Dossier dirigé par Rémy Besson & Sébastien Ledoux
The digital as memory environment
Rémy Besson & Sébastien Ledoux
In memory of Bernard Stiegler
This dossier of Memories at stake offers an overview of the relationship between memory and the digital. While the definition of the latter term is relatively simple – “Digital can be defined as any data represented by a series of digits” – its meaning in the context of this issue needs to be clarified. Indeed, the word ‘digital’ is sometimes used to identify a new mass medium. Within this paradigm, ‘digital’ – which today, in this sense, is in fact almost a synonym for the Web – falls within the scope of the relation between the press and posters, broadcasting, cinema and television. In the same way as newspapers and magazines, broadcasts and films, digital content is made accessible via a computer, a tablet, a phone or a smart watch, augmented or virtual reality glasses. It may be a question of studying a web documentary, a video channel shared on Youtube by an amateur, a researcher’s notebook, the website of a memory institution, a blog maintained by a member of an activist association, etc. Such an understanding is reassuring, because it does not require much adaptation for those who are already interested in the relationship between memory and media. ‘Digital’ thus corresponds to one field of exploration among others, that of Memory Studies.
Within the context of this introduction, we wish to approach the digital in a rather different way. From our point of view, what needs to be taken into account is a societal change, both technological and cultural (Rieffel). In other words, the digital is not just a new way of representing the past. Its advent affects most of our daily activities and practices. It transforms our imagination and the way we remember the past. It also changes the way we consult archives, index them, access the work of our colleagues, create a bibliography, write a scientific article, teach face-to-face and on-line, etc. In this respect, the current pandemic is only accelerating and making more visible a fundamental movement that has already been underway for several decades. Beyond the world of teaching and research, digital technology is transforming the way we communicate, shop, entertain ourselves, travel, etc. This observation leads to the designation of our era as a digital age. To make such an observation leads us to distance ourselves from any form of discourse that would a priori lean towards a form of technophilia or, conversely, a form of technophobia. Rather, it is a matter of adopting a reflective approach which, while noting the place that digital technology is taking in our lives, is capable of distancing itself from the tools, discourses, cultural, social and economic uses of digital technology to which we are exposed on a daily basis. Marcello Vitali-Rosati believes in this perspective that “the digital is the space in which we live. It is no longer a question of tools at the service of old practices, but of an environment in which we are immersed, which determines and shapes our world and our culture.” (Vitali-Rosati, p. 69). Sébastien Févry states that the digital is “a media environment within which the memorial subject operates. The latter is not only confronted with new memory applications, but is also situated within an interconnected universe that guides and conditions a large part of its recollection processes” (Févry). The question at the origin of this dossier is to know and to understand how this new social environment affects our individual and collective ways of remembering the past. The co-editor-in-chief of the journal Memory Studies, Andrew Hoskins, speaks of a connective turn that has consequences for our personal and social memory. He considers that in order to study this turn, “[it] is critical to recognize that a new ontology for memory studies is needed that is cognizant of media, and not as some partial or occasional or temporary shaper of memory, but as fundamentally altering what it is and what is possible to remember and to forget.” (Hoskins, p. 7). It is about taking into account the fact that our memory is ever more equipped by the fact that we delegate an increasing part of our capacity to remember to digital devices (internal and external hard drive, USB stick, server, etc.), and that our memory activities themselves are increasingly carried out through digital technical devices (mobile phone, tablet, computer). Hoskins thus calls for the creation of specific Digital Memory Studies. Objects such as the data we create – intentionally or unintentionally – are integrated into this field of study on a daily basis, as they form an important part of our social activities. Text messages and emails sent, minutes spent in video conferences, photographs and videos captured, multimedia content shared on social networks become a constitutive element of our relationship to our individual and social memory. The emphasis is thus placed on a transformation of our media ‘ecology’, also analysed by the philosopher Bernard Stiegler in a broader perspective on the history of techniques and their temporal effects (Stiegler). In order to study this new memorial environment, we propose, in the wake of Hoskins position, to develop a critical approach to the mediatisation of our relationship with our memory (Van Dijck), to the acceleration of our perception of time, to its withdrawal into a present time whose limits are being redefined, as well as to the omnipresence of traces of the past in all of our usual digital devices. It is also essential to question the appropriation and reconfiguration of these memorial traces by a few private companies that monetise them and a few states that control their circulation. Finally, it is important to emphasise that this control and monetisation are not limited to the data produced by users. Thus, most software, plug-ins, content management systems and video hosting sites of the so-called social media are run by private groups. This means that the digital environment in which we live is, to a very large extent, closed. Proprietary codes and algorithms are not communicated to users and users cannot change them.
