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Essays: Archives as Medium

Lance Strate: The Medium is the Memory

By Lance Strate, Associate Professor and Director of the Graduate Program in Public Communication, Fordham University

Marshall McLuhan asked us to think about media as extensions of ourselves -- of our bodies, our minds, our capabilities and our identities, both individual and collective. The archive as medium can therefore be understood as an extension of human memory. This is no small matter. For individuals, memory is the foundation of consciousness itself, as it establishes a continuity that allows for coherent thought, higher mental processes, and what we call the mind. Of course, the human mind is capable of the willful search and retrieval of memories, so that memory is also a form and function of human consciousness, in addition to being its foundation.

But memory isn't just limited to the individual. Memories can be shared, which means that all forms of communication are, in some way, extensions of memory. The shared memory of a group or society is known as "collective memory," and what we call culture is largely a system of communication that extends collective memory, so that knowledge and wisdom can be passed down over the generations. In this way, we transcend the limitations of time and lifespan. Moreover, it is the continuity of the group, the cohesiveness and shared identity of the society, that is preserved in memory. No other species has this ability, because no other species has the capacity to communicate symbolically, through speech, images, and writing, etc.

The archive as medium is an extension of collective memory, in the service of cultural continuity. Harold Innis argued for the importance of communication over time, which he felt was all too often overlooked in modern societies, which he characterized as space-biased. By this, he meant that we have been obsessed with the speed of communication, the instantaneous transmission of information made possible by electronic media and telecommunications technologies. We have focused our attention on communicating over distance, resulting in what McLuhan called the "global village." And we have concentrated on the sense of power and control that these new capabilities afford us. We have come to value whatever is newest, to expect novelty and cry "boring!" whenever the steady stream of stimulation lets up; we have become impatient with the minutest of delays, and have come to expect a rapid turnover of content in all of our media.

In the process, we have neglected, ignored, and even denigrated tradition, history, preservation and conservation. We have become present-minded, and lost sight of the fact that the present ought to be understood as a medium for maintaining continuity between the past and the future. Innis's "plea for time" was a plea for restoring balance to our space-biased societies. Of course, time-biased societies, such as the feudal societies of medieval Europe, have certain inadequacies as well. But those inadequacies are not our own. And Innis's aim was not for us to replace a space-bias with a time-bias, but to achieve equilibrium.

Over the long history of our species, we have extended our collective memory in a variety of ways: through language and art, through oral tradition and mnemonics, through writing, typography, photography, film, audio and video recording, and through digital media. The Internet and the Web function as a vast archive, facilitated by search engines such as Google. Innis predicted that when a society becomes space-biased, a new medium will eventually emerge to restore balance, and this may well be occurring in our time, at the turn of the 21st century.

McLuhan argued that as extensions, media function as prosthetic devices, so that every extension is also an amputation. Plato recognized this process when he argued in the Phaedrus that the innovation of writing would give individuals the false appearance of wisdom while weakening their memories. We therefore ought to consider what is lost, as well as what is gained, as we extend our collective memory across time and space. Before the invention of writing, human beings were the sole storehouse of information, and human interaction was required for knowledge to survive. Memory was not thought of as an object or artefact. It was an action or event -- storytelling, the singing of tales, a performance, a commemoration. The oldest individuals were the most highly valued, for their wisdom and experience, for their ability to remember. The written word gradually shifted our attention from interaction with others to the study of artefacts and documents, so that we lost sight of the fact that our fellow human beings are our most precious archives.

As we have extended our collective memory through the addition of various technologies, how much more of our social "body" have we amputated? How much further do digital archives take us from the human touch, the individual imprint, from the sense of direct connection to and communication with our past? Are our digitally extended memories nothing more than virtual memories? These are the kinds of questions Innis and McLuhan might raise. McLuhan said that "the medium is the message," and we might add that the medium is the memory. This means that the very nature of our collective memory changes as the media we use to preserve information, and communicate over time, change.

Innis and McLuhan are part of an intellectual tradition known as media ecology, the study of media as environments. We can therefore say that we live in our memories, both imaginatively, and in that we match our current perceptions against our memories of previous experience. And we live among the artefacts of the past. They fill our homes, they are our houses and buildings, our monuments and museums, our roads and cities. Rarely are these memory-environments coherent in their arrangement, but rather more like dreamscapes that require analysis and interpretation. Archives are special memory-environments in which our collective memories are sorted out, and order and continuity are established; this is true of archives that are in physical environments such as a library, or in virtual environments such as a website. What we need, and what archives can help us achieve, is an ecology of memory, a media ecology of collective memory, to understand our past, and prepare for our future.