Monday, June 05, 2006

Bowker on Memory

A new thread found it’s way into my research: memory. I’ve been nibbling around the edges of Bowker’s most recent book and enjoyed his recent presentation “What’s memory got to do with it?” at the Annenberg Center for Communication at the University of Southern California, on January 12, 2006. He notes that the memory is how we hold the shards of the past together and it is also a distinctly social activity. Time, the constant river through which memory flows, is a structure that requires careful construction and maintenance. He also notes that classification is simply a type of memory and that it has a particularly dramatic effect on how we structure and interact with the world. Classification creates “incremental memory” in which only components that can be aggregated to the existing memory base are recalled. We can’t remember everything; our tools will only take us to the inauguration of a particular memory practice. For example (mine--not Bowker’s), medical classifications such as the ICD or DSM are only effective after institutions create them. He gives the example of a family in Norway whose members all died about thirty years ago. They all had symptoms of what we would now recognize as AIDS (the father was a sailor who had spent time in West Africa). Of course, they didn’t actually die from AIDS since “AIDS” didn’t exist in the ICD… at least until 1988 when preserved tissues were assayed. Here’s Wikipedia’s take:

“In 1976, a Norwegian sailor named Arvid Noe, his wife, and his nine-year-old daughter died of AIDS. The sailor had first presented symptoms in 1966, four years after he had spent time in ports along the West African coastline. Tissue samples from the sailor and his wife were tested in 1988 and found to contain the HIV-1 virus (Group O).”

It’s interesting to think of how many other people died of immune-related problems yet have never been considered AIDS victims.

In addition to the construction of memory, Bowker talks about “regimes of forgetting.” We’re quite good at it and “forgetting is big business.” Consider the amount spent on shredding and disposing of electronic information. He also discusses formalized regimes, such as England’s Act of Oblivion which mandated forgetting in pos-Civil War Era. Forgetting can be enacted in formal or tacit policies on how we create memory. For example, organizations may radically alter the way they keep records and documents. Bowker cites his work with Schlumberger in noting that the company switched from a policy of maintaining elaborate reports in French to keeping sparse records in English. This switch was intentional and engineered to protect against patent infringement suits.

We don’t create memory from whole cloth. Rather, it’s kept with a view to the future reader. And those things that don’t fit into both the patterns and rhythms of the existing memory structures, and our expectations of the future reader, simply don’t make the cut.

One aside that resonates with my own thinking is Bowker’s position on fingertip knowledge: “We’re not used to memory in terms of the crafts… the skills.” We have a good memory of Chartres cathedral but we couldn’t possibly recreate it. Similarly, although we’ve been to the moon we no longer have sufficient memory to recreate the project.

Of added interest to me is Bowker’s use of Ranganathan. While he doesn’t necessarily use any of the primary facets as a means of expanding his own arguments, he does position Ranganathan as a possible actor for considering memory systems. And for me, that’s important.


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