Such facts reinforce the need for a critical approach to thinking about the relationship between memory and the digital. Research in media studies provides many avenues for reflection in this direction. First of all, the history of the media allows us to put into perspective and thus to nuance the impression that this type of transformation is unprecedented. In other words, the link between memory and mediation is in no way unique to the digital age. The advent of writing, of the printed word, of the technical reproducibility of cultural and artistic productions have all constituted comparable upheavals (comparable in the sense that they are of course different) for our individual and social memory. For each of these transformations of our media ecology, social actors have held technophobic and technophilic discourses in the public space, so much so that these discourses have become objects of study in their own right for those interested in the history of media and memory. Secondly, media archaeology invites us to distance ourselves from the thesis that technological progress is leading us towards an ever more direct, immediate and transparent mode of access to the past (Parikka). The availability and individual appropriation of memory objects, thus favoured by digital tools, particularly in their immersive device (virtual and augmented reality), leads to the illusion of an erasure of the past, the past understood here as that which for us, and irrevocably so, is an absent thing. In this respect, digital technology induces a powerful effect of synchrony. In fact, each technological innovation – digital technology is no exception to this – and its memorial uses redefine complex relationships to the past, which always involves a mediation that inevitably institutes a form of opacity (Bolter & Grusin). Moreover, if the ways and traces of remembering are reconfigured in the digital age, the traditional distinctions between present/past, private/public, individual/social memory, remain operative. Rather than thinking in terms of digital revolution, radical rupture, permanent disruption, it is also important to consider the advent of the digital age in the field of memory in terms of transformation, reconfiguration and continuity. It is also necessary to be able to envisage spaces on the fringe that are not fundamentally (or only slightly) transformed by the digital. It is also possible to think of forms of coexistence between spaces of public debates on social networks and other types of knowledge sharing such as the publication of a monograph, which are still relatively indifferent to acceleration, ubiquity or the injunction to a form of interactivity. Another recurring question in memory studies is that the advent of digital technology does not create a shared memory any more than the intensification of memory policies, but it does modify the processes of memory sharing through access to and personal use of archives or digitised testimonies (Merzeau; Beaudouin, Chevallier & Maurel). Furthermore, the democratisation of memory induced by the digital era through self-publishing and sharing practices and the formation of memorial communities on the web does not constitute a rupture, but rather an acceleration of phenomena observed since the 1970s through the valorisation of a history of one’s own (Bensa & Fabre), the patrimonialisation carried out by history enthusiasts and the public recounting of minority memories; a phenomenon that was then supported and accompanied by the development of oral history. However, the dossier pays attention to the recent transformations brought about by the digital on individual and social memory, as well as to the new ways of doing research by authors who find themselves confronted with objects in constant mutation. Silvestra Mariniello explains that intermediality “marks the passage from a theory of society that contains the media – a conception generally established today [in 2011] – to a theory in which society, socialities and media are constantly co-constructing and destroying each other” (Mariniello, p. 13). This last change of perspective seems essential to us. The digital does not only correspond to a set of new tools that we use, but above all to a changing environment in which we evolve daily. It is not a fashion, gadgets, playful and informational interfaces, which we can choose to embrace or to distance ourselves from. Rather, it is a term to designate the way in which most of our tools, our archives, our objects of study, our research practices as well as the modes of mediation of memory are being transformed by technologies that are themselves evolving rapidly (Bonnot & Lamassé).
