Death in Infinite Times: Erasure as a Method of Inquiry to Explore How Memory and Technical Objects are Codetermined and Transformed


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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  • Audrey SAMSON

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Award date8 Sep 2016


As human memory is externalised and networked, I argue that it becomes enframed by the network's materiality: the legal terms of agreement, the code, the protocols of data transfer, the hardware, and the entire geopolitical conditions of its environment. Between grammatization in corporate servers (Stiegler, 2012), systematic surveillance and data persistence, overlooking the materiality of data could constitute the deluding trap of which Heidegger warns (2010). It is especially important considering undead data created by software (Chun, 2011), in relation to the need to forget (Mayer-Schönberger, 2011; Hadziselimovic et al., 2014). This thesis addresses these issues by examining the implications of network materiality on how we remember. It contributes to the field by addressing the gap in technological development, governmental and corporate privacy policy, and socialised mourning related to network materiality.

The thesis describes various artworks and art-led experiments that explore different forms of network materiality and notions of memory. Through the analysis of artworks that address this theme, such as, PIPS:lab's DieSpace, moddr_'s Web2.0 Suicide Machine, and etoy's MISSION ETERNITY, I show how the idea of finality and the degradation of memory are sidestepped by the perceived immateriality of networks. Issues that arise from the promulgated ethereality of networks emphasised through this analysis are: the promise of interaction, the commercialisation of personal data, the divestment of data ownership, and the illusion of continued temporality. The art-led experiments which I undertook such as Immemorial, and, explore the materiality of code by exploring the propensity for the projection of immortal characteristics onto so-called digital data. I demonstrate that these works also operate within an evolving space of intra-actions (Barad, 2007), modulated by software transduction (Kitchin & Dodge, 2011), and infected by non-computable data (Parisi, 2013). I argue this is a hybrid form of non-tangible trans-coded space, a term I use to designate the neurophenomenology that is shaped by software coded spaces and non-computable elements, which renders dispersed, fragmented, and heterogeneous constructions of subjectivity. Through the additional discussion of the net art pieces: Summer, The Likes of Brother Cream Cat, Threads/, and TrackMeNot, I illustrate how network affordances (Samson & Soon, 2015) can be understood as a dynamic framework that articulates the experience of tension arising from the visual symbolic representation of computational processes and their hidden occurrences. Also, that the experience of these pieces is contingent upon unpredictable parameters that are entangled with the process of complex network behaviours and uncomputable data (Parisi, 2013) within and beyond the black box (Latour, 1987). I ultimately argue that these works show how the ecology of the network (the performativity of code, search engine parameters, and data entropy), shapes our experience, and consequently its codetermination with human memory, both in the cerebral cortex, and in externalised data servers.

As the intricacies of the contingencies between network materiality and memory are based on unpredictable and incomputable factors, and that memory itself (human and machinic) is a fickle and dynamic entity, I argue that sketching their relationship is not entirely possible. I therefore put forth a method to investigate this complex relationship rather than to define it. Central to this method is the notion of erasure. I show in this thesis that erasure is an integral part of how human memory functions with the work of Hadziselimovic et al. (2014), and that by extension our externalised memories (Stiegler, 2012), require similar attention. Building upon ambiguity as a resource for design (Gaver et al., 2003), a performance research method (Slager, 2004) evolved as a means to make the invisible tangible, to facilitate discussion about implications of the externalisation of human memory, and the hybrid memories emerging from archival technologies. Therefore, the performance research acts both an act of reflection and invention (Carter, 2004) to creatively investigate with imaginative insight (Sullivan, 2010), and to generate novel apprehension of human networked memory.

This was done through interviews, workshops, technical experiments and exhibitions with a thematic framework of digital death and datafication. I experimented with different material forms of data erasure such as corrosion with acids or embalming with resins. I explored the cultural and political context of data erasure (or lack thereof) through interviews and workshops on the subject of digital death. In the later developed workshop formats, the anchor was the digital data funeral, framed as a ritual that emphasises the embodied nature of data based on the understanding of ritual as an embodied practice (Crossley, 2004). In this context erasure provided a hook to reflect on network materiality and personal memory, and to explore the link between ritualisation and grammatization. I define the digital data funeral as a visceral procedure that physically degrades data, and thereby symbolically exorcises the undead media. It opens up questions pertaining to the crisis of datafication through a mourning ritual that emphasises the embodiment of data.

As Derrida notes, (echoed by Parisi), archives perform the future (1995a; 2013). The capacity of the archive to project and shape the future demands careful attention. As memories are understood as partially externalised in these networked archives, the materiality of the human body is no longer the only actor in the formation of memory and future imaginings. Parisi warns us of the self-fulfilling prophecy of predictions based on big data, while Daniel Kahneman explains that the human imagines the future based on anticipated memories (2011). The past, and the perceived future do not only shape our idea of the future, but its actualisation. Networked archives and human memory are inextricably linked in this research, which celebrates finitude, or Hayle's posthuman dream (1999), as a reminder of the relationship between death, materiality and politics.

As such, I have defined the digital data funeral as the tangible absence of a presence that asks: What would you like to erase forever? If you could... This formulation, I argue, is a method that problematises network materiality and its relationship to memory. I show that erasure as a method of inquiry in the context of digital data funerals proves useful to examine complex hybridised memory entanglements. This method also serves to further emphasise problematic digital archiving practices such as surveillance, and proposes the importance of mourning (that is both remembering and forgetting) of our distributed and disembodied digital memories, which is increasingly impeded by these practices, while opening a discussion into potential directions of ritualising erasure.