Offloading Our Memories to the Internet
That September morning, I woke up to sounds coming from the alley off my apartment building in Vancouver, British Columbia. Someone down there was shouting in disbelief. Without much concern, I drifted back to sleep, until I heard the telephone ringing: it was my mother urging me to check the news. I switched on my desktop PC (Apple computers were too expensive then), logged on to the pre-paywall New York Times, and watched pixelated digital footage: planes were crashing into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, in Lower Manhattan. It took me twenty years to realize that this event was different from any other. It was my first global event experienced online—and perhaps the last national event we experienced in common, before the internet altered how our cultural memory works.
At the time, I had no sense of what that meant, or what cultural and philosophical implications it had. I registered the event as a historical fact, but could not yet consider how technology shaped my perception of it. Though our memories of historical events seem most firmly fixed in images, the last twenty years have seen enormous changes in how we see and process them. So much has happened in only the last five years—a global pandemic, mass demonstrations, political violence, the erosion of democratic norms, and more—that I am skeptical about whether any single picture sums up this inchoate time. Whereas throughout the twentieth century, the photographs of David Seymour, Henri Cartier Bresson, and Lee Miller—to name only a few—were reproduced in grand-format magazines like Life, or in daily newspapers, today we absorb the world via screenshots of fragments of brief videos, moments endlessly looped and shared as GIFs that circulate from phone to phone. Experiences of historical events that we have come to understand communally, via photographs and video footage, have been atomized by the ways we now use the internet. Logging on to personalized platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Reddit, and Instagram, we encounter content based on whom we follow and what those users have uploaded.
In Maël Renouard’s Fragments of an Infinite Memory: My Life with the Internet, translated by Peter Behrman de Sinéty, the author remarks that he now considers his childhood in the late twentieth century to be a time of relatively few images. “I have the impression,” he writes, “when I look back on it, that my childhood took place in an era of the scarcity of images. Such a characterization would have seemed odd or even inconceivable at the time, for we already believed ourselves to be overwhelmed by a quantity of images never seen since the beginning of the world.” Back then, when affordable cameras and video recorders made image-making an everyday act, we seemed to have more representations of the world than we’d ever need. The last twenty years’ deluge of representation, though, has proved us wrong. Today’s surfeit of images, he suggests, has fundamentally altered our perceptions not only of ourselves but also of history, by acting as a substitute for our own memories. Renouard—the author of numerous books of fiction, philosophy, and criticism, including the novella La réforme de l’opéra de Pékin (The Reform of the Peking Opera) and the novel L’historiographe du royaume (The Historiographer of the Kingdom)—has written a book that is part memoir, part philosophical meditation, and that asks the question: What happens to our sense of self when so much of our memory is offloaded online?
Like I was, Renouard was born in 1979 and is old enough to recall a life before the internet. When he and I were children, photographs had to be developed before they could be seen, published, or shared. We now take for granted that they are produced digitally and viewed in an instant, that their distribution around the world happens as quickly as it takes to push a button on the same device that took them. Renouard is certainly no evangelist for technological change, but he also suppresses tech pessimism, looking frankly at the world the internet has made and exploring what its influence has meant for our experience of history and self. He sees the online world as an endless archive of digital records that accumulate infinitely, and the result is that history—and, paradoxically, our own lives—has become increasingly indistinct in our memories.
Each of Fragments’ eleven chapters collects a series of prose reflections, from aphorisms and philosophical observations drawn from other thinkers to pages-long anecdotes about Renouard’s experience of memory in the internet era. He intersperses a numbered series of other people’s testimonies amid his own reminiscences; together, they become, to use his phrase, a “psychopathology of digital life,” a map of the shape that interior life has taken in the internet’s shadow. The testimonies form a counterpoint to Renouard’s own memories, so his voice is one in a chorus of many.
Fragments’ disjointed form is one of its strengths: Renouard understands that we don’t experience digital life together, but as a polyphony of asynchronous, individuated voices, best portrayed via the particular and the anecdotal. Throughout the book, Renouard mixes anecdote, philosophy, and literary criticism to figure out what these disparate experiences might have in common. In one passage, he describes a reunion between friends via Facebook, which, Renouard suggests, resembled the serendipitous encounters of the narrator of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. He ends the anecdote by quoting the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: “The more connections a world contains, the more infinite it is.”
In 2020, 3.5 billion people used a smartphone, which means around 45 percent of the world’s population potentially interacts with social media through those devices. Social media platforms, of course, do not present content in a neutral fashion. Algorithmic machine learning determines which images appear to us: On Instagram, for example, six major factors (including frequency of use, timeliness of posting, number and activity of followers) determine whether an image floats to the top of our feed or languishes in obscurity. Algorithms make assumptions about the relationships between the accounts a person most reacts to, based on posts liked, private messages sent and received, and Stories watched. The more we use apps, the more they know how to show us images we ought to like—and how to keep us fixed to our devices. We don’t see content based on what we need to know or what is important to society but what will compel us to keep using the platforms.
