The internet considered as a fifth dimension, that of memory

July 24, 2012

Let’s do some rambling. First-principles stuff. Try not to take it too seriously.

When Paul Ricoeur was thinking about the working of metaphor in The Symbolism of Evil, he pointed to the necessary enigma of the thoughtful symbol: it ‘does not conceal any hidden teaching that only needs to be unmasked for the images in which it is clothed to become useless’. He suggests that symbols should be thought of as a gift to reflection, ‘an occasion for thought, something to think about’. The door must not slam on reverie.—Marina Warner on Damien Hirst in the LRB

At the heart of anything good there should be a kernel of something undefinable, and if you can define it, or claim to be able to define it, then, in a sense, you’ve missed the point.–John Peel, quoted in the Paris Review, via Russell

Talking to Matthew de Abaitua recently, about semiotics and the Olympics, he accused me (fairly) of being a gnostic, always looking for hidden meanings. According to Matthew, a practiced semiotician (just read The Red Men already), it’s what’s on the surface that counts. It’s all there.

Yuri Lotman’s semiosphere refers to “the whole semiotic space of the culture in question”. Thus, according to my copy of Daniel Chandler’s Semiotics: the Basics, the semiosphere is “a more unified and dynamic vision of semiosis than the study of a specific medium as if each existed in a vacuum”—even if it may make semioticians appear to their critics as “territorially imperialistic”.

What, then, is the sphere that encompasses the digital and the physical? I’ve been using the term ‘network’ for a while now, as something that supracedes the Internet, or indeed many internets, is the network that includes us and the internets.

Influenced as ever by Wei Wu Wei’s description of the physical and noumenal worlds, I’m always tempted to reach for noosphere, Teilhard de Chardin’s conception of the “sphere of human thought” which “emerges through and is constituted by the interaction of human minds”. But another, critical, definitive, term is needed. Noosphere is too mystical, and while I’m pretty down with mysticism it’s not helpful here, and it scares people.

(Technosphere is already taken, and refers to anthropogenic systems of technology, not the communications and experience within them. It also sounds like a Milton Keynes rave circa 1997.)

The apophatic silence at the heart of everything.

I like this line from George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral:

“The ENIAC itself, strangely, was a very personal computer,” remembers mathematician Harry Reed, who arrived at Aberdeen in 1950. “Now we think of a personal computer as one which you carry around with you. The ENIAC was actually one that you kind of lived inside.”

But it points to the same problem. The internet/network is not a computer we live inside—not inside, not alongside, no binaries. Time, space, and the network. The internet considered as a fifth dimension. What then are the units of that dimension? What is the direction that cannot be pointed to?

The noosphere is the unified human consciousness. That is not what the network is. I’ve been conceptualising the network as a universal human memory—pace some very serious qualifications. I’ve believed for a while that the internet is a system intimately connected to memory—it resembles more the space of memory, with its strange connections and absences, than any physical space. Memory does not occupy the same dimension as time, either, even when it is augmented, machined, apparently and infinitely recallable memory.

I am talking in part about anamnesis, Plato’s conception of Socrates/himself as midwife rather than teacher; of remembering: only remember. The internet is only a machine, the network is machine-augmented memory, with all the strange ripple-effects that this produces. And memory, socially and culturally constructed, is not only what we, as individuals, have experienced; it is what we, all of us, have experienced: collectively, forever.

(This is probably the moment to emphasise those very serious qualifications: access to and agency within the network are hugely privileged positions, that technology is not evenly distributed, and as soon as you bring in technology, and make claims for it, you must avoid morals and any appeal to a specific human impulse.)

The other thing that kicked off this train of thought: a statistic. 36 hours per second. An apocryphal, probably erroneous measure of uploads to Youtube, probably several years old. Doesn’t matter. 36 hours per second. That is a measurement in the dimension of memory.

  • 7 billion people (2012 population)
  • 7 billion people = 7 billion seconds per second = 221 years
  • 221 years per second
  • 190 y/s in 1990
  • 95 y/s in 1960

That is a measurement of the total human memory, but that’s just a function of population, nothing to do with the network. Age is a function of time perception, so life expectancy should be factored in. But the real deal is the network, the idea that connectivity, to the shared memory dimension, matters. Unless that can be factored in, the calculation is pointless.

(The calculation is pointless.)

The network is not a shared consciousness, but it is a shared memory (and a shared experience iff it makes sense to say that our experiences are just memories). Consciousness is just the active moment, acting on external events, with the backing of memory. It is also not shared money or shared space (privilege, inequality, &c). And it’s not really shared: it is experienced like all memory by those who have the occasion, the inclination and the opportunity to visit it.

But it is memory. It is a recording device. It is a recording angel, but a curiously passive one. It doesn’t pass judgement—except sporadically, and carelessly, like confronting us with a photograph of an old lover or getting us arrested or fired for something we once said in youth or in jest or in both.

It is memory. And we now have the choice to add to its stock, or hold back something for ourselves. Whenever we choose to ‘share’, to commit to the collective memory, or choose not to, whether twitter or flickr or writing a blog post or giving a talk to a roomful of people, which may be recorded and placed on the internet (or live on in the tweets of people in the room: we do not have full control over this choice), or making a bank transaction or writing an email or borrowing a book or placing a phone call or or or we nevertheless form memories.

Hyper-referentiality is the new style. It is writing in the medium of memory.

Proust wrote in and into the network of references, a series of hyper-referential reveries, but those references are his alone. The superhuman effort of his writing is to bring them to life for those of us who weren’t there by explaining and illuminating them—beautifully and brilliantly—but all he is doing is pointing towards the agony of recall that we now, all of us, experience all the time, the sense of being at the centre of something incredibly important, if we could only grasp it, if we could only remember; but that which we think we want to grasp is already slipping away from us, receding and becoming memory.

We have to go into the network, because we cannot go into space, because four and a half thousand years ago they figured out how to colonise space, and a hundred years ago they figured out how to colonise time, but they haven’t yet figured out memory or experience and that is the network.

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