The Challenge of Big Data to the Phenomenology of Memory


In On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1893-1917), Edmund Husserl elucidated the structure of the lived experience of time, contending that experience of the present encompasses both the immediate past and the imminent future. He differentiated the temporal horizon of the present, which he termed ‘retention’ and ‘protention’ respectively, from conscious recollection of the past and anticipation of the future. As Husserl described it, the act of remembering is essentially curatorial. We judiciously relive past ‘nows’ to hold onto significant experiences, allowing everything else to fade into indistinction. By recollecting the past in part, we curate who we are in the present and also anticipate who we will become. Archivists work similarly, selectively retaining objects while consigning whole classes of other materials to oblivion. The art of appraisal, that is, the series of decisions about what to keep and what to throw away, distinguishes professional archivists from amateurs. Depending on the circumstances, archivists discard personal medical records, financial documents, and mementos. The materials that become stored in archival boxes represent a culling to the essentials, a collection curated in anticipation of what prospective researchers will find relevant and pertinent. Contemporary data-intensive culture challenges both Husserl’s phenomenology of recollection and traditional archival practice. As techniques for capturing experiences proliferate and storage costs drop, the prospect of saving everything–the ephemeral and the trivial alongside the vital and the critical–becomes possible. Rather than curating our past through personal recollection and by professional appraisal, we might allow all our ‘nows’ to accumulate and, so to speak, tell their own stories. What kinds of narratives would the data tell? What would it mean phenomenologically to depend on machine-retrieval of past experiences rather than on personal recollection? How might changes in the phenomenology of memory affect archival practices and, by extension, reshape our collective memory of the past?

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