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Book Review: Memory Bytes - History, Technology, and Digital Culture

Ingrid Mason takes a look at this collection of essays and analyses how these authors contribute to our understanding of digital culture by placing digital technology in an historical context.

It seemed a good idea to look at the definition of 'digital culture' offered in Wikipedia [1] and consider this alongside the ideas presented in this text. The definition was marked for possible deletion, then, a few days later the definition had changed, and the matter seems settled (for the moment) [2].

Somewhat serendipitously the Wikipedia definition had moved from two broad expressions of 'digital culture' that arises from the use of digital technologies, to one that refers to it as a discrete field of study that examines the effect on people. This process of community contribution to Wikipedia illustrates key assumptions that underlie digital culture outlined in Memory Bytes: the uptake of new technologies that enable information creation and sharing and distributed communication.

The resulting definition in Wikipedia reflects a considerable interest in how this activity is influencing human behaviour and what the writers in Memory Bytes are focused upon. They are more interested in exposing how digital culture is:

'..transformative of the individual and of the group. Most importantly, as a means of framing cultural experience it serves as a conduit for the confluence of power that technology, the government, and the corporation intertwine in the modern state.' [3]

Rabinovitz and Geil argue the case well for this social view of digital culture and outline four themes that run through the essays:

The themes provided by Rabinovitz and Geil are a better guide to the thinking and analysis of the writers than the overwrought section titles. The titles of the essays lead the reader into their content and the contributions are intriguing and well researched. A few pieces veer off the discussion of historicity into the cultural territory they are examining and the discussion becomes esoteric. Where the writers maintain focus on the main contention, the themes, and their own area of interest and expertise, they provide a thoroughly satisfying read.

The four sections are briefly summarised and a review of an essay from each is provided as a means of giving insight to the diversity of content offered in this text.

Section one has reflections upon the intellectual analyses of ideologies underlying historical technological development and how that thinking might (or not) contribute to an understanding of the ideologies driving digital technological development today. David Depew's essay 'From heat engines to digital printouts: machine models of the body from the Victorian era to the Human Genome Project' is a provocative investigation of the reductionist ideology he perceives underlying genetic mapping and engineering, where the use of computer programming is disconcertingly exploited as a metaphor by the biotechnology industry. This essay prompted a rethink about the endgame of the Human Genome Project [4].

Section two focuses on the historical relationship between technologies, that are audio-visual or that provide somatic experiences, and resulting states of consciousness. Judith Babbitts' essay 'Stereographs and the construction of a visual culture in the United States' credits stereographs, introduced into leisure and educational contexts in the early twentieth century to the United States, with having significantly influenced its visual culture.

'They presaged temporary cultural and technological studies of disembodied realities, such as virtual reality and simulated computer environments, and they deserve to be restored to that tradition.' [5]

Babbitts also claims that stereographs were promoted as a way for people to gather more information, about other lands, and peoples. To see was to know, so simply viewing the images provided an intellectual appreciation of the cultural experience or learning, as the armchair traveller or scholar. The accrual of technical and visual knowledge through this innovation became synonymous with ideas of modernity and fed into socio-economic aspirations. Babbitts does not make the link to underlying consumerism driving technological innovation explicit in her essay, but by implication the advertising pitch for stereographs is not dissimilar to that of the latest video or digital camera, portable music players, video games, or game player today.

Section three covers the history of human physical interaction with technology and its materiality. Scott Curtis' essay 'Still/Moving: digital imaging and medical hermeneutics' aligns the humanities and medicine through the use of technology in their examination of human existence - which seems a long bow to draw. His dialectic is compelling though, as he deftly correlates and threads together the nature of life and death reflected in film and photography, physiology and anatomy, movement and stillness, the synthetic and analytic, fluidity and fragmentation. This essay prompted a revisit to the Visible Human Project [6] and reflection on the impact of technological advances on medical practice, and, the social and legal ramifications.

'Preventative medicine, organ replacement, life support - all have made the criterion of death technological rather than biological, robbing death of its privilege and authority and giving it to those in control of the technology. Death still reigns, but modern medicine does not believe in it anymore.' [7]

An example is the legal furore over switching off Terri Schiavo's life support machine. Her parents believed in the ability to rehabilitate her, while the medical fraternity's view was that semiconscious and persistent vegetative states can only be assessed clinically by neurologists or through the use of brain scans. The courts ruled in favour of medical opinion and technology [8].

