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Mediated Memories in the Digital Age


Many people deploy photo media tools to document everyday events and rituals. For generations we have stored memories in albums, diaries, and shoeboxes to retrieve at a later moment in life. Autobiographical memory, its tools, and its objects are pressing concerns in most people’s everyday lives, and recent digital transformation cause many to reflect on the value and meaning of their own “mediated memories.” Digital photo cameras, camcorders, and multimedia computers are rapidly replacing analogue equipment, ...
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Many people deploy photo media tools to document everyday events and rituals. For generations we have stored memories in albums, diaries, and shoeboxes to retrieve at a later moment in life. Autobiographical memory, its tools, and its objects are pressing concerns in most people’s everyday lives, and recent digital transformation cause many to reflect on the value and meaning of their own “mediated memories.” Digital photo cameras, camcorders, and multimedia computers are rapidly replacing analogue equipment, inevitably changing our everyday routines and conventional forms of recollection. How will digital photographs, lifelogs, photoblogs, webcams, or playlists change our personal remembrance of things past? And how will they affect our cultural memory? The main focus of this study is the ways in which (old and new) media technologies shape acts of memory and individual remembrances. This book spotlights familiar objects but addresses the larger issues of how technology penetrates our intimate routines and emotive processes, how it affects the relationship between private and public, memory and experience, self and others.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"The book is accessible to undergraduates and provides an excellent framework for postgraduates both in terms of its clarity in developing the conceptual tool of 'mediated memory' and in addressing some aspects of the digital in relation to this. One of its strengths concerns the way in which van Dijck unpacks the conceptual flaws conventionally associated with collective memory and the problematic assumptions that underlie much of the discussion of the relationship of media to this... The book is beautifully written, telling an engaging story, as well as tackling with academic erudition the study of mediated memories in the digital age."—Memory Studies

"Van Dijck shares many fascinating insights."—CHOICE

"Mediated Memories in the Digital Age is an engaging and important book that challenges scholarly understanding of the relation between memory, memory artifacts, and memory practices and elucidates how these relationships are changing in the digital age. José van Dijck brings a theoretically sophisticated yet pragmatic approach to bear on her survey of today's most widespread digital practices of mediating memories. Her persuasive and timely thesis is solidly grounded in cultural and media studies, and her work is well informed by recent research in cognitive science, neuroscience, psychology, and visualization technologies." —Richard Grusin,Wayne State University

"The medium is the experience. A personal memory box full of private media objects was the inspiration for José van Dijck's newest and most innovative contribution to the zone between media studies and science studies where she has been such an important voice internationally. Detailing the ways that media and memory are not separate experiences through readings of the digital diaries and lifelogs of people suffering from Alzheimer's disease, Dutch recorded popular music, and still and moving images from a range of contexts, van Dijck presents an exciting new way of thinking about cultural memory and a cultural sense of self." —Lisa Cartwright, University of California, San Diego

"José van Dijck performs a sophisticated analysis that blends neurological research on memory, media technologies, and the "personal cultural" construction of memories into a coherent, far-reaching theory of the function, role, and significance of memory as we move from analogue to digital representations. Filled with deep insights and surprising observations, this book should be required reading for anyone interested in memory, digital technologies, and their co-evolution." —N. Katherine Hayles, University of California, Los Angeles

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804756242
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 6/29/2007
  • Series: Cultural Memory in the Present Series
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

José van Dijck is Professor of Media and Culture at the University of Amsterdam. She is the author of several books, including Manufacturing Babies and Public Consent: Debating the New Reproductive Technologies (1995) and ImagEnation: Popular Images of Genetics (1998). Her latest book is titled The Transparent Body. A Cultural Analysis of Medical Imaging (2005).
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Read an Excerpt


By José van Dijck

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2007 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-5624-2


Mediated Memories as a Conceptual Tool

Many people nurture a shoebox in which they store a variety of items signaling their pasts: photos, albums, letters, diaries, clippings, notes, and so forth. Add audio and video tape recordings to this collection as well as all digital counterparts of these cherished items, and you have what I call "mediated memories." These items mediate not only remembrances of things past; they also mediate relationships between individuals and groups of any kind (such as a family, school classes, and scouting clubs), and they are made by media technologies (everything from pencils and cassette recorders to computers and digital cameras). We commonly cherish our mediated memories as a formative part of our autobiographical and cultural identities; the accumulated items typically reflect the shaping of an individual in a historical time frame. But besides their personal value, collections of mediated memories raise interesting questions about a person's identity in a specific culture at a certain moment in time.

