Information is Alive (Introduction)

Introduction by Arjen Mulder and Joke Brouwer for the publication "Information is Alive" (2003).

Information is Alive (Introduction)

Infromation is Alive


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 interpretations also.

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






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