Book Review: Fragments of an Infinite Memory

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“I’m thirty-seven years old; I went online for the first time when I was nineteen; I can still say I’ve lived more than half my life without the internet, though this ratio will soon tip the other way.”

Maël Renouard is a French writer and translator. He has taught philosophy at the Sorbonne and the École Normale Supérieure. In this, his latest book, he muses on how day to day life has changed due to ease of access to the internet – smart phones providing a plethora of knowledge, news and entertainment on demand.

Across eleven chapters, the author offers short opinion pieces and recollections – vignettes that look at how sites such as YouTube, Wikipedia, Google Earth and Facebook have changed how people curate their lives and memories.

“Who hasn’t gone on the internet looking for past loves and friends one hasn’t seen in years? Time lost in search of lost time.”

He posits that views of the world and self have changed, and that internet apps have altered how we interact as well as how we anticipate and then record experiences.

The second chapter opens with a list of comments left below YouTube videos of hits from a number of past decades. The nostalgia evoked is, with almost equal frequency, a source of sadness and joy for users.

Such digital repositories have revised how people learn and live. And yet, there remains a hankering for what went before.

“someone told me that a few months earlier he had created a start-up that offered to print out SMS conversations on little scrolls (and perhaps soon bind them into books as well, he added); his business was flourishing beyond all hopes.”

As users move from physical to digital, what had once seemed commonplace becomes rare, such as letters sent by post. The author mentions the worry he had when required to send a paper document and, holding the sealed envelope, experienced doubt that he had included the necessary item. With email he could simply check attachments in his ‘Sent’ folder.

In later chapters there are musings on the rich man’s dream of achieving immortality by downloading brain contents – whatever that may involve. It is pointed out that this has largely been achieved already. Online we leave writing, recordings and images that others may access and interact with. He assumes these will still exist after we die.

The author discusses the idea that artificial intelligence is nothing like intelligence in humans – the latter requiring consciousness and intentionality. Articulating what this means can be challenging.

“In a sci-fi film, a police officer says to an individual he has just unmasked as a humanoid robot: “You can’t write a novel or a concerto.” The robot replies: “Can you?”

Our wariness at the prospect of artificial intelligence possibly rests upon an even greater fear than that of being annihilated, enslaved, replaced etc. by machines (though we are quick to portray this as an irreparable loss to the universe): the fear of being unmasked as ‘feeble, humdrum creatures, mostly incapable of creating anything at all.’

On memory, there are reminders that fears existed in ancient times, following the invention of writing, that human capacity to memorise may be adversely effected.

The internet may be a repository for: knowledge, recordings, and images. Only the individual retains the entirety of self.

Chapters explore how and what we photograph now that smart phones offer immediate access to captured images where once analogue film would have required expensive and delayed processing. Before we visit a place the internet can provide us with pictures of what we will see, that we may then photograph to prove we have been there and immediately share on line with ‘friends’ we may never have met. Examples are provided of how Facebook affects users, even its detractors.

“More and more, we compare reality to images, instead of comparing images to reality.”

There exist people who have created their desired personas through internet entries. It is even possible for a person to exist online but not in real life. The possibilities offered by the internet are reflected in works of fiction, with stories changing markedly when set after the years when use became ubiquitous.

Chapter nine, a favourite of mine, offers up a series of highly enjoyable contemporary tales written in a style reminiscent of the ancients. These provide salutary lessons, of those seeking recognition believed to be unfairly denied, or those who deign to be above using online means to promote themselves – by mentioning this they do so anyway.

Some of the thoughts, ideas and conjectures are more complex but by presenting them bite sized they are easily digested.

Any Cop?: Although sometimes rambling and digressive, this is an interesting perambulation through internet usage and the changes generated. A playful yet well considered explication of a modern marvel so many rely on and now take for granted.

 

Jackie Law

Random Musings: Remote living

How quickly so many in our country accepted the need for lockdown. Having been frightened into believing that proximity to other people can lead to death, will an eventual return to being part of a crowd be welcomed or cause further stress?

I have enjoyed living in the Wiltshire countryside since I moved here close to thirty years ago. In the past few weeks it has proved even more of a boon. I am surrounded by fields and woodland with their sparsely populated network of footpaths and trails to explore. The quiet lanes that meander between small towns and villages are ideal for bike rides. When people were still mostly staying home even the major roads were pleasant to cycle along. Blessed by many days of dry weather I have been able to make the most of my daily exercise and thereby keep my mental health in balance.

One thing that can be a challenge in rural living is the internet access. My home is on the far edge of a village and on the edge of its digital connectivity. We regularly find ourselves cut off, even if only for short periods of time. Mobile reception can also be sporadic.

With husband working from home – when work has been available – and our two students trying to continue their courses remotely, we are pushing our available internet access to its limit. Add to this the gaming my sons enjoy and we are regularly frustrated by lack of bandwidth. My own use is largely browsing so I am affected less than the rest of my family. I have long avoided activities that require a better connection.