Section four highlights the historical traditions of aesthetics that re-emerge, are reformed or become redundant in the aesthetics of digital culture. Vivian Sobchack's essay 'Nostalgia for a digital object: regrets on the quickening of QuickTime' articulates and affirms the aesthetics of the imperfections and miniaturisation in QuickTime's functionality. The mementos, bits and bytes, and idiosyncratic linking of all types of files in QuickTime parallel for Sobchack the fragments or artefacts in personal archives or ephemera collections, museum displays or the Wunderkammer (cabinets of curiosities) of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Homologies are drawn between the opening and closing of the computer to view QuickTime's 'memory box' and the discoveries made by viewing relics stored in boxes, browsing photo albums, souvenirs or dolls houses. An intense sense of intimacy and nostalgia is experienced in these small and personal spaces.

Sobchack creates a distinction between the cinematic experience of big screen and that of the moving image and sound in QuickTime.

'The miniature, then, is always to some degree secretive, pointing to hidden dimensions and unseen narratives. Its "nestedness" within a larger whole draws us not only beyond its frame, but also into and beneath it.' [9]

She shares her qualms about the effects of increasing perfection and sophistication being built into audio-visual digital technology like that of QuickTime. It is somewhat ironic that what is gained in terms of smooth streaming, file compression and quality in increasing sophistication of this technology is what is lost in terms of the appeal. The sentimentality associated with the crackling sounds of old recordings is perhaps another example of this nostalgia for the qualities of redundant technologies.

Memory Bytes is like the curate's egg - good in parts. Though the essays did not reach concertedly enough into the main contention, they reveal, albeit in very specific contexts, 'the multiple relationships between culture and techne that have always been grounded in purpose and specific social interests.' [10]. This is invaluable if there is to be better understanding of the social impact of digital technology and thus the emergence of 'digital culture'. The variety provided by interdisciplinary contribution adds a piquancy that makes collections like this stimulating reading. There should be a place on research library shelves for this book alongside Lev Manovich's The Language of New Media, Neil Spillers' Cyber Reader, Paul Lunenfeld's The Digital Dialectic, Katherine Haye's How We Become PostHuman, and Cameron and Kenderdine's Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage [11].


  1. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page Last accessed: 05/01/2006
  2. The two definitions up for deletion were:
    Patterns and expressions of human behaviour made possible by computer technology and the information it enables.
    The habits, customs and patterns of behavior that emerge from the process of digital communication. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Digital Culture.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_culture Last Accessed: 05/01/2006
    Returning to it several days later that the definition was a new one provided by the Digital Think Tank. A distinct field of study that seeks to explore the cultural ramifications of digital technology, and how the alterations in the patterns of communication, information processing, and archiving resulting from the use of digital technology have influenced human behavior. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Digital Culture.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_culture Last Accessed: 09/01/2006
  3. Memory Bytes: History, Technology, and Digital Culture. Lauren Rabinovitz and Abraham Geil (eds). Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2004, p5.
  4. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Human Genome Project.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_Genome_Project Last accessed: 11/01/2006. BBC News, Newsnight, Who owns the map of the human body? Susan Watts 12/2/01 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/events/newsnight/1173801.stm Last accessed: 11/01/2006
  5. Memory Bytes: History, Technology, and Digital Culture, p128.
  6. National Library of Medicine's Visible Human Project http://www.nlm.nih.gov/resea rch/visible/ Last accessed: 11/01/2006. D-Lib Magazine, October 1995, Accessing the visible human project, Michael J. Ackerman http://www.dlib.or g/dlib/october95/10ackerman.html Last accessed: 11/01/2006
  7. Memory Bytes: History, Technology, and Digital Culture, p245.
  8. ABC News, Health, Persistent Vegetative State vs. Minimally Conscious, Diagnosing a patient's level of awareness involves complex analysis, tests, Amanda Onion, March 21, 2005
    http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Schiavo/story?id=600523&page=1 Last accessed 11/01/2006. CNN.com, Law Center, Schiavo's feeding tube removed, March 18, 2005, Ninette Sosa, Carol Lin, Ted Barrett, Joe Johns, Rich Phillips and Jen Yuille
    http://www.cnn.com/2005/LAW/03/18/schiavo.brain-damaged/ Last accessed 11/01/2006
  9. Memory Bytes: History, Technology, and Digital Culture, p318.
  10. Memory Bytes: History, Technology, and Digital Culture, p2.
  11. The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2002; Cyber Reader: Critical Writings for the Digital Era, Neil Spiller (ed), London, Phaidon Press, 2002; The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media, Paul Lunefeld, Cambridge, MIT Press, 2000; How We Became Posthuman : Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, Katherine Hayes, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1999; Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: a Critical Discourse, Fiona Cameron and Sarah Kenderdine (eds), Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2006.

Author Details

Ingrid Mason
Epublications Librarian
Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand

Email: ingrid.mason@natlib.govt.nz
Web site: http://www.natlib.govt.nz

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