Hyperrhiz 18 »My rfidiary
North Carolina State University
Critical Essay: Self-tracking Practices and a New Mode of Digital Remembering
The practice of self-tracking and creating one's own memory assemblage is a new mode for digital remembering, as well as posthuman subjectivation. In this essay, I examine how this practice enables us to become new posthuman subjects.
Machine Agency of Media Remembering
Storage: the word has tagged along with discourses on the functions of media technology. In an anthropocentric ontology that sees human individuals, groups, and cultures as the primary agents, storage capacity relies on human-centered assumptions about individual and collective agency. In this anthropocentric perspective, while human beings are the ones who construct society by archiving the social, material worlds function as a resource that humans appreciate and transform to store their memories and make meanings, and media serve as inert objects wielded by humans’ willing to preserve their memories. However, once the storage function has been embedded in new media technology, we have the extended possibility to discuss nonhuman agency that can store and archive the social.
In considering the machinic agency of media technology, ‘new’ media have often been discussed in terms of the ways in which they manipulate human sensorium and the sense of time. Specifically, following the invention of the late nineteenth centuries’ electronic media, the newness of new media is discussed in terms of its capacity for storage, simultaneity, and/or transmission that can introduce new ways of bodily experiences. For example, the phonograph is distinguished from older media because of its capacity to record sound and drag it into a different temporality (Gitleman, 2008; Kittler, 1999); the newness of the telegraph and telephone allows the co-presence of bodies in the same temporality (Gunning, 1991; Keep, 2011; McLuhan, 2013); and the television becomes a way to achieve transmission by working both storage and the new temporal application of simultaneity (Galili, 2011).
Even though simultaneity and transmission might be enabled by the birth of electronic media, the storage function was not new in communication technologies. Before electronic media, writing was regarded as the primary technology of memory, “an external and inferior technology of recollection” (Belinda, 2001, p. 218). Historically, writing supplements the mind, exteriorizes thought and acts as a technology of storage that transmits the written traces to a new temporality. Despite writing’s absolute storage function, the storage capacity becomes even newer in the invention of electronic media, and Friedrich Kittler’s media archaeological articulations show the machinic agency of storage media in the process.
What is new in the phonograph as a storage medium is its mechanical processing. Edison articulates that phonographs are “gathering up and retaining of sounds hitherto fugitive, and their [later] reproduction at will” (Edison, 1878, p. 528, cited in Gitleman, 2008, p. 25). Unlike writing as an exteriorization of human mind and body, the phonograph is an external inscription in an apparatus that “would etch acoustic vibrations onto a rotating cylinder covered with tinfoil” (Kittler, 1986, p. 21). Kittler (1986) distinguishes this mechanical sound recording from written protocols in that a machine records noise regardless of “so-called meaning” (p. 85). Written protocols cannot avoid intentional or unintentional selections of meaning; but what phonographs capture surpasses the human-consciousness-sensory perception, capturing the noise that human senses filter out. Moreover, the media technologies that collect, store, and process beyond the human-perceivable symbolic realm usher a new temporality: “time axis reversal” – speeding up and slowing down of the Lacanian real, which is unable to achieve in human sensory perceptions (Kittler, 1986, p, 35).
The time-manipulation of a gramophone means that not only does it allow the human ear to hear the unheard of, but it also encourages a discussion of storage media beyond the extension of human body and/or mind. In other words, what is new in storage capacity after the invention of electronic media is that media begins to mimic, or emulate, human memory practices rather than remaining a mere inscription of the symbolic selection from human agents. Unlike writing as an external technology of human-centric storage and retrieval, storage media technology is capable of capturing and storing what had always been lost and/or what was previously missed for future use beyond or without human-symbolic inscription. At this point, Kittler reduces humans to “physiology and information technology” (p. 16). But even though I disagree with Kittler’s radical reductionism and technological determinism, he allows us to discuss the end of the monopoly of the human in memory practices: humans turn into one kind of inscription devices in human-machine coupling of memory practices (p. 16).
Kittler’s media archaeological understanding of phonography implies a new epistemology of storage media: the emergence of machine agency in couplings between machines and humans. If the focus of memory shifts from symbolic meanings of narrative to materiality and the technicity of signal processing, technological media become active actants that enable the expression of physical realities that are often inaccessible to human perceptions. Other media technologies, such as photography and computing, enable the reconstruction of lost or ruined sound signals in Edison wax cylinders by optical scanning and digital processing (Ernst, 2013, p. 58). Expanding this machinic capacity to Latour’s distinction between intermediaries and mediators, media technologies become mediators that are not neutral means of transmission but are actively involved in transforming the networks and memories they mediate (Latour, 2005, p. 40). Through Kittler’s media archaeological thoughts, media technologies go outside human sensory perception, and they encourage us to access the nonhuman sensory realm in storage-actor-networks.