Putting these "shoebox" collections at the center of a theoretical and analytical inquiry, this chapter investigates two questions and one concept. First, what is personal cultural memory and how does it relate to collective identity and memory? We can distinguish—though not separate—the construction of autobiographical memory as it is grounded in individual psyches from the social structures and cultural conventions that inform it. Personal (re)collections are often subsumed as building blocks of collective history rather than considered in their own right. Personal cultural memory emphasizes the value of items as "mediators" between individuals and collectivity, while concurrently signifying tensions between private and public. The growing importance of media technologies to the construction of personal remembrance gives rise to a second pertinent question: what exactly is the nature of memory's mediation? Media technologies and objects, far from being external instruments for "holding" versions of the past, help constitute a sense of past—both in terms of our private lives and of history at large. Memory and media have both been referred to metaphorically as reservoirs, holding our past experiences and knowledge for future use. But neither memories nor media are passive go-betweens: their mediation intrinsically shapes the way we build up and retain a sense of individuality and community, of identity and history.

Therefore, I introduce the concept of mediated memories not only to account for the intricate connection between personal collections and collectivity but also to help theorize the mutual shaping of memory and media. By defining and refining this concept into an analytical tool, I hope to turn the items in our private shoeboxes into valuable objects for cultural analysis. As private collections, mediated memories form sites where the personal and the collective meet, interact, and clash; from these encounters we may derive important cultural knowledge about the construction of historical and contemporaneous selves in the course of time: How do our media tools mold our process of remembering and vice versa? How does remembrance affect the way we deploy media devices?

Personal Cultural Memory

The study of what constitutes personal memory has traditionally been the domain of neuroscientists, psychologists, and cognitive theorists. We commonly think of memory as something we have or lack; studies of memory are concerned with our ability to remember or our proclivity to forget things. The majority of studies on memory in the area of psychology deal with our cognitive abilities for recall, and out of those studies, a fair number concentrate on autobiographical or personal memory. The interconnection of memory and self, psychologists state, is crucial to any human being's development. Autobiographical memories are needed to build a notion of personhood and identity, and our minds work to create a consistent set of identity "records," scaffolding the formation of identity that evolves over the years. The development of an autobiographical self is partly organized under genomic and biological control, and part of it is regulated by the environment—ranging from models of individual behavior to cultural rites. Remembering is vital to our well-being, because without autobiographical memories we would have no sense of past or future, and we would lack any sense of continuity. Our image of who we are, mentally and physically, is based on long-term remembrance of facts, emotions, and experiences; that self-image is never stable but is subject to constant remodeling because our perceptions of who we are change along with our projections and desires of who we want to be. As cognitive scientists argue, the key aspect of self-growth is to balance lived past with anticipated future. Without the capability to form autobiographical memories—a defect that could happen as a result of partial brain damage—we are basically unable to create a sense of continuity in our personhood.

Grounded in the discourses of behavioral or social psychology, memory is also central to constructing a sense of a continuity between our selves and others. American psychologist Susan Bluck contends that autobiographical memory has three main functions: to preserve a sense of being a coherent person over time, to strengthen social bonds by sharing personal memories, and to use past experience to construct models to understand inner worlds of self and others. Reminiscence allows people to reconstruct their lives through the looking glass of the present, and "cognitive editing" basically helps to bring one's present views into accord with the past. Of these three functions—self-continuity, communicative function, and directive function—Bluck regards the second as the most important one: people share individual experiences to make conversation more truthful, to elicit emphatic responses, or to develop intimacy and social bonds. In autobiographical memory, the self meets the social, as personal memories are often articulated by communicating them to others.

