In the early 1990s, William Gibson wrote Agrippa (A Book of the Dead), a 300-line autobiographical poem saved on a 3.5″ floppy designed to erase itself after a single use. The book version accomplished the task in analogue: its pages were treated with photosensitive chemicals, which began gradually fading the words and images from the book’s first exposure to light. The text was about memory, and the idea was that a reader would experience it as such, with the words becoming memories as they were consumed. Like a conversation, like a moment experienced in direct time, one could never recall it precisely, or command it–as on a computer–to return. It was simply lived, then faded away.
Although Agrippa was engineered to be ephemeral, it committed one cardinal error: it was written at the dawn of the free information age. Almost immediately after the poem’s initial “Transmission” (a complex affair involving illusionist Penn Jillette and a vacuum-sealed sculptural magnetic disk) enterprising hackers pirated the text and disseminated it online, on USENET groups and listservs. Since Gibson didn’t use email at the time, fans faxed him pirated copies of the text in droves. If Agrippa had been undertaken today, I can only imagine the full text would have been leaked before it even made it into the art gallery. The project was, in short, a failure: not because it was a bad idea, or poorly-executed, but because there simply is no such thing as a transitory memory anymore. When someone tries to artificially construct one, our networked technological milieu literally wrests it away and commits it, permanently, to the cloud.
We no longer serve one another sensory impressions, live largely felt experiences; we no longer conjure up the past through a patchwork of fallible nodes of thought, ever-shifting, foggy and surreal. It’s difficult today, perhaps impossible, for an artist to make something with the qualities of pure memory: intangible, subjective, and yet with real emotional affect. In an age of hyper-documentation, of consistent quantifiability, every click leaves a trace.
Which, of course, may have been the very point Gibson was trying to make. Agrippa, in attempting to emulate natural memory, was an impossible object. By being technological, it was inherently destined to assimilate itself into a greater collective cache of experience. In his new collection of essays, Distrust That Particular Flavor, he addresses this more succinctly: technology, in a sense, is memory.
In Gibson’s view, our technology is–always has been–an direct extension of our humanity. He argues that the moment we began began taking photos, making films, externalizing the human experience with so-called “mass” media, we set into motion an immeasurably vast prosthetic memory for the race. What we can’t remember, or live directly, we can now conjure up through images, films, and data; we can remember second-hand, often losing touch with the difference between our memories, truth, history, and the experience of others. We can view things at a distance, things which happened before we were born, we can watch the dead talk: ghosts have been walking among us since the first image was recorded. Of film, Gibson writes, “we are building ourselves mirrors that remember–public mirrors that wander around and remember what they’ve seen,” adding, “that is a basic magic.”
Only briefly does he make what I think is a crucial leap to extending the argument beyond the parameters of 20th century technology. The prosthetic memory of the human race isn’t just quantifiable in archives of film, living networks of interconnected conversation, and endless bytes of media data. It’s also a different kind of information: mesopotamian clay tablets, cave paintings, the printed word, anything, in fact, that is capable of representing a fragment of ineffable experience in physical form. Of course, this isn’t Gibson’s territory, the cyberprophet, the calm-and-bemused voice of techno-truth, but he tackles it:
“Our ancestors, when they found their way to that first stone screen, were commencing a project so vast that it only now begins to become apparent: the unthinking construction of a species-wide, time-defying, effectively immortal prosthetic memory. Extensions of the human brain and nervous system, capable of surviving the death of the species. The start of building what would become civilization, cities, cinema.”
While media is an “extended nervous system we’ve been extruding as a species for the past century,” art is a complex memory we’ve been collaboratively creating for much, much longer. It’s too big for a single individual–or a single machine, hopefully– to experience it all at once, but it’s the central project of the human race. And it can’t be pirated, or destroyed: only lived, and added to, often thoughtlessly, by succeeding generations of increasingly technological human beings.