By digging into the materiality and technicity of storage media, media technologies become another kind of inscription agency besides humans. In that sense, I understand storage media in the transformative relations among human and nonhuman mediations that transform human and nonhuman actants, as well as their conceptual and affective states.
Digital Remembering: “Enduring Ephemeral”
As Kirschenbaum notes, “storage has never been more important than it is now in shaping the everyday experience of computing, interactivity, and new media” (2012, p. 4). Since Kittler’s claim of the phonograph as the first storage media, we have lived in the flood of storage media – memory sticks, hard drives, social media, cloud computing, and the Internet. The machine agency of each new technology exteriorizes human memory in a new way; but all storage media store material traces that can live outside of human body. Among various storage media, the Internet becomes a major actant in contemporary memory practices. Human actors are leaving more than millions of traces online, and the traces possibly include all daily activities.
The basic logic of the Internet is originated in the basic architecture of computers. The basic architecture of computers, which is known as Von Neumann Architecture, holds to a dual logic: the processor that focuses on immediate data processing and execution, and a memory core that stores all the computer’s data and command code (Gehl, 2011, p. 1230). Following this unique logic of Von Neumann Architecture, computers have been developed toward a bigger storage capacity and faster processing.
By transmitting stored protocols, the Internet follows the basic logic of computer systems. This confluence creates a common belief that the Internet allows us to achieve the dream of permanent preservation by providing everlasting storage capacity. However, Wendy Chun (2011) argues a different perspective on the permanence of digital memory:
Digital media, which is allegedly more permanent and durable than other media (film stock, paper, and so on), depends on a degeneration so actively denied and repressed. This degeneration, which engineers would like to divide into useful and harmful (erasability versus signal decomposition, information versus noise) belies and buttresses the promise of digital computers as permanent memory machines. If our machines’ memories are more permanent, if they enable a permanence that we seem to lack, it is because they are constantly refreshed – rewritten – so that their ephemerality endures, so that they may “store” the programs that seem to drive our machines (p. 169).
According to Chun’s idea, memory in the Internet is in a state of constant degeneration, rather than a static storage in the archive. What human eyes see on the screen, such as images, texts, and sounds, is the result of a dynamic process within the computer that constantly refreshes the flow of information and repeats a read-write cycle. This distinguishes digital computers and/or the Internet from other storage media that normally just store the information and replay what is recorded. Unlike other storage media (i.e. the phonograph) that simply replay stored information, the Internet constantly refreshes and regenerates to show what is stored. This is what Wolfgang Ernst (2013) argues is an “archive in transition”, which consists of “permanent transformations and updating” of protocols to show what users search on the computer screen (p. 99). The digital archive is not a static archive of macro time but a microtemporal archive in transition that only allows us to remember through the constant dynamics of degenerations and regenerations. Whenever users regenerate the information in the digital archive, the digital archive protocol regenerates the online address by erasing the old link. With this logic, there is no (traditional sense of) memory there, but the temporal practices that “an older post can always be discovered as new; a new post is already new” (Chun, 2011, p. 172). The undeadness and limitlessness of the Internet archive become possible through permanent practices of updating. Chun (2011) calls this practice of the digital archive “enduring ephemeral”, which is the continuous regeneration of transient data to remain permanent.
Similarly, based on this logic of digital archives, the information we store in the Internet may not be permanent if there is no constant desire and effort to endure its ephemerality. At this point, my project asks what possible memory practices in a digital archive could be. If the digital archive follows the logic of Chun's “enduring ephemeral,” memory practices in the digital archive could be the practice of ever-updating the data we left there. In that mode, the practices of “My RFIDiary” continuously regenerate the seemingly permanent but ephemeral digital memories by contacting tags to the reader. Thus this project is a new mode of remembering in the digital archive. But why do we need a new mode of digital remembering? In the next section, I explain this new mode of digital remembering as posthuman subjectivation.
Digital Memory Practices as Posthuman Subjectivation
When Kittler articulates machine agency of storage media, he reduces the human body to a place of inscription by the machine agency of media. In Kittler’s technologically deterministic understanding, the logic and capacity of media determines the conduct of individuals, producing a certain subject subjugated into the dominant logic. If we are subjugated to the algorithmic logic of digital archives, there is no memory without individual practices of regeneration. Hence, “My RFIDiary” asks about the ways in which we can overcome Kittler’s radical reductionism of humans and become a new subject of remembering in posthumanistic thinking.