“The more powerful that technology has become, the greater the desire to make it personal, most importantly by making it smaller and more accessible,” Jonathan Ive says in Taking Time, a new collection of conversations moderated by the late fashion couturier Azzedine Alaïa. Ive outlines how the iPhone is part of the development of timepieces, from clock towers in town squares to our current personalized devices. On one hand, the social fragmentation caused by online technologies challenges the idea that history is a monolith, that we all experience events in the same way. In a sense, this fracturing offers a possibility for new ways of witnessing and recording history that counters official records and so provides novel forms of mobilization and solidarity, as we have seen with the #BlackLivesMatter, #IdleNoMore, and #JusticePourAdama movements in the US, Canada, and France, respectively. But these positive developments risk being overwhelmed by algorithms and machine learning that offer us nothing but predetermined ways of “sharing.” This mode of disseminating information through images tends toward a new kind of monoculture, in which everyone circulates content within algorithmically determined communities.
“Today,” Renouard writes, “images come one after another, devour each other, replace each other pitilessly, as if to outmatch the boundlessness of our desire.” In light of the past year, the “boundlessness” that Renouard speaks of also exhausts us. The information fatigue comes in varieties: disaster, Zoom, political. Arguably, because of the way we interface with them, all are experienced as forms of image fatigue. The surfeit of personalized images has done nothing to numb the anxiety and outrage of the past year. On the contrary, it exacerbates and repeats them because they are profitable. That “boundlessness” is also, then, a “stuckness,” a sense that history is on repeat. This is why, though I understand the importance of police brutality footage to a reenergized struggle for racial freedom, I refuse to watch the murder of George Floyd. I will not gawk, for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, at Derek Chauvin suffocating an innocent man to death. While many of us have been stuck at home, the repetition of those images has made it feel like history continues to loop infinitely in an eternal recurrence of injustice.
In the place of the video footage, the image of Floyd I keep in mind is the mural of his likeness in Minneapolis. The speed with which versions appeared in other places around the world, from Los Angeles to Idlib, Syria, is a testament to how rapidly images move online. The video documentation of his murder has become part of a “roll call for the absent,” to borrow a phrase from the title of a song by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire—images of Black men and women, including Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown. In this sense, the endless scroll of anti-Black violence reminds us how real things still are: no matter how much of life happens online, people’s lives still depend on politics and policies that are enacted on their bodies and those of others. The internet is not exempt from this reality. At the end of August 2020, as countries in North America and Europe were debating whether or not schools should reopen in the autumn, a story circulated on the internet about two children in Salinas, California, who had to use a Taco Bell Wi-Fi hot spot for their online schoolwork because their family couldn’t afford home internet service.
Indeed, the internet itself is a tangle of physical things—a network of cables, wires, data centers, routers, satellites, personal computers, and other devices. Throughout Fragments, Renouard’s tone flickers between enthusiasm and melancholy: “Now that the Internet has equipped us with a gigantic auxiliary memory capable of making up for just about every lapse in our recollection of external facts,” he writes in his concluding paragraphs, “it is rather our personal memory that suddenly, by this new contrast, seems afflicted with a disquieting imprecision… The borders of our own identity are becoming blurred while objects everywhere are gaining distinct, firmly established biographies, and we have fallen into the category of fragile beings in a kind of ontological backwater, like an old neighborhood in a vastly expanding city.” Renouard identifies here one of the less acknowledged but obvious truths about the internet: while we conceptualize it via vaporous metaphors (“the cloud,” for example), there is, in fact, a network of physical objects holding our memory. Much like the paper on which a photograph is printed, the images on the internet are realized by the things we use to access the online world. Renouard ends his book-length essay with the hope that as more generations live in a world saturated by digital information, new forms of identity will adapt to this material reality. As we leave 2020 behind, maybe some images will indeed come to capture its events, though singular pictures are now less important than our ability to quickly disseminate a vast amount of content. I suspect that, instead, the humdrum objects of the physical infrastructure of the internet have come to symbolize the longue durée of our short–attention span era most potently.
The last event I went to before the March 2020 lockdown in Paris was—perhaps ironically—the book launch for Alaïa’s Taking Time. As I crossed the Seine on my way home, I glanced at Notre Dame and its scaffolding and thought of another world event of the twenty-first century: On April 15, 2019, when I reached Quai de la Tournelle to both witness and lament the burning of the iconic cathedral, I watched smoke rise into the Parisian sky. Those flames were consuming the frame of the building’s ceiling, made from tree trunks that were already thousands of years old when they were installed, in the Middle Ages. Because of the crowds aiming their smartphones at the conflagration, the broadband was so jammed that not even a text message, let alone an image, would send.