I have no wish to: Skype, Facetime, Zoom, WattsApp video call. I don’t even enjoy voice calls as I too often find myself talking over the person on the other end of the line. Real time communications remove my ability to consider and edit. I have in the past regretted words written. They have caused me less anxiety than my regret at words spoken clumsily.

Social media, carefully managed, is my friend. I choose not to watch the small video clips posted or even play attached GIFs. I do not click on YouTube links and have no interest in vlogs. Podcasts are rarely listened to despite what could be interesting content. I enjoyed certain podcasts when in the gym going nowhere on cardio machines. With that option currently removed, the podcasts I subscribe to are piling up unheard. What I want is to read – articles, interviews, book reviews. And, of course, my books.

When exercising outside over the past few weeks I have been listening to: birdsong, the wind in the trees, lambs bleating, the sounds of my surrounds. I watch the changing view as I pass – nature unfolding. I feel no need of further distraction. Unlike many I don’t  listen to music when I run. In these changed times I have found I am rarely in the mood for music even when at home. It would seem I require an element of mental relaxation – not currently available – to enjoy such a soundtrack.

So forgive me if I do not get excited by the measures being taken to put people live on line. I know many are enjoying this content – a good thing but not for me. My glitchy connectivity adds a layer of irritation I choose to avoid despite missing out on many interesting conversations. I am storing away links to those who put an audio recording of their videos in a podcast (thank you Influx Press) for future days when we are granted access to gyms.

I do wonder, when the option is returned to us, how many will choose to: move their exercise regime indoors, attend events with strangers, travel on crowded transport if not necessary for work. Will the process of going on holiday feel too much of a risk for some? Will cinema and theatre find audiences willing to sit for long periods in enclosed spaces? For those comfortable with digital communication and with access to a reliable internet connection, will they still choose to work from home?

Some are missing the camaraderie of their working environment. I read on social media that many are missing contact with wider family. Perhaps the move to freedom will be as swift as the move to lockdown proved. Such a thought seems to anger a vociferous and frustrated online community.

I will miss: the lightly traffic’d roads, the sight of families out walking together locally, other runners pounding tarmac as we pass at a distance, the deep blue skies due to lack of contrails. I will not miss: the growing concern over ongoing income, the challenges young people are facing as they cope with online learning and exams, the fracture in society as views on necessary steps differ.

Let me just park here that, of course, I recognise and acknowledge my many privileges, including: a garden, food in my fridge, unpopulated space to roam. I have though been personally affected by the deaths of close family members. It is not my intention to downplay what is happening.

Although worried by many aspects of our situation – including the increased police powers – I can manage remote living and poor connectivity as it has long been my normal. Social events are a rarity in my calendar.

For those whose lives have been radically altered by recent diktats and whose income – current and potential – has been decimated, the scars they will carry forward are as much a concern as this plague.

Waiting out a mind disturbance

I have been thinking about friendship, about the ebb and flow of friends. I do not consider myself to be a particularly good friend. I do not invest enough of my time in maintaining the bond that close friendships require.

Relationships are rarely evenly balanced. There may be give and take on both sides but these do not always match expectations. Resentments can grow when effort appears to go unappreciated, or when demands are perceived to be too great. I have walked away from people in the past because time and again they asked for more than I felt comfortable giving. I find it easier to give than to take, but can only offer so much for so long.

I do not blame the people that I have walked away from but rather my own requirements from the relationship. I suspect that I am not an easy person to befriend with my regular need for solitude and my social awkwardness. What I am capable of giving may well not be what the recipient requires.

Over the past few days it has felt as though the internet has not been my friend. My main source of information and communication has not been providing me with the satisfaction that I have come to expect. I suspect that I am asking too much. Walking away is a possibility, taking a break from going on line. This is not a solution though if the problem lies closer to home.

I have a favourite t-shirt which has this image on it.

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I try to live my life like that, enjoying the journey rather than focusing too much on an end point, a result. In so many areas throughout life we are encouraged to strive for something rather than taking time to notice the good things to be enjoyed along the way.

Last month I decided to sign up for the 100 Happy Days challenge (detailed here http://100happydays.com/ ). I am struggling to continue with this, to pick out a different aspect of each day to focus on. I am undecided if the challenge is proving to be counter productive given that my inability to post each day is making me feel that I am failing.

It is not that I am feeling particularly negative, rather I am suffering a disturbance of my inner peace or balance. Non specifics are bothering me and my usual sources of calm are not helping.

I can walk away from others, from the internet, but I cannot walk away from myself. Zen Dog’s little boat has reached choppy waters.

