Blogging, memory and forgetting

750 words on blogging, memory and forgetting

I've been blogging for a long time, and writing online for longer than that – 27 years of typing. In the process, a lot of it has been saved, and a lot of it has been discarded. I'm luckier than most to have a complete set of my writing since 2003 all in Typepad. Heaven help anyone who wrote seriously on Prodigy or Compuserve or Facebook and tried to save any of it permanently.

With over 2,000 posts in this Typepad installation I started to try to do an index. My writing here was ranged from recipes for semolina pudding to weather maps of Australia to accounts of a peanut processing plant in Texas. No single index is going to make any sense for all of that.

Even though I've read a lot, and written a lot, I've most likely forgetten most of what I've ever written down. The temporary focus on a temporary enthusiasm carries through for a while and then gets discarded, saved but not readily at hand. After years of cumulative writing, what's there is not a single coherent whole ready to be sculpted into a neat linear narrative, but instead the sometimes interesting and sometimes fragmentary open notebook of a life lived near the keyboard.

Does writing help the memory? Certainly by writing things down you can cause them to be pinned down into a single tangible format that can be referred to later, and if you refer back to them often enough the transient interest becomes something concrete. There's a lot to be said for putting words down on paper so that they can be edited and refined so that there's something very particular that they say.

What is our memory these days? With the ubiquity of the Google and its all-seeing maw fed with the writings of our time, the strategy to memorize something may simply be to write it down in a place where it can be Googled and then search to refer back to it when it's needed. 

Indeed, Google’s maw is infinite and it will undoubtedly attempt someday to put every book ever written in every language into its digital coffers. – Warren Adler

Feeding Google is hardly a part-time task, and I feel a need to feed Twitter which is equally hungry to capture the short form version of contemporary accounts of our existence. Twitter is threatening to disgorge for our own personal use the collected record of our Twitter stream – every sandwich you ever ate, every time you complained about squeaky brakes on the bus, every poorly edited grumpy text mashed into the input box – and somehow certainly that will enter our personal memory space as well.

"Forgetting is as important as remembering" – Brian Eno

This process of accumulating digital reminders of what we once experienced is occasionally punctuated by digital loss. There's the sudden catastrophic loss of the online system that dies with your words left stranded on it, or the hard drive that craters before all of the backups are done. There's also the slow loss of unfindability where the words or pictures still are somewhere, but you've forgotten the magic incantation that will bring them onto the screen. I've stranded some text of my own creation, hidden in the grand archives of the University, inaccessible to me or to anyone else because they are student records and thus off limits because of FERPA. No matter, I have remembered a few of them.

Pop tarts and auto parts. – Michael Joyce

Every once in a long time, the words that you wrote long ago resurface. I wrote to Tim Berners-Lee in 1991 asking about home page design, and our correspondence was recently quoted in The Atlantic online. Aside from proving that I was there way back when, it reminded me that finding things online is an ongoing struggle, and that our puny screens and keyboards routinely fail us when looking for the answer to a complicated problem or to give us access to what we know is not very far away. The particular question was on home page design, and I know little more about it now than I did 20 years ago.

By writing I remember, and I throw a few more words into the big soup that try to draw on from time to time to recall what I am and what I know. I've forgetten more than I've ever remembered, and it's good to go rummaging through the word hoard to see what can be unearthed.

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