The eight articles that make up this dossier address these different aspects: tools, archives, modes of mediation and digital objects. They do so by giving a particular place to their own digital practices. This point, common to most of the research in this dossier, deserves to be emphasized. Indeed, the effort that researchers make to change their way of interpreting their object of study (individual and social memories), by taking into account technological and socio-cultural issues, regularly leads them to adopting a reflexive approach. As they are part of a field of study that is still relatively recent, they feel the need to give an account of their inclusion in a new episteme, the utopian nature of which they sometimes glimpse, the limits of which they sometimes test and, finally, the unthought-of and unspoken aspects of which they regularly criticise. These articles also regularly discuss the choice of tools used to carry out their research. In some cases, it is a question of sharing the way in which the acquisition of computer skills has changed their practice as researchers, in other cases, of explaining how they have worked in collaboration with computer technology professionals, or of the fact that they preferred to keep a safe distance from any form of consideration of technical tools whose mastery seemed too complex to them. Moreover, this research often claims to be part of the field of free software and the highest degree of open circulation of data possible produced by the human and social sciences. This last aspect can be interpreted as constituting a form of almost militant response to the mostly closed and ‘proprietary’ character of digital software.
Let us now begin the presentation of the articles by insisting on four complementary aspects: tools, archives, modes of mediation and digital objects. Frédéric Clavert shows how Twitter’s streaming application programming interfaces (APIs) can collect up to 1% of the tweets sent each day. The digital tools then lead to the constitution of massive bodies of data that induce another relationship to sources that might seem confusing to the uninformed reader in that this relationship is at first sight very technical. The author exploits them by using software to analyse the main themes of the official commemorations of the Centenary of the Great War in 2018 on Twitter. Using new tools created by the French National Audiovisual Institute (INA), which has been archiving the web since 2009, to collect data from Twitter accounts, Rémi Korman, François Robinet, Jérôme Thièvre and Géraldine Poels study how tweets make it possible to “question the role of socio-numerical networks in the production of memories of the Tutsi genocide”. Focusing on the year 2019 (commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the genocide), the authors identify the main actors and debates of this production. Marie Lavorel also looks at the role of digital tools in the memorialisation of the Tutsi genocide, but this time adopting a more qualitative approach. She demonstrates the interest, for researchers, in creating a database from twenty-eight audiovisual interviews with survivors and tools for annotating the oral and visual content of the testimonies in question. This article thus raises the question of the digital future of archives. Indeed, the testimonies were first filmed, and then, in a second stage, placed online. This accessibility changes their place in the media ecology. They are no longer only (or mainly) sources for researchers, but also contents shared with the different Rwandan communities. The study of online memoirs proposed by Claire Scopsi is also interested in processes of re-editorialization. She shows how documents that were initially kept in the warehouses of heritage institutions and archives are put online and then used by third parties. These contents then become sources for creative, memorial and political uses. Sophie Gebeil’s article looks at archives that are digital from the start. The author provides several avenues for understanding the memorial value of these archives by arguing “for a social and qualitative history of the Web”. This article thus focuses on the modes of mediation of memory constituted by personal sites, blogs, vlogs and other webdocs, just as Frédéric Clavert’s approach highlights the need for a methodology of expertise to set benchmarks in a field in which the reader is, more often than not, a mere user. Giancarlo Grossi and Elisabetta Modena examine video games and virtual and augmented reality experiences as “immersive monuments” that serve to recall a past event by soliciting virtual individual interaction that re-enacts the event itself. These modes of memory mediation are also discussed in Delphine Bechtel’s article, which focuses on the digital environments developed by the memorial museums of the Jewish genocide. The author shows how digital technology has brought the memory of the Holocaust into a new period by promoting immersive virtual experiences and interaction with the public. The investigation thus shifts again since it is less a question of digital tools or archives than of modes of mediation and, finally, of digital objects. This last subject is placed at the heart of Verónica Ferreira’s text which deals with the digital social memory of the veterans of the Portuguese colonial wars. In this case, it is about the online self-publication of their stories and documents. The qualitative study of these personal sites refers in a way to the same type of questioning as the quantitative studies mentioned above, since it is a question of considering the digital as constituting a new public space which is the place of production of different memories and of competition and conflicts between these memories.
