On the top shelf of my friend’s book case sits a shiny 1-terabyte external hard drive. This mysterious rectangular box contains a vast library of photos, texts, videos, music: an archive of files he has accumulated over years of digitizing, saving, receiving, creating and downloading. A quick product search on Amazon.com reveals that for every dollar one can purchase approximately 9.54 gigabytes of space. In the era of new media, such storage space is precious, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that digital data storage systems are unreliable, inconsistent—riddled with “gaps”.
The impermanence of digital files can be seen everywhere. Almost all of us have experienced the loss of some critically important file on our computers. In “Out of File, Out of Mind”, Vismann points out the difficulties of disposing physical files and highlights the ease with which erasure is performed in the digital world. In class we looked at the Internet Archive Wayback Machine and found that the snapshots it takes are often incomplete. It does not paint a complete picture of the history of the web; rather it gives us glimpses here and there. This seems to suggest that what is digital is transitory—but is this transitory nature inherent to the digital or is it merely a reflection of the inadequacies of current technology? In other words, could we theoretically reach a point in time when technology is so advanced that these “gaps” disappear? Is it possible to build the perfect program—a type of matrix without holes? Another question which struck me is the following: is our fixation on archives and immortalizing files even reasonable?
Shelley Jackson seems to think not—she writes, “I would like to invent a new kind of self which doesn't fetishize so much, grounding itself in the dearly-loved signs and stuff of personhood, but has poise and a sense of humor, changes directions easily, sheds parts and assimilates new ones…instead of this morbid obsession with the fixed, fixable, everyone composing their tombstone over and over” (Jackson). Perhaps the impermanence of files can be liberating.
This concept of being freed from the grasp of the archive is tied in closely with the idea of the “privilege to forget”, another double-edged sword. By attempting to create a super-archive of human consciousness, we free ourselves from the responsibility of remembering, but also lose memories we would perhaps like to keep. I was reminded of a passage in Alex Garland’s The Beach, in which the protagonist, an experienced traveler, expresses his disdain for travel mementos: “I don’t keep a travel diary. I did keep a travel diary once, and it was a big mistake. All I remember of that trip is what I bothered to write down. Everything else slipped away, as though my mind felt jilted by my reliance on pen and paper. For exactly the same reason, I don’t travel with a camera. My holiday becomes the snapshots and anything I forget to record is lost” (Garland, 54).