E-mail and memory

A friend visited me at home the other night.  Unable to state the real purpose of the visit over the family dinner table, this friend sent me a desperate e-mail that same evening,  followed by a fax version of the same message.  The contents of the letter were private, and I understood why they could not be shared.  All of us have a need to project an idealized picture of ourselves, especially with people who do not know us very well.

The visit was short and social, its recollection will unlikely survive the contingencies of memory.  The fax-letter may have been read by others as it lay uncollected from the machine, but no one would have bothered to decipher the fine print in which it was rendered.  And, of course, what could be more ephemeral than the e-mail?  In short, my friend’s privacy and pride are amply protected.  But, are they?

In 1968, long before electronic mail and the Internet, the writer Italo Calvino published “The memory of the world”, a clever futuristic short story about a firm that maintained the largest database in the world. The firm’s function was to serve as the world’s memory, “to record absolutely everything that is known about people, animals and things in view of a general inventory not only of the present, but also of the past – all that existed ever since the beginning.  In short, a comprehensive history of everything updated in real-time; better still, a catalogue of everything for every moment in time.”

Calvino’s database must have seemed fantastic in the ‘60s, when the idea of small personal computers linked to one another by an information highway like the Internet was still a glimmer in an inventor’s imagination.  But the future has come sooner than we think. Recently I read about the “Archivist”, a website that was being developed or had been developed for the sole purpose of copying everything that has ever been posted on the Internet.  On the theory that every message sent into cyberspace automatically leaves a copy somewhere, it aims to archive all such electronic traces: storing them, sorting them, classifying, compressing,  condensing, and finally, retrieving them for future use.

Calvino’s fictional database had only one goal in mind: to communicate the world’s memory to other planets long after the earth itself will have become extinct.  The “Archivist” and other programs of its kind, I am sure, have less sublime intentions.  The actual uses to which they can be applied are unimaginable and, needless to say, frightening.

Every little piece of information that you post on the Internet – the messages you write, the websites you visit, the files you download, the e-mail addresses you contact, the books, tapes, CDs, and airplane tickets you order on the Internet, and the credit card numbers you give – all these become the raw data from which someone out there can piece together an identity, a virtual version of you are.

These possibilities led Bill Gates to think that the terrain of the future is the Internet.  It will be the main highway for global trade.  It will be the uncontested repository and source of all knowledge.  It will be the principal arbiter of what is real and what is trustworthy. It will literally organize and shape our lives.  Nothing will be thought to endure or to have existed unless it is electronically recorded in its files.  Our concepts of what is public and what is private will be re-imagined, and so will our notion of ownership.

Simone de Beauvoir’s “Beloved Chicago Man: Letters to Nelson Algren, 1947-64” would not be possible in the age of e-mail.  This book, published in 1997, many years after her death, contains the love letters she wrote to the lesser-known American writer Nelson Algren. She did know and did not expect that Algren, whom she loved deeply but who later rejected her, had kept these letters.  After he died, the letters were acquired by the Ohio State University, but de Beauvoir asserted her right not to have them cited or quoted until a version authorized by her could be published.  They were, after all, her letters. Until she died, her letters were never published, and to this day,

Algren’s letters to her, which she preserved, have remained private.

Had she used e-mail to communicate with Algren, it is doubtful whether such a right could have been effectively asserted.

“But the example of the e-mail,” writes Jacques Derrida in his surprisingly lucid book “Archive Fever”, “is privileged in my opinion for a more important and obvious reason: because electronic mail today, even more than the fax, is on the way to transforming the entire public and private space of humanity, and first of all the limit between the private, the secret (private or public), and the public or the phenomenal.”  Derrida is particularly interested to know how e-mail technology would affect the way human beings remember:  will it serve memory or will it affect it differently?

Freud has said that our psychic memory is a result both of remembering and of forgetting.  We preserve and we repress, we conserve and we destroy.  Will the Internet condemn us to remember everything?  Or will it determine, by the logic of its awesome powers, what is worth remembering and preserving?  The issues are both psychoanalytical and political.

Derrida’s answer is suggestive: “There is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory.  Effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and the access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation.”


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