The Persistence of Memory

Reflecting on Rogue Archives by Abigail de Kosnik

A recent thought of mine: much of what I engage with in New York, much of what I walk through and seek out, are memories. The museums host capsule collections of our history, memories that take shape in forms from the dinosaur fossils found at the American Museum of Natural History to the canvases of pop art Campbell soup cans hanging at the MoMA. The streets are memories as well. From Midtown to Wall Street, skyscrapers rise like stalagmites, crystallizing time in vertical histories. The Chrysler building, the 1 World Trade Center, and the Empire State Building—all are monuments to some period of collective memory (Art Deco, 9/11, and so on).

New York is obviously a place rich with archives of collective memory and cultural capital. I have been thinking about the scholarly topic of memory ever since I was introduced to it in Rogue Archives, a book by Abigail de Kosnik (one of my favorite professors at UC Berkeley). Rogue Archives introduced me to a different kind of memory: digital cultural memory.

Rogue Archives focuses on digital archives, and fandom archives in particular. One of the main theses in her book is that fandom archives are a good example of how control of cultural memory and the archives that establish it were disrupted by the arrival of internet. Before, the construction of public memory and cultural canon used to be in the hands of institutions. Think of the universities that teach certain canons, the museums that pick out what constitutes art, or the city planners who define the skyline. Then came the Internet, and much of that gated and private control was wrested out by amateurs and ordinary people in the digital age—by rogues, if you will.

Amateurs started producing rogue archives, places where de Kosnik claims amateurs began to archive and produce cultural memory. This is very abstract, so I can list out some examples. Take these three: open source, fan culture, and game modding. Concurrent with the rise of the Internet was the rise of open source. de Kosnik studied the transformation of the GNU/Linux kernel across time, one of the most canonical examples of open source and free software philosophy. Users have forked, adapted, and improved hundreds of distros since its first releases in the 1990's. Every distro contributed to an archive of code which stood behind the principles of free software, each of which revolve around the freedom to copy, alter, and hack source code. Programmers into free software were in mutiny against copyright and any efforts to privatize software, a rogue action that amounted to an archive.

GNU/Linux kernels don't strike most people as a shining example of digital cultural memory (even though they kind of are), but fan culture and game modding certainly are. Fandom archives, at the surface level, seem like amateur collections of fan art, fanfiction, and fan made videos. But at a deeper level, it is a pivoting activity, where fans turned mass media consumption on its head and produce instead of being the end consumer. For example, in fanfiction, amateur authors borrow characters from the original fandom and run away with them in alternate timelines and crossovers. Amateur artists, authors, and video producers go rogue against the copyright holders of the original media, pushing to interact with the stories using their own styles and imaginations. My boyfriend used to bemoan how Disney chased down high production value Star Wars films with copyright take-downs, squashing the creativity for the sake of copyright.

One last example of a digital cultural memory archive would be games and their mods. Game modding is a practice where gamers modify games to their liking and release the modified versions for other gamers to play. From a base play of Skyrim, for example, a gamer could create a mod that customizes the gameplay so that the eyes are hyperrealistic, the resolution is optimized for 2K, or the game becomes open world. From a base game comes multiverses of games, mods, for other gamers to play, fork, and build.

These are are not only examples of rogue archives but also examples of how routine it is in the digital age to remix, borrow, adapt, or fork from source. I mean, think of the entire concept of virality, which is about appropriating source material and engaging with it bodily. All the Tik Tok dances, all the templated memes, and all the tag challenges on Youtube — these are all phenomena emerging from what humanities scholars claim is a postmodernist shift. Before digital networks, (apparently) what we valorized was what was "original" and "canonical". After digital networks, we have come to value remix, crossovers, and hybridity—postmodern characteristics of new media which were evident in all three of the examples above.

