Memory & Photosynth

A few months ago, I posted about ancient mnemonic practices and how they might be used to help us understand and cope with the vast amounts of information inundate our lives.  In this post, I’d like to focus on a related thread of memory, a thread entwined with mapping and collective consciousness.  Drawing on Sharon Crowley’s work on rhetorical memory, I’d like to suggest that technological shifts in the ways that we collect and recollect information, particularly through the interconnectivity provided by the internet, marks a significant significant shift in the way that we remember and construct reality.

This is, of course, an obvious point, but let me put a face to it: Photosynth.  Quite simply (and yet it’s not quite so simple), Photosynth uses photographs taken of the same scene or object, stitches them together onto one space, and displays them as an interactive environment.  So, for example, Photosynth could cull every Creative Commons image on Flickr of, say, the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.  The program would then examine the photographs for similarities and stitch them together on a single space.  The user is then able to view the reconstructed Notre Dame from multiple vantage points.  Instead of being constructed then from any individual’s memory, the space is quite literally constructed from communal memory.

[Take Photosynth’s reconstruction of President Obama’s inauguration as an example.  Go ahead… you have my permission explore a little bit and then come back to this past.]

This is, of course, a really powerful and novel way to navigate, to interact with, and to make sense of large amounts of visual information.  But that’s only part of why I’m interested in it.  My interest in Photosynth really has more to do with how memory is constructed communally and collectively as opposed to individually.

In her “Modern Rhetoric and Memory,” Sharon Crowley argues that “the transcendentalizing impulse of modernism, along with its emphasis on individual rights rather than on collectivist or communal knowledge, is inimical to rhetorical theory” (34).  Although at her time of writing (1993), Crowley suggests that modernism still held rhetorical theory tightly in its grip and that its particular conception of memory as individually constructed had dire effects on inventional practices.

I’m weary to suggest, like Crowley, that a postmodern conception of memory would necessarily be liberating to invention.  I’m a little too careful (perhaps too careful) about making such large claims.  Nonetheless, that our memory practices are shifting toward being more communal seems clear to me, as evidenced by Photosynth, wikipedia, and a host of other examples.  And if the connection between memory and invention is as strong as Crowley suggests, we’ll need to be reassessing invention as well.

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