Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

on the will to remember

Mandy Brown:

A leaked slide suggests that Yahoo will shutdown Delicious. Gary Vaynerchuk announces that Cork’d will come to an end. Two years ago, Ma.gnolia experienced catastrophic data loss, taking thousands of bookmarks with it, mine included. Around the same time, Yahoo (sadly, a recurring player on this stage) killed Geocities. Dan Cederholm reminds us that very little on the web lasts forever. Indeed. . . .

This is not to excuse Yahoo’s behavior, nor is it to say that we will be able to save everything, even if our efforts are heroic. But no civilization has ever saved everything; acknowledging that fact does not obviate the need to try and save as much as we can. The technological means to produce an archive are not beyond our skills; sadly, right now at least, the will to do so is insufficient. Let’s hope that doesn’t last forever.

This is smart, and sobering. My friend Matt Frost — at least I think it was Matt — once pointed out that the problem of preserving information and transferring it to new media is one that we only need to solve once every decade or so, and in general that’s right. But what if we forget to to be as attentive as we should be?

When I talk to my students about orality and literacy, I point out to them that oral cultures are tremendously careful about preserving their memories accurately because they know that it only takes one generation of forgetfulness and then the whole of their past is lost. Perhaps we should start thinking in such terms.


  • Watching TV with my wife and daughters last night, I learned that elephants are one of the few animals where-in the females experience menopause and live past fertility. In fact, elephant groups are led by a post menopausal female, with the inference being that she is a repository of experiences that may only be witnessed first-hand every 50 years or so.

    Which reminds me of this:

    How did the Moken know that the tsunami was coming? "The water receded very fast and one wave, one small wave, came so they recognized that this is not ordinary," says Hinshiranan. "And then they have this kind of legend that passed from generations to generations about seven waves."

    It’s a legend recited around campfires, bearing an astonishing resemblance to what actually happened on Dec. 26, 2004.

    They call it the Laboon, the "wave that eats people," and it’s brought on by the angry spirits of the ancestors. Before it comes, the sea recedes. Then the waters flood the earth, destroy it, and make it clean again.

    Which in turn reminds me of an interview I did with a man who was dying of AIDS. His chief concern was that his children know the details of the planting, fertilizing and harvesting schedule of the corn that sustained their homestead. That, and to remember that God loves them and they should be good to other people.

  • Well said, Tony. In relation to the poor man dying of AIDS: I posted a similar thought from John Ruskin on my tumblelog recently.

  • Sister Hilda said...

    The experience of my religious community comes to mind here, in terms of our archives. It can take less than a generation for the story to be lost, or pieces of it anyway. We have had gaps where no one was responsible for keeping regular annals. So, the day-to-day experience has been lost. This is more in terms of gathering the data in the first place, but you can't preserve what hasn't been gathered.

    This second point I don't know enough about to say much, so I will just pose the question: How does the issue or preservation and the passing on of memory relate to evangelization, especially of young people? Are enough of them, and at great enough depth, taking up the Christian story and experience to keep it alive in the 21st century?

    This would probably vary from place to place around the world, but I do think about this sometimes.

  • Sister Hilda, I think "depth" is the real concern. Too many Christian seminaries are indifferent, or positively hostile to, the history of Christian theology and spirituality, and are not teaching it to seminarians — who then cannot draw on it when they assume their own pastoral duties. That history is not without blot and stain, but it contains far more riches than most Christians know. The good news is that, in books and online, that history is being preserved — but it would be good if many more Christians knew about it.

  • Sister Hilda said...

    Fortunately, at the Catholic seminary where I teach a lot of the history of Christian theology and spirituality is included in the studies of the seminarians.

    I find myself wondering about those young people who do not necessarily have access to such formal studies for a variety of reasons. Because of the theological education I have received, I consider it a responsibility to share that learning as widely as I can with others who are interested. I see this as a way of pointing them toward the depth you mention.

    The ways of doing so can be simple - book suggestions, bookmarks with a great quotation, etc. Whenever I give a talk or retreat, I always try to leave the people with enough information to find out more if they wish.

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