Another thought that I loved from the book was the persistence of memory, or rather the fragility of memory. Growing up in the late 2000's, when everybody first started thinking about how to groom their digital selves on Facebook, we were all taught that what goes on the Internet is forever. But de Kosnik claims in Rogue Archives that the Internet is not as forever as it seems. At least, in some ways, it has yet to prove itself more permanent than paper! We have archives of manuscripts dating hundreds, thousands years old, and yet we barely can read digital data from the 1995 if it is stored in a floppy disc that depends upon obfuscated hardware.

And it's not just what was cached in the past that is fragile—everything we have currently on the Internet is prone to erasure. If I think one day that I don't like what I wrote here, I can delete it and slip these words quietly into the void. Everybody has this choice. And because we do, because we are always maintaining an equilibrium of creation and deletion on the Internet, we can think of the Internet and our data on it as a sort of quicksand. It has a gravity to it, a solid permanence in the present, because so much of our data is circulating around the world in texts, photos, and videos. But our data—our digital memory—is as fragile as the sand that it is comprised of. We might feel like we have a monolithic amount of data right now, but time is a lossy compression of data, and once enough has been lost, everything becomes as shapeless and useless, just like sand.

Another fundamental and beautiful concept in the book that struck me was the idea of repertoire: that behind every archive was a huge amount of irreplaceable human labor for maintenance. We perform cultural scripts to make our archives. Just like librarians staff the library to help people find what they need, so too have roles developed for digital archives. Beta readers in fanfiction communities copy-write stories for authors out of passion. Fan translators volunteer time to translate and subtitle content for other fans. Code repositories maintainers debug repositories on Github out of passion and for every other reason under the sun. Roles have emerged in the communities that build rogue archives. I found this interesting as a human-computer interaction researcher, because what Rogue Archives was claiming was that the Internet is dependent upon scripts. Not just programming scripts, but the passage of cultural scripts, things that we teach in human-computer interaction classes under the guise of frameworks and best practices.

I'll end on a tangential anecdote that zooms us back out to the abstract concept of memory. Some time ago, I was walking with my friend on Roosevelt Island, admiring the memorial to FDR by Louis Kahn. I had been reading Rogue Archives, to keep me busy during the subway, so I showed him the binding on the spine of the book. Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom. We got to talking about how memory was a scholarly topic in both architecture and new media, which led me to remember a concept I had learned from Crystal Chang Cohen, a gender studies lecturer at Berkeley, which is that architecture is a landscape of power. The tallest buildings tend to be the ones that evince power. When I first thought about this metaphor, I could see how it could apply in cathedrals, skyscrapers, monuments. What really brought it home was when I thought of the Salesforce tower, the tallest skyscraper in San Francisco, and the shadow that it cast over the city, like a physical and symbolic manifestation of tech's influence over the Bay Area. (I think I understand it even more literally now that I am in New York.)

But what I wonder is what the architectures of power look like on the Internet and in the context of digital cultural memory. The impression that Rogue Archives gave me was that on the internet, rogues have the room to run free. Everybody has the opportunity to shape what is remembered online, whether by actively curating and creating their own content or passively engaging with others. That seems almost utopic. But the more I work on research in human-computer interaction and artificial intelligence, the more I understand that there are architecture of power behind our technology. The digital is just an electric veneer over our physical world, with many of the same inequities at play. There are people who get paid in penny amounts to make engineers on the other side of the world rich. Everybody is hounded on the internet with curated ads and Google, Amazon and Facebook at our heels. Youtube and Netflix iterate on dark patterns to get viewers addicted to consuming content. The point is, there are architectures of power at play on the Internet, that many of us are all aware of, but which remain to be visualized.

I think that Rogue Archives captured a very beautiful inflection point in the history of the Internet, when people learned how liberating it is to create archives of our own, to remember what we love through stories, video, art, dance, song and so on. And yet to know that our archives have been capitalized in so many other ways (monetized in social media and mined for machine learning) makes me want to think a lot more about what digital memory means to us and how we can better about its orbit in our lives.