Expanding and refining Bluck's definition of autobiographical memory, psychologist Katherine Nelson identifies a cultural notion of self, in addition to the cognitive, social, and other levels of self-understanding psychologists have long recognized. A cultural sense of self emerges around five to seven years of age, a developmental stage where children start to "make contrasts between the ideal self portrayed by the culture and the actual self as understood." A child's autobiographical memory evolves as a culturally framed consciousness, where personal narratives constantly intermingle with other stories: "Personal memories, which had been encapsulated within the individual, become transformed through verbal narratives into cultural memory, incorporating a cultural belief system." A culturally framed autobiographical memory integrates the sociocultural with the personal, and the self that emerges from this process is explicitly and implicitly shaped by its environment's norms and values. As Nelson remarks, the narratives that confront children—fairy tales told by parents and teachers, or stories they watch on television—are an important factor in their development. Children test their sense of self against the communal narratives they are exposed to, either through verbal reports or via television or video. Even though some cognitive and developmental studies on autobiographical memory touch upon the important intersection of individual psychology and socializing culture, few psychologists specify the role of culture in relation to memory. Wang and Brockmeier eminently expound on the interplay between memory, self, and culture, arguing that autobiographical remembering manifests itself "through narrative forms and models that are culturally shaped and, in turn, shape the remembering culturally." Even if (social) psychologists acknowledge the dynamic relationship between memory and self to be integrated in the larger fabric of a culture, and even if they affirm that conceptions of self are inscribed in various material and symbolic ways, the role (media) objects play in the process of remembering remains largely unexamined. Understandably but regrettably, psychologists seem to think those questions are the proper domain of anthropologists or media scholars.

And yet, opening up sociopsychological perspectives on autobiographical memory to insights in cultural theory and media studies may turn out to be mutually beneficial. Let me elucidate this by elaborating a simple domestic scene from everyday life. A fifteen-month-old toddler attempts to stand on his own two feet and take his first cautious steps. His parents are thrilled, and they converse about their relief over this happening. The delighted father brings out his video camera to capture the toddler's effort on tape; that same evening, the proud mother verbally reports the first-step achievement to the grandparents. Snapshots of the child's developmental milestone, complemented by a few lines of explanation, supplement the latest update on the family's website. The parents mark the event through various activities: telling stories, taking pictures, and composing an account help to interpret the event and communicate its significance to others. They concurrently produce material artifacts that may assist them—and their offspring—to recall the experience at a later moment in time, perhaps in different circumstances or contexts.

The autobiographical memory at work in this instance consists of several stages and layers—aspects that can be accentuated or eclipsed in consonance with respective academic interests. Psychologists center on how the parents interpret, communicate, and later recall baby's first steps. Mental frames and cognitive schemes help parents evaluate the event: they compare their own baby's achievement to infants' development in general. The average baby starts walking at twelve months, but this one is slower. Parents relate their experience in a narrative framework that places the event in the spectrum of their own lives and that of others. (How old was I when I started to walk? How old was the baby's sister? How slow or fast do babies in this family start walking?) Sharing their oral report with grandparents helps parents determine the significance of what happened, but it also sets the stage for later reminiscence: interpretation and narration form the mental frames by which the experience can be retrieved from memory at a later stage. Memory work thus involves a complex set of recursive activities that shape our inner worlds, reconciling past and present, allowing us to make sense of the world around us, and constructing an idea of continuity between self and others—the three functions Bluck describes, as noted earlier.

Cultural theorists considering this scene may shift the center of gravity and emphasize the way in which the parents record, share, and later reminisce about baby's first steps using various media. Recording the event through video, pictures, or a written account enhances its actual experience. Memory work involves the production of objects—in this case snapshots and video footage—with a double purpose: to document and communicate what happened. These items also portend future recall: for the parents to remind them of this occasion and for the baby to form a picture of what life looked like before his ability to register memories in the mind's eye. Later interpretations invariably revise the meaning of memories, regardless of the presence of hard evidence in the form of pictures or videos. In hindsight, baby's-first-step video may be viewed as an early sign of his lazy character, but it may also provide evidence of an emerging disability that went unnoticed at the time of recording.

