Cultural Studies, History, Life Writing

Material Memory and the Digital

19.05.15 | Comment?

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, we rely more than ever on computer memory to enhance our human capabilities to remember and recall information, both institutional and personal. This digital extension of memory is enabled by the capture and preservation of vast amounts of data that form exponentially expanding archives. Whereas in the past it was common practice for individuals to carefully keep in boxes or drawers documents, photographs, and mementos—to be perused from time to time or worked through later by family members—personal information is now being stored on multiple computer hard drives, portable media, and cloud storage systems. In a remarkably short period of time, the term ‘memory’ itself has changed. Over the past two decades, memory, understood as both the act of remembering and a means of storing memories, has been relocating itself. In its daily usage it has been moving from the mind to the computer—from neurological systems to digital technologies—as people increasingly ‘outsource’ memory to digital devices.

In this essay I focus on the changing nature of remembering—and forgetting—in the digital era. With an emphasis on personal stories I ask: How is intergenerational memory transfer changing as a result of digital media technologies? Specifically, what are the implications of the shift to digital storage and communication processes for the way we retain, pass on, or receive private and intimate material? How has this changed the way we see ourselves and view our lives, and allow others to see ourselves and our lives? I explore these questions in the context of a great loss for which digital technologies have been responsible, at the same time that they have delivered marvellous benefits. The benefits have been so vast and so dazzling that this loss appears to have been accepted with little comment and, it sometimes appears, barely noticed. However, in this transitional time, as the last pre-digital generation ages, the impacts on history, biography, and life writing are coming sharply into view. The loss that concerns me here is the rapid disappearance of the material objects that were at the heart of memory transmission. In private and intimate human stories, such objects often carried a depth of significance, emotional power, and authority that the digital world cannot match. In the wider context of the vulnerability of all digital data—through erasure, failure of archiving systems, or inaccessibility as a result of technological obsolescence—this may seem like a minor matter. On the other hand, it may represent one of the biggest shifts in recorded history in the way memories are transmitted within families and communities.


Arthur, Paul Longley. ‘Material Memory and the Digital,’ in ‘Private Lives, Intimate Readings,’ ed. Paul Longley Arthur and Leena Kurvet-Käosaar, special issue, Life Writing 4, no. 1 (2015): 189-200.


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Paul Arthur is Vice-Chancellor’s Professorial Research Fellow and Chair in Digital Humanities and Social Sciences, at Edith Cowan University, Western Australia. He speaks and publishes widely on major challenges and changes facing 21st-century society, from the global impacts of technology on communication, culture and identity