Monday, March 12, 2007

Microsoft and Immortality

Speaking of sociologists, my first reaction on discovering that Microsoft now employs one is, 'Well, they would, wouldn't they?' There's always been a relentless literalism about Microsoft. Hiring a sociologist to get to grips with social networking is the correlative of Bill Gates's ambition, when I met him in 1995, to put the great paintings of the world on what was then the Information Superhighway. The assumption that a paintings works on a screen in the same way that it works on canvas is similar to the assumption that there is an academic discipline - handily called sociology - that would explain MySpace and YouTube. But, in fact, this sociologist, Marc Smith, seems to be okay. Notably, he says this on the meaning of social networks:
'It's a shift from an ephemeral society to archival society. Six or seven billion humans have come and gone over the course of history, and most of them didn't leave a trace. In the not too distant future, it's likely that one to two billion will leave 5 to 10 terabytes, and in those bytes will be the fine-grain details of their lives: the pictures they've taken, the words they've typed, and the people they've been with.'
This archival society was celebrated last October by project called One Day in History. Then I scoffed at the earnest compilation of trivia demanded by the project. But Smith gives me pause. What the archival society gives us as a species is a chance to remember ourselves. The future, as I scoffingly suggested, may not care. But, hidden in the archival impulse, is always the hope that someone will, that we can leave a trace.

11 comments:

  1. Meaning of life- that one's ego might be remembered by some other as yet unknown ego. A bit pathetic? It isn't to damn ordinary lives to say that the traces of interest mankind has left behind in the past are exactly as should be, ie our greatest artists and thinkers. It perhaps sums up the puny "democratic" mindset of the age that our version of leaving a trace is masses and masses of information.
    I don't really know about having a chance to remember ourselves- have we forgotten ourselves, and need more information to look at so as to allow us to remember that we exist/others used to exist? I'd suggest the masses of info we are presented with is the reason a cultural forgetting is taking place. And the idea that in the brave new world of a projected future that individuals of even more ephemeral awareness than is the developed world's norm, will spend their time looking at humans waving to them from the past, and that this is some kind of redemption or substitute immortality? We seem to have become one very spiritually confused species.

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  2. Bit harsh, Andrew. Or very E-Luddite, anyway.

    The vague desire to leave a posthumous legacy is just a human instinct. (Many greats were unrecognised in their own lifetimes, so it is a last hope for we mediocre multitudes.) And what's wrong with human instincts and last hopes?

    Do you begrudge Negley Farson his lonely hardback in the second-hand bookshop? If there are millions more such 'legacies' online, what harm can it do?

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  3. Good stuff. And thanks for the assiduous linking to me, Brit.

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  4. I don't think it's harsh at all, Brit. Harsh towards who or what? Instead of being an emblem of cultural continuance, this ephemeral/archival crossover stuff is symptomatic of a historically stranded present. We're the ephemeral blip that is cut off from the cultural life of our species, not the arrogant and ignorant other way round. Which isn't to say I've anything against Negley's great work.

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  5. It might be useful for your descendants to see what great-great-grandad dealt with in the olden times although they're likely to be the only ones interested.

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  6. Ah immortality in megabytes who'd a thunk it!

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  7. Values change. What is overlooked or considered trivial today, may be significant tomorrow. And perhaps significcant in ways we cannot even imagine. If the primary motivation behind such endeavours is vanity, so be it. Geatness is often borne of vanity. And many a noble or useful act originates in self-interest. You have a point, Andrew, and as usual you make it with gusto (nothing puny about your mindset!). There is something pointless and incorrigibly philistine about the whole enterprise that makes one almost blush. But what can we do, the genie is out of the bottle.

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  8. As you say Bryan, the future may not care, but due to copyright law, Google Books helps to ensure that past archives leave more of a trace than they would otherwise. Try searching for local names and see the amount of past trivia that emerges. The web reaches into the future and the past.

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  9. I for one can't imagine a world without me and my thoughts in it and who want to be in one that didn't.

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  10. This just makes me think of Keats's desperately sad, self-composed epitaph:

    "Here lies one whose name was writ in water".

    Had Keats been alive today, I'm sure he would have been a prolific emailer, possibly even blogger. I reckon he might even have given Internet dating a crack.

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  11. River of deceitMarch 13, 2007 1:01 am

    I read a short review of will self's book-'the book of dave'- in the observer which made me laugh. Reminds me of Martin Amis's earlier work.

    "Propelled into madness after being dumped by his wife, demented cabbie Dave writes a book for his estranged son full of racist, sexist, homophobic bile and buries it in his wife's Hampstead garden. Several hundred years later, after rising sea levels have submerged most of Britain - now the Ing archipelago - Dave's rant is unearthed and begets a new religious craze, Davinanity, under which men and women live divided and reverently recite 'the knowledge' as sacred scripture. However, the prophet Symun smells a rat, believing he has found another holy book contradicting Davinanian catechism and embarks on a perilous journey to New London to find the truth about the Dave creed. While the, admittedly effective, vernacular of 'the future' is irksome to read, Self is on misanthropic but sprightly form."

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