Evidently, the same scene gives rise to two sets of inquiries into memory formation, each highlighting different aspects, and yet, the personal and cultural can hardly be disentangled because there is a constant productive tension between our (personal) inclinations to stake out certain events and the (social) frameworks through which we do so—between the (individual) activities of remembering and the (cultural) products of autobiographical recall. Acts and products of memory are far from arbitrary. In Western culture, filming and photographing baby's first steps are considered common ritualized attempts to freeze and store a milestone in a human being's development; hence, the decision of these parents to catch the event on film and arrest the moment in photographs is in tune with prevailing norms—norms that, naturally, change with every new generation and also vary culturally. Western European and American practices of remembering and recording significantly diverge from Asian or African mores in this area, due to diverging cultural norms and social relationships. In general, personal memory stems from the altercation of individual acts and cultural norms—a tension we can trace in both the activity of remembering and in the object of memory.

Therefore, I want to define "personal cultural memory" as the acts and products of remembering in which individuals engage to make sense of their lives in relation to the lives of others and to their surroundings, situating themselves in time and place. According to my definition, "personal" and "cultural" are the threads that bind memory's texture: they can be distinguished, but they never can be separated. We usually mark events because their significance is already ingrained in our conscious: first steps are an important happening in a child's life, just as birthdays and first school days are. The decision to record such events is already, to a large extent, stipulated by conventions prescribing which occurrences are symbolic or ritual highlights and thus worth flagging. Some events, such as conflicts or depressions, may seem unsuitable for video recording, but they may instead be amenable subjects for diary entries. Other events, such as household routines or intense emotions, are perhaps too dull or too poignant for any kind of inscription, yet that does not mean they cannot be recalled—most of our life's experiences, after all, go undocumented, and often deliberately so. Parents who decide not to take out their video camera may do so because they prefer to enjoy and remember the first-step experience without the camera's intervention. At various moments, people decide what to record or what to remember without records, often being unaware of the cultural frameworks that inform their intentions and prefigure their decisions. These frameworks, in other words, already inherently shape the functions of self-continuity, communication, and self-direction that memory work entails. Personal cultural memory entwines individual choice with common habits and cultural conventions, jointly defining the norms of what should be remembered.

What holds true for acts of memory also pertains to its ensuing products, particularly those created through media. Products of memory, whether they are family photographs, diaries, home videos, or scrapbooks, are rarely the result of a simple desire to produce a mnemonic aid or capture a moment for future recall. Instead, we may discern different intentions in the creation of memory products: we can take a picture just for the sake of photographing or to later share the photographed moment with friends. While taking a picture, we may yet be unaware of its future material form or use. However, any picture—or, for that matter, any diary entry or video take—even if ordained to end up in a specific format, may materialize in an unintended or unforeseen arrangement. In spite of the indeterminacy of a memory object's final reification—and this may sound paradoxical—familiar cultural formats always inherently frame or even generate their production. A range of cultural forms, such as diaries, personal photographs, and so on, configures people's choices of what they capture and how they capture it. For instance, family albums funnel our memories into particular venues; a rather extreme example may be the preformatted baby's first-year book, in which developmental signposts—from prenatal ultrasounds to first steps–pictures—are prescribed by its layout. These normative discursive strategies either explicitly or implicitly structure our agencies; I return to this issue in the next chapter, when discussing the meaning of digital technologies as memory tools, but suffice it to say here that existing models often direct our discursive means for communicating and remembering.

Excerpted from MEDIATED MEMORIES IN THE DIGITAL AGE by José van Dijck. Copyright © 2007 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Preface....................     xi     

Acknowledgments....................     xvii     

1. Mediated Memories as a Conceptual Tool....................     1     

2. Memory Matters in the Digital Age....................     27     

3. Writing the Self....................     53     

4. Record and Hold....................     77     

5. Pictures of Life, Living Pictures....................     98     

6. Projecting the Family's Future Past....................     122     

7. From Shoebox to Digital Memory Machine....................     148     

8. Epilogue....................     170     

Notes....................     183     

Bibliography....................     217     

Index....................     229     

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