Resonance: on Archives, Data, Attention and the western social corpus

For at least the past fifteen years a very specific current has ran through both the arts and sciences. This current is known by different names though in the cold light of day it is in essence a preoccupation with the same thing: the storing and retrieval of Information. While in the arts and humanities discussion of such things has taken place through discourses of ‘Archiving’, in the sciences much of the same discussion has been around ‘Data’. In considering this it seems that all this activity is indicative of a larger phenomena enveloping western culture. Thus whether we are thinking about The Cloud or the British Museum, under pinning both is ‘The Archive’. I therefore find myself asking, why does this obsession with archives resonate so much?

It is widely believed that when one is dying, hearing is the last sense to go. In light of a western social corpus near comatose through information overdose, the concept of archives resonates not with the act of remembering but of forgetting. Many still think of archives as wells of cultural and economic value within an information economy. Yet it is interesting to view them from another angle and think instead of the implications of an emerging attention economy. For there is a growing need for the automation of information cataloguing and retrieval as the information archives contain – or lay to rest – more often than not requires algorithms and not humans to clean the data from their corpses. Is the conversation resonating around the subject of archives a nostalgia and passion for the events and objects of the past? Is it an exercise in self-identity executed in the dizzying speed of the present? Or is it the busy noise of a milieu trying to put their affairs in order before the information overdose takes full effect on the western social corpus?

In considering these questions, and the issue of hearing it is interesting to reflect on the significance of voice, particularly in relation to our sense of political selves. Free speech is a cornerstone of much of our political thought and indeed archives often work to give voice to people and situations who were lacking in political voice. Indeed we recognise readily that the problem of the former Communist East was the right to free speech. Yet we less readily think about the problem inherent in our own western system, which is not one of expression but rather reception. To be explicit: the problem of the capitalist west remains the right to be properly heard.

We are free to speak – to express – but no one has to listen – to receive. This has ramifications for the form, function and location of archives within our western milieu. Archives act as repositories, yet these repositories – these collections of historic utterances – do not implicitly inscribe the right for those voices to be listened to. Thus the question of how archives may be constructed to better enable this need is foregrounded by the previous observation regarding our western predicament. To consider this further, it is to the subject of data that we must go.

It is generally accepted and espoused that we live in an information economy. Indeed most forms of western labour involve information production or information processing. While many may busy their days and even nights with such work it is worth pausing to consider the size and scale of the digital universe. At the time of writing this paper, it is estimated that there exists between 1.8-2.7 Zetabytes of data in the digital universe and that by 2010 we were producing more data every two days than had been generated by mankind since the dawn of history. To give you an idea of how much that is, if you were to put this information on DVDs it would fill 593736, 278, 999 of them. To give you an idea of how many DVDs that exactly is, it’s enough DVD’s to reach from earth to the moon 15 times over. With this in mind it is worth reconsidering the term ‘information economy’ and in particular its suitability as a descriptor for our economic modus.

Economic theory recognises that a contributing factor to the value of commodities is scarcity. This scarcity is then adjusted through a process of price discovery via exchange and use value. Yet in western society Information can hardly be said to be scarce. In fact the opposite is true: we have a surplice of information. This begs the question is information really the commodity that we believe it to be? Have we in thinking from the perspective of an information economy confused processing for thinking and information for knowledge?

Richard A. Lanham provides an interesting alternative to the ‘information economy’ arguing that it is not information that is scarce but the attention required to understand it. Thus from this perspective emerges the notion of an ‘attention economy’ where attention is viewed as the scarce resource not information, and value resides not in the possession of information but rather the possession of attention. This has some interesting ramifications in terms of the creation of value and the ways in which value by dint of its pursuit begins to shape social interaction. Significantly style becomes more important than substance as things. Within an attention economy objects, ideas, experiences and relationships jostle and compete for the investment of our attention in them. Further, the ownership of intellectual property – copyright and patents – becomes more valuable than the ownership of objects. As a follow on effect, subjects which teach students how to create and hold attention – art, design, marketing, advertising and other forms of rhetoric – become more valuable as the need to gain individuals attention in order to communicate information becomes greater.

The question therefore follows: Are we misconceiving of what archives are by theorising their form and function within the paradigm of an information economy; For we are drowning in Data? With this question in mind it is worth considering that attention is only valuable when it is directed towards an end. The freedom to choose the end is part of the value of its possession. If attention is directed towards processing information then we must recognise that information is only valuable when it becomes knowledge. Therefore how does the notion of the archive resonate within an attention economy? Do we believe that archives are stores of historic memory within an information economy? Or pools of value to be mined like oil in an emerging information economy? If the latter concept seems strange then I would invite you to consider the massive stores of data you are contributing to everyday through your use of the internet and the vast archive of information that this is building up.

This archive – this pool of big data – is of immense value to corporations and government bodies such as google and the NSA. The wealth of which can only be leveraged by smart algorithms designed to mine the data for patterns, in a way that no combined focus of human attention could match. Indeed the rise of such smart algorithms is in many parts due to work in the field of cybernetics. With the rise of Cybernetics via the Macy conferences (1946 – 1953) mankind arrived at a theory of nature that was for the first time not only comprised of matter and energy, but also information. Thus Cybernetics rendered plant, animal, human and machine into interchangeable alignment as information processing units. We have been living in the aftermath of this theory and contending with its scientific and social ramifications ever since as information, information processing and information theory have become ever more central to western life. And therefore logically, also the archives that hold its history.

The rise of interest in archives in recent years signals that we feel something is being lost, arguably as a result of our infatuation – or anxiety – with information. Thus we seek not only to processes but to well information in archives in the hope that someone may be able to find the attention to engage them so as to turn the information contained therein into knowledge. In engaging with archives we are engaging with history and any exercise in history is also an exercise in self-identity inasmuch as many attempts to understand the past are often also attempts to comprehend the self in the present. Perhaps the resonance of archives therefore lies in their ability to remind us of those bits of ourselves that are not simply information processing units but humans who love and fear, and imagine and dream. For reality, aside from its Cartesian modelling in matter, energy and information, is also in part a construction of human imagination and archives serve to continually remind us of this. Thus what is significant is not how Archives resonate, but what they resonate with.

Leave a Reply