intertitle: “Those vanished years, as if separated by a piece of dust-laden glass, can only be seen and not grasped. He keeps yearning for everything in the past. Had he shattered through that dust-laden glass, he would have walked back into those long-vanished years.”
We are to understand that the contents of memory end with their holder and that nothing else remains. But technology has allowed the multiplication of holders.
There is a wider relationship at play between technology and Being. Heidegger’s analysis of technology in “The Question Concerning Technology” is a useful frame of reference to comprehend the impact of technology at large on Being and Memory.9 In the essay, Heidegger tackles the question of technology on a metaphysical level, he foresees part of the danger albeit not the entirety of its gravity. Foregoing the practical definitions of technology via examples in our daily lives, rather he defines it as “a way of revealing”. Unfortunately, the implications are much more severe than Heidegger’s “the essence of technology may come to presence in the coming-to-pass of truth.”10
Footnote 16 of The Question Concerning Technology by Martin Heidegger11:
Bestand ordinarily denotes a store or supply as “standing by.” It carries the connotation of the verb bestehen with its dual meaning of to last and to undergo. Heidegger uses the word to characterize the manner in which everything commanded into place and ordered according to the challenging demand ruling in modern technology presences as revealed. He wishes to stress here not the permanency, but the orderability and substitutability of objects. Bestand contrasts with Gegenstand (object; that which stands over against). Objects indeed lose their character as objects when they are caught up in the “standing-reserve.”
Because technology is a mode of understanding, it develops in ways beyond our comprehension and control, thus the danger. It changes the way we are-in-the-world, namely by unconcealing the notion of standing-reserve, seeing now the resources around us as potentialities, stocks for further usage, not as things in and of themselves. Footnote 16 elucidates this revelation: “Objects indeed lose their character as objects when they are caught up in the standing-reserve.”12 In this transfiguration, an ontological seismic shift occurs, stripping objects of the objectness.
Plato relates a discussion between Socrates and Phaedrus in the eponymous book.13 Socrates tells Phaedrus of an Egyptian king Thamus who is visited by the god Theuth who wants to bequeath some of his new inventions to the ruler. When presented with the inventions, Thamus asks what the use of each of them is and reflects on their potential advantages and disadvantages. Socrates describes specifically the reflection he has on writing, which the god wanted to give the Egyptians.
But when it came to writing Theuth said, ‘Here, O king, is a branch of learning that will make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories; my discovery provides a recipe for memory and wisdom.’ But the king answered and said, ‘O man full of arts, to one it is given to create the things of art, and to another to judge what measure of harm and of profit they have for those that shall employ them. And so it is that you, by reasons of your tender regard for the writing that is your offspring, have declared the very opposite of its true effect. If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.’
Thamus is prescient. He foresees that the advent of writing will decimate the mnemonic capabilities of his people. He echoes Kittler’s concern, which recurs throughout this paper, “As soon as optical and acoustical data can be put into some kind of media storage, people no longer need their memory. Its liberation is its ‘end’.” He discerns this new technology’s mnemophagic tendencies. This anecdote illuminates the tradeoff between technological progress and memory.
Thus, when technology pretends to hold memory, it treats it as another object in standing-reserve. Something to be accumulated, stocked. Memory loses its revolutionary function, its radical potential. It becomes just another thing. This transfiguration is echoed in the Kittler quote. The story of the Checkpoints community evidences memory’s digital future, that unless stored elsewhere, every digital monument to memory is destined to oblivion.
Nothing beside will remain.