I must find ways to hold on whilst minimising the damage. I know that this too shall pass.

birdrain

Hanging out on line

I have had a Facebook account for several years. Without it I would know a lot less about the lives of many friends I rarely see. Of course I am aware that I am only being offered the briefest of edited snapshots of their lives, but still. Still it is more than I would otherwise be offered; I am grateful for the little that I am given, for the link into a chink of their lives.

I was encouraged to join Facebook by a friend with whom I used to exchange regular emails. Since he and I have been on this supposedly social site we have not been as intimate. Can a largely electronic, text based relationship be described as intimate? I think that it can. I regret our loss of intimacy as I value the friendship and felt that I was giving something back. Inverted selfishness; I valued being able to give, as much because of the benefits to me as for the hoped for value to him.

On Facebook I keep most of my settings private. I try to take care over what I post, particularly photographs. I try to take care over who I will accept as a friend. I realise though that much of this is an illusion. The real reason why my friendship list is so small is because there are few people who seek me out. I have never in my life been one of the popular people.

This year my use of the internet has changed. I started to blog and put out links to my writing on various sites in order to encourage readers to pay me some attention. Having spent years carefully watching and listening, I started to put a chunk of myself online, accessible to all. I started to say what I thought and, more especially, how I felt. I started to befriend the internet in a way that I had never managed with the face to face people I knew.

As well as setting up this WordPress site I made use of Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest and Google+. It took me some time to get into the rhythm of Twitter but, at times, this is my favourite medium for news and expression. It offers soundbite communication and easy sharing of other’s musings in a quickly digestible, largely disposable format. When we attend large gatherings of friends and acquaintances isn’t most conversation like that?

I set up my Google+ quite some time ago but have only just started to use it in the past few weeks. I am not yet comfortable with the settings which seem tricky to manage compared to Facebook. Last week I commented on a Youtube video that amused me, and was quite shocked to see a link appear on my Google+ feed, shared with my circles, many of whom I know only from the blogosphere. I need to learn how to share more carefully on this medium. I need to decide how I wish to use it.

In general though, my active pursuit of an on line profile has made me less concerned about personal privacy. I question whether I have much to hide. I started to write under the moniker zeudytigre and that has largely stuck, but my Twitter account uses my given name and I now link it to this blog.

I also use my given name on Pinterest where I record my book and film reviews. I am not into cutesy craft, fashion or home improvements. I have managed to make this site work for me, the way I want it to. I may still add a board to link to this blog though; I want people to read me. I feel a sense of embarrassment admitting that.

Of all the sites to which I ascribe, my Tumblr is probably the maverick. I have yet to find a use for it beyond a means to take the pulse of a world of young people who know how to think for themselves. It gives me hope for the future. Whether or not I can harness it for myself remains to be seen; perhaps that will be my next project.

In November I took part in NaNoWriMo, an experience that gave me more confidence as a writer. I decided that I would like to pursue my fictional writing so set up a second WordPress blog as a home for some my short stories (Dreams and Demons). I also joined the writer’s community at Tipsy Lit (link via my sidebar button). I am gaining a lot of pleasure from this new direction and have had some positive feedback from other writers, which is always very satisfying. I still feel somewhat reluctant to describe myself as a writer.

With all of this activity to manage it now feels as though the internet is my hangout. I certainly feel more comfortable here than I ever did at physical gatherings of people. The one thing that I do need to watch is that I do not stop reading the books that do so much to feed my mind, essential if I wish to improve my writing. I can spend far too long on line.

As well as my writer’s pseudonym I continue to use my original avatar rather than a personal photograph on many of the on line sites that I frequent. As a back garden hen keeper, the picture of a mother hen with her three eggs seemed to suit me (I have three children). I feel more comfortable being known by that picture than by my face. Perhaps, in time, I will gain enough confidence to allow my true self to be seen more often.

As my children have grown away from me to pursue their own lives I have felt a need to fill the void that they left. My writing has offered me this possibility. Those who mistrust the internet and wonder at my willingness to open up to on line strangers may well be those who can easily socialise off line. As I am not comfortable in such an environment this space has allowed me to interact with like minded people who I would struggle to meet otherwise. My hope for the coming year is that I may expand my community of acquaintances and continue to find help and inspiration, as well as readers, amongst those I meet.

Finding the readers is a tricky balancing act. I wish to promote what I write but do not wish it to be the only aspect of my conversation. I do not wish to use my social networks purely for self advertising as that alone is bound to put people off linking to me. I am not yet confident that what I write is worth other’s time, that it is good enough to warrant their attention.

If this is where I go to party then I desire conversation more than mass attention. I wish to discuss, dissect and muse over the significant and the inane. I am interested in books, films, current affairs and politics; I am not interested in celebrities, cooking or fashion. I seek out the blogs and the sites managed by those who offer me insight and feedback.

Am I still only using my ‘friends’ for my own means? Perhaps that is all that any of us ever do. Perhaps the best that we can hope for is that we may also give enough back to make the interaction worthwhile for all concerned.

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