It thus remains for us to emphasise both the convergence of the issues and the great diversity of the relationships forged between the digital and memory in these contributions for a dossier which, we hope, constitutes a fine inventory of current research in this field.
Beaudouin, Valérie, Philippe Chevallier & Lionel Maurel, 2018, Le web français de la Grande Guerre. Réseau amateurs et institutionnels, Nanterre, Presses universitaires de Paris Nanterre.
Bensa, Alban & Daniel Fabre (eds.), 2001, Une Histoire à soi : figurations du passé et localités, Paris, Éditions de la MSH.
Bolter, Jay D. & Richard Grusin, 1999, Remediation, Understanding New Media, Boston, MIT Press.
Bond, Lucy, Stef Craps & Pieter Vermeulen (eds.), 2016, Memory Unbound: Tracing the Dynamics of Memory Studies, New York, Berghahn Books.
Bonnot, Gaëtan & Stéphane Lamassé (eds.), 2019, Dans les dédales du web. Historiens en territoires numériques, Paris, Éditions de la Sorbonne.
Févry, Sébastien, 2017, « Le geste intermédial dans une cartographie des études mémorielles », Intermédialités, no 30-31 [online] http://www.erudit.org/fr/revues/im/2017-n30-31-im03868/1049948ar/ [27/06/2021].
Hoskins, Andres (ed.), 2018, Digital memory studies : Media pasts in transition, New York, Routledge.
Merzeau, Louise, 2017, “Mémoire partagée” in Marie Cornu, Fabienne Orsi, & Judith Rochfield (eds.), Dictionnaires des biens communs, Paris, PUF, pp.794-799.
Parikka, Jussi, 2017, What is media archeology, Grenoble, UGA éditions-Université Grenoble Alpes. https://www.worldcat.org/title/what-is-media-archaeology/oclc/769419861
Rieffel, Rémy, 2014, Révolution numérique, révolution culturelle, Paris, Gallimard.
Silvestra, Mariniello, 2011, “L’intermédialité : un concept polymorphe », in Célia Vieira, & Isabel Rio Novo (eds), Intermedia, Inter Media : littérature, cinéma et intermédialite, Paris, L’Harmattan.
Stiegler, Bernard, 1994, 1996, 2000, La technique et le temps, (3 volumes), Paris, Galilée.
Van Dijk, José, 2007, Mediated Memories in the Digital Age, Stanford, Stanford University Press.
Vitali-Rosati, Marcello, 2014, “Pour une définition de numérique”, in Marcello Vitali-Rosati and Michael E. Sinatra (eds.), Pratiques de l’édition numérique, Montréal, Presses de l’Université de Montréal.
 Traduit du français par Naòmi Morgan.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_media. In the editorial of the first issue of the journal Humanités numériques, the editorial board states that « The digital, for its part, is a vast range of social instruments interacting with an ever more diverse computer science since it became a driving force in our history », « Editorial. Donner à lire les humanités numériques francophones (1) », Humanités numériques [online], 1, 2020. https://journals. openedition.org/revuehn/507 [27/06/2021].
 In the book they edited, Memory Unbound: Tracing the Dynamics of Memory Studies (2016), Lucy Bond, Stef Craps and Pieter Vermeulen thus criticise Hoskins’ view.