- Mediated Memories in the Digital Age
In her thought-provoking new book, José van Dijck has undertaken a formidable task. Unlike most theorists of memory, who work either with cognitive or with cultural models, she argues that to understand memory in the digital age requires an approach with draws from both neuroscientific and cultural research. In the first chapter she lays out her approach, which she distinguishes from Marita Sturken’s and my own; instead of considering the ways in which cultural memories affect the individual, Dijck’s analysis moves in the other direction “privileging private memory objects.” And while she admits, following Maurice Halbwachs, that “personal memory can only exist in relation to collective memory,” she insists on the primacy of the personal: “The sum of individual memories never equals collectivity” (25). For Dijck, memories might be technologically mediated, but are still profoundly personal. And yet, rather than assuming that something like “pure” or “authentic” memory exists and is then mediated by technologies of memory, she imagines a dialectical relationship where “media and memory transform each other” (21). And to get at this dynamic relationship she has coined the phrase “mediated memories,” which she defines as “the activities and objects we produce and appropriate by means of media technology for creating and re-creating a sense of past, present, and future of ourselves in relation to others” (21). While these memories are personal, they are nevertheless instrumental in translating [End Page 765] ourselves to others. Dijck, in other words, is interested in the way in which autobiographical memory both shapes and is shaped by technology. In this book she attempts to reject a simple technological determinism, advocating instead a model which recognizes the interpenetration of cognitive structures and technological developments.
The second chapter explores the ways in which memories and media shape one another by examining the interconnections between new digital technologies and human cognitive processes, arguing that “mediated memories . . . can be located neither strictly in the brain nor wholly outside in (material) culture but exist in both concurrently, for they are manifestations of a complex interaction between brain, material objects, and the cultural matrix from which they arise” (28). She wants to explore how memory objects interact with the mind. Implicit in her argument is Walter Benjamin’s notion of the historical specificity of perception; that, for example, we learn to see differently with the advent of new visual technologies. Dijck claims that at different historical moments different cultural frameworks are available and accepted as ways of preserving the past. In the spirit of Benjamin, she writes, “Cultural frameworks are never stable moulds into which we pour our raw experiences to come out as polished products; they are frames through which we structure our thinking and against which we invent new forms of expression” (40). And it is this point that enables her to illustrate a point of convergence between scientists and philosophers, both of whom recognize that “objects and technology inform memory instead of transmitting it” (41): the process of recall and transmission shape and reshape the memories.
Chapters three and four explore the relationship of writing and recorded music, respectively, to the formation of the self. In “Writing the Self,” Dijck explores some of the differences between the traditional paper diary and the weblog; while both are intended to “scaffold individual memory,” she argues that weblogs are relational, “instruments of self-formation as well as vehicles of connection” (55). While she acknowledges that even paper diaries were never written solely for the self, she points out the ways in which weblogs are more consciously written for others to read, and with the intent of producing a sense of community. Dijck claims that “their prime function is to synchronize one’s subjective experience with those of others, to test one’s evaluations against the outside world” (72). In this chapter she touches on some of the larger epistemological questions that her study raises, such as what counts as materiality (are the blogs material entities?), and what counts as experience (for...