This quotation from Marshall McLuhan, more than “global village” or “the medium is the message,” exemplifies what a prophet he was. He wrote these words in the 1960s, several decades before the Internet. All he needed was the wired world of phones, radios, and above all television to foresee not only how all other thought would be drowned out by gossip, but how much it would oppress us. For him, redemption was a physical as much as psychic necessity–such thinking was built into his orthodox Catholicism. In baptism or reconciliation, sins are truly washed away, their imprint removed from the universe, an act which is impossible if they are squirreled away in a database somewhere with Luciferian avarice, always ready to be brandished in accusation or sold for gain.
As the record of our daily written communication is fused with our phones, something sinister is happening to our memories of other people, especially those who have died.
William Gibson has described information technology as a form of prosthetic memory, and I agree with him. Written language exists as much to store the past as it does to communicate the present. Accounting records may actually have been the first use of written language, which would make extending human memory writing’s primal function. Inscriptions to memorialize the glory of the powerful dead followed soon after.
Luke O’Neil recently recounted the strangeness of living with his late father’s last text messages. They record banalities, but also invite him to further communication with the dead every day, hovering just at the edge of his attention, like an advertisement. What he and his father tapped out without a thought have, by proximity alone, been asked to bear the weight of mourning, and they are doing a poor job of it.
We have always used written communication to remember the dead. We have had letters and books and tombstone inscriptions, but these are all deliberately chosen and set aside from daily life. Before digital communication, we could choose to remember our dead in a way that was true and relevant. In contrast, our accidental digital memorials are shoved at us every day by the grim mechanics of our technology. We live forever in the horror of Emily Dickinson’s vision of banality at the last moment: “I heard a fly buzz when I died.”
I have written elsewhere about the need to relieve ourselves from the burden of perfect digital memory, and how Marshall McLuhan got it right when he said:
“The future will be an electrically computerized dossier bank – that one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of early ‘mistakes’.”
Our prosthetic memory is attached to us at too many nerve endings. When we can remember everything, memory is simply noise. We burn out on memory and, by extension, the present moment, which is no less than life itself.
Ever since its creation in the late 1960s, public broadcasting in the US has been under attack. The attacks have come mostly from conservatives, but liberals have not been above them, either, and the debate usually flares up when there is a change in the funding for NPR and PBS, either in amount or source. The new partnership between HBO and Sesame Street is the latest such flare up. Usually, Big Bird gets held up as a symbol for all of public broadcasting, but in this case, he and his pals are actually at the center of the debate.
In my latest for The Nation, my co-author and I argue that the Sesame Street deal, while good for the iconic children’s show, is a bad model for the rest of PBS programs. When it comes to providing educational resources for all Americans, privatization isn’t the way to go. Click on the bird for the full piece.