Since the dawn of recorded history, social and cultural memory have been organized
in two ways: either in a material form (tablets, books, objects) or as immaterial
‘information’ (personal memories, collective stories, songs, dances, rituals,
celebrations, games). Ever since the invention of writing, the logic of material
memory-systems, such as historical archives and administrative records, has prevailed.
These archives were ordered linearly – either hierarchically or through a
grid – and were aimed at control – both of the recorded items and of the people
and processes that these recorded items stood for. Next to these stiff and stable
archives there have always been flexible and unstable archives of what one can
call ‘immaterial information' that followed a different rationality – the labyrinthine,
fuzzy logic of oral culture, that is, a culture without written records.
Stories change when told, and they keep changing as long as they are told, just
as with personal memories. Songs and dances are rather stable, but allow for personal
With the recent introduction of digital databases we seem to be witnessing a
shift. What used to be material archive-systems have become immaterial information-banks. Unlike classical archive forms, recent digital databases need not
be ordered linearly – grid-like and hierarchically. They are made accessible
through complex linking technologies which no longer work linearly, as they still
did in old-style computers, but as random and non-linear as you like. Search
engines can be designed to find the proverbial needle in the haystack, or even to
create a haystack where there are only needles, that is, build patterns where
there seemed to be only fragments. Intelligent agents, or knowbots, can link
information in a way you never thought of yourself, while expressing your very
own interpretation of the world. As soon as new information enters a networked
database, the structure of the database can reorganize itself, just like old songs
change over time with changing audiences and changing social, political or cultural
circumstances. Flexibility and instability have become technical qualities
instead of problems to be controlled. Digital archives are unstable, plastic, living
entities, as stories and rituals were in oral cultures.
The value of what is stored in databases lies in how it can be used in the present,
and in its operationality rather than its meaning. We reuse and recombine
our past to create the world as we know it. Memory is a process that functions
in the present and is continually updated through that mode of functioning.
Research into the neurological, social, cultural and evolutionary functions and
processes of memorization and information storage can provide models and tools
for understanding the possibilities and limitations of nonlinear archiving,
because all this research is about lived archives of habits and practices that are
continuously being broken down and rebuilt. The atomization of the archive in
the database has made the whole Art of Memory into a technological, interactive
art that suddenly becomes a highly urgent topic. In the first place, for all
those institutions that feel the need to ‘open their archives’, secondly for all
those who describe and study modes of being, and thirdly for all those who
design and use our new archives, be it books, websites, cities or the like.
The central theme of Information is Alive is the exploration of artistically significant
and technologically unexpected developments that may arise through the
storing, linking, reprocessing, transforming and complexification of data (or perhaps
material) which otherwise would simply have remained as raw information.
This book plunges into data flows from all kinds of disciplines that study archives:
paleontological, cultural, political, sociological, historical, artificial, neurological,
artistic ... In an information society there is no position outside of the flows, an
external position from which you can criticize or transcend the flows. But joining
in different flows at the same time creates the possibility of networking
streams of material and immaterial data, so as to create an awareness of where
we are and what we can do. We do not live in a society that uses digital archiving,
we live in an information society that is a digital archive. Understanding the
world means understanding what digital databases can or cannot do.
© 2003 V2_ / Arjen Mulder / Joke Brouwer