Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Internet Never Forgets

There was a standoff in the kitchen this morning – the dog inside at the cat door, one of the cats outside, each staring the other out and neither daring to move. I thought to intervene and put a stop to their agony but before I had a chance, the cat in all her majesty dismissed the dog with a brief flash of paw and stalked through the cat door to the inside, bypassing the upright dog.

Upright and uptight, our dog has no hope against the cats, not just because there are more cats, not just because two of the cats are female, but also because the cats take command in a way in which the yappy, friendly dog cannot.

I thought from cartoons I had seen as a child that dogs chased cats, but from my experience recently – since we came in possession of a dog and since talking to others about their pets – dogs are more intimidated by cats and cats can be ferocious.

Instinctively, in my mind I create a gender divide for cats and dogs – cats as female, dogs as male, which is ridiculous as are most generalisations and yet they are easy to make.

In more recent years I have become aware of the pitfalls into which we collapse when we make such basic assumptions and binaries and yet we do it every day. This is where I find the last of the keynote speakers at the autobiography and biography (IABA) conference, Lauren Berlant’s writing both challenging and exhilarating.

Berlant writes about ‘Intimate Publics’. I would tell you here what I think she means by this but I have yet to grasp the concept fully, even as she has tried to tell me about it herself in an email.

Why is it so difficult for me to understand the dense language of theory? I start to read Berlant’s essay on intimate publics and the words on the page are readable. I can understand them, one word after the other, but there is something in the way she has tied these words together that evades me.

I am a creature of my age perhaps, a victim of my limited education as a child when the nun’s taught us to absorb the facts through rote learning. Never mind that we could not understand the facts we had memorised.

I should speak for myself here. I could not understand much of what I learned as a child particularly in science and mathematics. I imagine therefore that I have a block against some theory, as if I am looking at a page of numbers or a list of mathematical equations that I cannot compute.

I once sat an aptitude test for librarianship as a seventeen year old, in the days when we were encouraged to apply for all the respectable jobs a young woman might undertake – nursing, teaching, social work – and I had trouble sorting out the order of a series of red and white, differently shaped flags. The detail evades me, though I believe I must have failed in this basic spatial test.

Berlant said at the conference that she has trouble writing and that her sentences can be too long and convoluted. Her interlocutor, Jay Prosser, disagreed and reeled off a number of beautiful sentences she has crafted.

For me the difficulty lies in the degree to which Berlant deals with abstractions. I cannot accommodate abstract thought. I need a story to hold me to the page. My brain is constantly looking for an image onto which I might latch an idea, but when it comes to the abstract ideas, whatever they are, such concepts as ‘intimate publics’ evade me.

‘Read what other people have to say about her ideas,’ my oldest daughter says, after I explain my difficulties in understanding Berlant’s writing. ‘Read the reviews. That way you’ll begin to understand her ideas and it’ll give you some idea of what she is on about before you tackle her directly.’

I am troubled by language, the way even people who speak the same language have so many different ways to say the same things. Interdisciplinarity and ideas that cross over from one framework to another seem to create new frameworks.

On another but related note, to do with knowledge and understanding, I have read recently about the horrors awaiting us given our growing realisation that the Internet never forgets.

Does this frighten you, too? Everything we post on line will be recorded forever, for posterity and anyone can hold it against us if in ten years time they choose to dredge up some wayward indiscretion on our part, or some hint of deviance from the past.

The Internet needs an inbuilt facility for forgetting some argue, rather like the human mind. If things are remembered with all the accuracy of facts, our memories cannot undergo any of the transformations our brain processes normally put our experience through – some experiences get repressed, some forgotten, some concertinaed, some distorted.

Without an inbuilt delete button we lose our capacity for change. We get stuck in rigid stereotypes and an overload of unchanging and therefore immutable information that renders us constipated and dull.

We need an internal delete button on the Internet to help with the overload, and to allow us to continue the process of change that goes on throughout our lives from the moment we are born. But someone has yet to invent a way of introducing it so we do not fall into the trap of unlimited information and no capacity to forget.
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