Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (1957) asks a number of questions about the modern world that we should probably ask ourselves again today. The play starts with a mediation on the human condition by one of the protagonists, Clov, who states, alluding to Sorites Paradox:
‘Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.’
Clov sees life as the constant accumulation of events, facts, incidents, communication without end, resulting in an unintelligible mountain of information out of which experience is composed. As there is no fixed object or life to scrutinize, and only constant repetition and confusion without progress, Clov finds this seemingly infinite, amorphous accrual banal. The heap is impossible as taking away one fragment making up doesn’t turn the heap into a non-heap, ergo the meaninglessness of the individual chunks.
Clov’s philosophical speculation comments on our troubled modern condition. It also anticipates our age of Big Data, wherein algorithms are let loose on vast amounts of information, fact, documents and communication generated by a variety of means for a variety of objectives. The ‘impossible heap’ resembles the infinite mountains of information stored as bits in data centres that contain our individual and shared history and memory.
The impossibility of meaning in what David Foster Wallace has called the ‘Total Noise’ of information raises questions about the position of the human subject, about the impact of information glut on our individual minds and society, and about the growing fear of being reduced to an informational stream. To understand who we are today, we will need to ask questions about cognition, and, more specifically, the role of memory in the new subjectivities that are emerging: how does Big Data (allow us to) remember human beings? How does the accumulation of chunks of information without any intrinsic causality generate new forms of posthuman archives? If mathematical formulas generate transcendental, ‘empty’ worlds, how do the algorithmic patterns that shape our material lives pre-determine meaning-making processes?
James Gleick’s The Information (2011) identifies two strategies to make sense in, and of, the age of information overload: filtering and searching. These strategies come in many forms, from crude search engines and Wikipedia to blogs and a new generation of data curators, editors and critics who are able to help us distil some knowledge, and maybe even wisdom. I would like to add to this a third strategy, namely, storytelling, the creation of a chain of events that has some kind of causal logic and outcome.
Facebook too is aware of the power of storytelling: starting off as a non-narrative social networking medium, with individual chunks of information added to those of others into a virtual patchwork, the (mandatory and irreversible) move to the Timeline in 2012 is striking. Zuckerberg’s company knows that people need to perceive themselves as a coherent story, with history and depth in a variety of contexts. Storify [https://storify.com/] continues this process by offering to bring scattered digital life together in a story of one’s own making. The company promises explicitly that ‘[a] Storify story is more than just a collection of elements from social media. It’s also your opportunity to make sense of what you’ve pulled together. […] Build a narrative and give context to your readers.’ The Storify software thus promises to turn information into knowledge, curated by everyone, but one may wonder if this software does not actually contribute to making the impossible heap even more impossible.
The idea that narrative is profoundly ingrained in our thinking about the world and ourselves is central to the first major international Memory Network conference: The Story of Memory which takes place at Roehampton University from 4th– 6th September 2014. If storytelling is key to meaning-making processes, what is the impact of plotting on any attempt to understand life, cognition and memory? Can there be memory without story at all? Can we understand the smell that triggers memories of our childhood without language or story, as a pure (pre-linguistic) sensation? How is the data that neuroscientists generate in the lab compromised in the act of turning data into a journal article with a storyline? What can the ‘harder’ sciences learn from frameworks offered by narratology? How does the changing form of stories in the digital age of re-shape our sense of selfhood? How do we narrate and curate (online) archives, and the bulk collection of data?
This last problem has received a wonderfully complex response by the makers of the I love Alaska shorts [http://www.minimovies.org/documentaires/view/ilovealaska]. This series of films, based on the leaking of 300, 000 AOL users’ search key terms in 2006, consists of the reading out in a monotonous, almost robotic voice often mundane questions posed by an individual user, which contrasts with the vast, sublime landscapes of Alaska in the background. The project employs various clever narrative strategies that paint both a heart-breaking as well as ironic portrait of users.
One of the strategies of I Love Alaska is that it embodies the users’ minds by literally giving voice to the silently typed questions. The human voice, even though it feels mechanical, shocks us: whereas the silence of our typed questions implicitly produces a (misguided) sense of secrecy, the voice brings our desires and uncertainties into the world. The films also foreground questions as a marker of the limitedness of our knowledge. Taken together, the interrogatives become more that singular questions – a universal existential outcry, whilst the deadpan banality of the often meaningless and awkwardly phrased questions contrasts sharply with the unspeakable beauty of the Alaskan landscape, which could not care less about petty human troubles and existence. At the same time, the gaps between the questions create cognitive play in our mind that forces us to make use of our imagination; we have to fill in information that links these questions about bodily ailments, our uncertainties about relationships, fear of death and our position in social networks. So banal yet profoundly human, we cannot help but invest ourselves emotionally in these strangers, creating an empathetic bond via our own capacity for story-making. What the Alaska films do successfully is restore the human condition by giving voice to emotions and feelings such as loneliness, shame, insecurity, anxiety, concerns about the frailty of the human body and mind. Just like Beckett, I Love Alaska gives us a sense of the impossible heap that we are all part of, yet careful human intervention and selection restores our existence to intelligibility. For a moment, it seems, the impossible heap has been scaled, and conquered, in the imagination. Or is this just a trick played upon us by the storifying capacity of the human mind?
The Story of Memory Conference: Exploring New Perspectives on the Relationship between Storytelling and Memory in the 21st Century takes place at the University of Roehampton from 4th to 5th September 2014. Invited speakers include Paul Bloom (Psychology and Cognitive Science, Yale); Suzanne Corkin (Neuroscience, MIT); Mark Currie (English Literature, QMUL); Asifa Majid (Psycholinguistics, Radboud); Martijn Meeter (Cognitive Psychology, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam); Jamie Tehrani (Anthropology, Durham). Further information about the conference is available http://thestoryofmemory.wordpress.com/
Alongside the conference, the Memory Network is also organizing a literary festival on 6th September including novelist Ian McEwan in conversation with Paul Bloom (Yale). The festival will be held in the Gustav Tuck Lecture Theatre, UCL from 1-6. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to register for a free ticket.