“My RFIDiary” is an individual practice to create one's own memory assemblage by connecting different realities and dimensions, which is in between “real me” and “digital me,” between objects and online, and/or between me and objects. Through the communication between different realities, this project investigates a new mode of memory practices in heterogeneous networks of difference memory agents. Instead of recalling the past or reviewing the memories suggested by social media algorithms, I dig out and endure my own ephemeral digital memories.
Every contact of myself leaves traces both in the human and the nonhuman. And those traces make me who I am. The contacts between me and other people in a specific time-space are registered not only in each person as a symbolic form but also in media as multimodal forms. Similarly, whenever new contacts between tags and readers are made, ephemeral digital memories are regenerated and become endured. These practices of self-tracking and creating memory assemblages make me a certain subject.
The process and force of becoming a certain subject is the main inquiry in Michel Foucault’s theories of subjectivation. For Foucault, an individual is not an absolute subject but is produced by relational forces of social discourses. Two forms of governmentality influence ways in which we become a certain subject: technologies of power and technologies of the self (Foucault, 2000, p. 225). While technologies of power are operated by external forces in the social system, technologies of the self permit individuals to determine, maintain, and transform their own existence and ways of being. Through his later works in the 1980s, Foucault investigated technologies of the self as possible resistances against technologies of domination in the process of becoming a certain subject. By arguing that a new care of the self involves a new experience of the self, Foucault examines a history of permanent self-examination, which is one’s own censor to constitute a new self, a new mode of living, and a new choice of existence, other than objectivation of the subject through external forces of power (p. 232).
Here, memory has always retained a crucial role as a practice of technologies of the self. One’s memories of “what one has done and what one has had to do” are major principles of self-examination. Individuals have developed technologies of the self to determine, maintain, and transform their identity. For example, the Stoic individuals become writing subjects through constant writing activities about all details of the self, and the Christian subject takes care of oneself through a confession (Foucault, 2000, p. 234). In both cases, memory practices of selfhood have crucial roles in the process of self-reflection.
In this sense, the self-tracking practices of “My RFIDiary” become practices of self-care as they recall one’s traces left online. By searching one’s memories online, an individual goes through what one has done and what one has had to do. While individuals cannot remember all traces kept online, the ways in which individuals encounter their digital memories affect their process of becoming a certain subject. Besides individuals’ own symbolic memory practices, data of the self become individuals’ material sense of memories. The machine agency of the digital archive stores (not preserves) one’s digital traces that may be forgotten by individuals. In “My RFIDiary,” an individual becomes a certain subject in the assemblage of organic and digital memories within which human and media technologies are entwined. Katherine Hayles (2002) defines posthuman in this conjunction between human and machine that has the “distributed cognition located in disparate parts” (p. 3). In theories of posthuman, individual’s memory practices and digital remembering of data are not two separated entities, but it is an amalgam and a heterogeneous assemblage, becoming posthuman subjectivity itself.
In posthuman theories, a subject is not a modern unified, consistent identity. As Deleuze and Guattari (1980) posit, it is a dispersed subjectivity distributed among diverse desiring machines, which is an effect of constant flow in-between different connections of bodies. According to their ideas, becoming a posthuman subject drives our experiments to continuously find new assemblages to drive changes and deterritorialize fixed identity. In “My RFIDiary,” an individual holds a dispersed subjectivity in constant flows between embodied memories and digital traces, between RFID tags and sensor, between organic bodies and media. These material flows and affects in-between different bodies unceasingly constitute posthuman subjectivity in every contact.
In sum, two processes of “My RFIDiary,” self-tracking practice and creating one's own memory assemblage, imply a new mode of digital remembering and a technology of the posthuman self. Every contact between RFID tags and the reader regenerates ephemeral data of the self from the Internet. In that the algorithmic structure of the Internet makes all data anew and processual in every contact, this project is a new mode of digital remembering through the “enduring ephemeral.” This practice of “enduring ephemeral” digital memories is a technology of the posthuman self, caring for one’s distributed subjectivity between organic memories and media-memories. A new subjectivity can be distributed in this assemblage of different bodies, and every flow between different bodies continuously opens new connections to drive changes and lead a new posthuman subjectivity. Through this new memory practice in assemblage, we become posthuman subjects who ask what we want to become, instead of asking what we are.
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- According to Latour, “the circulation of objects creates social networks; these object can be either intermediatires, which do not reshape networks and only serve to convey meaning in a symbolic manner, or mediators, which connect and transform these networks. The distinction between a mediator and an intermediary is one of materiality: whereas an intermediary indicates a change through an abstract, symbolic relationship, there is something in the material infrastructure of mediator that fundamentally changes or creates a social network” (2005, p. 40).