Abstract- Wendy Hui Kyong Chun

The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future is a Memory

This paper focuses on “memory” in order to understand the literal and meta-theoretical relationship between history and place in new media studies. Starting with John von Neumann’s use of Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts’ “idealized neurons,” it argues that von Neumann’s did not simply borrow from them. Rather, although he initially argued that computer memory was functionally analogous to human afferent neurons, he later hypothesized the existence of a non-neuronal memory organ in natural automata, based on his experiences with digital computing automata. This localization—this placing—of memory would be crucial to both cognitive science and computer engineering. This localization of memory would also lead to the conflation of memory with storage, something unthinkable in the mid-1940s when computer memory was fundamentally “regenerative” and thus dynamic. Such a stabilization of memory drives understandings of computer technology as future simple (as what will be), of the future as a programmable upgrade to your already existing platform. This belief in digital electronic memory as “always there” has also led to a crisis in historical documentation:
an initial blindness to the fact that digital media creates as many archival problems as it supposedly (dis)solves. Against such reductive understandings of the future and of memory, this paper argues that, if our machines’ memories are more permanent, it is because they are constantly refreshed so that their ephemerality endures. The digital, if it is anything, is the enduring ephemeral: a battle—encapsulated nicely in early memory devices such as the mercury delay tube and core memory—of diligence between the passing and the repetitive. What we must analyze, as we try to grasp a present that is always degenerating, is the ways in which ephemerality is made to endure. What is surprising is not that digital media fades, but rather that it stays at all, and that we stay transfixed as it regenerates.