The Myth of History

A friend wails that social media accounts, their overlaps and interactions, have been overwhelming her, so that she is no longer sure who her friends are in each compartment. Social leakage, far from simplifying her communication strategy has complicated it beyond description. This made me think about my iPhone which  has become almost sacramental in a postmodern city.  It demonstrates with pitiless clarity that our social context is not merely indifferent to but actively hostile to memory. Indeed, the postmodern city as an organism is itself proactively destructive of memory, or rather, the retention of memory, hence the incentive to remember is lost. Looking at one’s messages or emails on a smartphone, for instance, one notices that the device yields a snapshot, a brief twinkling of social interaction, after which it is immediately forgotten as if the door to memory can be closed, thus, details about the past and how it came to become the present are dismissed almost as instantaneously as they appear. This suggests that the present is only important while it is in fact the present; as soon as it becomes the past – something else – its relevance ceases and a black hole of history is created. A rather disturbing parallel can be found in a report from the BBC on the retention of old data on social networking sites another icon of the postmodern city. Rather than being a limitless storehouse of memory, the report refers to an article which outlines a tendency within social networking to lose information about an event, whether through manual or automatic deletion, as early as a year after its occurrence. By way of example:

On January 28 2011, three days into the fierce protests that would eventually oust the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, a Twitter user posted a link to a picture that supposedly showed an armed man as he ran on a “rooftop during clashes between police and protesters in Suez”. Supposedly, because both the tweet and the picture it linked to can no longer be found. Instead they have been replaced with error messages that claim the message – and its contents – “doesn’t exist”.
This treatment of communications as disposable is symptomatic of the postmodern city’s attitude to memory. “Now” is a special messianic moment within postmodern culture. However, this is far from the fulfilment of the same passage we find in 2 Corinthians 6:2. To intensify the significance of “Now”, “Now” is deliberately cut off from its connections with a past as well as a future, and life ends up becoming a process of disjointed often imperfectly connected present moments. I find myself having more and more trouble with the conceptual consequences of this. We have friends from China staying with us, where revisionism is the way things get done and doublespeak is the conjoined twin of corruption. I find myself seeking more and more to validate my own social and intellectual existence by making reference to a past which has a reliable matrix, thread and structure. If such no longer exists, memory is replaced by myth, vague and insubstantial and open to a variety of explanations, none of which may be true because the original information ‘no longer exists’. I wonder whether my relationship to my own history would change if I simply disconnected, went ‘off-grid’. Not for a ‘period of time’ but for good. What a catalogue of mental gymnastics I would have to learn. I would have to cross the street with a coin in my hand to use a phone, or offer to pay for the call with a friend’s. This would be inconvenient to the point of embarrassment and would lead me to ask myself whether or not I really needed the telephone conversation in the first place. 

I would use a pen and write letters, freed from  the derogatory trail of socially obnoxious slime that the word ‘snailmail’ evokes and would have to think before allowing the Mont Blanc to make a single permanent mark on the paper. I would meet with friends and actually talk to them, indeed, listen to what they have to say, without electronic interruption, insofar as their own online lives allowed. Which of course is the  problem. My online life is inextricably linked with everyone else’s and I want to say all of this before it gets relegated to a shadowy, half-remembered thought in a dark crevice of my mind. I am no longer an observer, but a contributor to the myth of history.

3 thoughts on “The Myth of History

  1. As the one wailing about my social media problems, I'm impressed with this little bit of writing. Postmodernism, revising history, the Arab Spring, and China all in one post. =)

    Definitely something to think about – I immediately wondered if some of those gazillion photos that I've added to FB will mysteriously vanish, and if they do, have I got them somewhere else more long-lived?

    I'll have to think on that one.


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