12 Nov 2017 Go-ogle: Gender and memory in the “globital” age
Raw Europium in a lab. Image: Alchemist-hp Wikimedia Commons
For millennia humankind has given future generations access to the past by making recitords of events and genealogies. Now we go-ogle the past through the internet.
Historically, humankind has mediated memories of the mundane and the extraordinary, inventing mnemonic technologies and practices from rock art to stone circles, from singing songs to telling stories from everyday rituals to specialist dances. Mnemonic technologies have changed from hand written manuscripts to the mass printing of books, from the carefully etched drawing to the mass produced film. With computer technologies mediated memories are being shaken up again with the capturing and sharing of private and public memories through mobile devices and social network sites.
All technologies, as Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan observed, extend the human body: the bicycle extends the legs, the axe extends the hand. Mnemonic technologies extend our memory: the technology of the shaped flint enables visual reminders, the technology of the Internet extends the human brain.
At the same, mnemonic technologies and memory practices are socially situated and are far from gender neutral. Many women in the 1930s were “human computers” employed to do accurate calculations, their work long since transformed through networked machine computers. But while digitisation is transforming gendered memory through digital games, virtual memorials and digital archives, the main thrust of changes to mediated memory worldwide arises through the mobile phone.
While other areas of digitization are revolutionary for human memory it is through the rapid take up of mobile and social technologies that we see the greatest changes occurring for the greatest numbers. Mobile and social technologies are now at the heart of everyday life with greater take-up per capita worldwide than the personal computer. The mobile phone has enabled poorer communities to leapfrog legacy technologies such as the land-line phone and cumbersome ICTs, acting as a portable personal memory prosthetic.
Global-digital memory or “globital” memory means memories travel rapidly and easily from the individual to the collective and from the local to the global. Such mediated memories confound conventional binaries of the public and the private and of the body and the machine. Historically we know that changes in mnemonic technologies also mean new challenges and opportunities for gender inequalities.
As the Dutch academic Gerdien Yonker has shown in her study of ancient Mesopotamia, with the shift from oral technologies to the written word, women’s memories and genealogies were increasingly marginalized. The US based literary scholar Harold Weber has also demonstrated how with the technological shift from the manuscript to the printing press, women’s literary works became side-lined. So too the globital age changes memories of gender and the gendering of memory.
Throughout history the cultural memory of women and girls is often erased, side-lined. Whether it is through the genealogical sinecure of female ancestors through patriarchal retention of the male surname with marriage or the gender privilege of being written into history books and national cultures, the achievements, activities and exploits of boys and men are routinely mediated into private and public memories in ways that those of girls and women are not. Museums, memorials and a mass media record, commemorate and archive the exploits, artefacts, images and voices of men and boys. But with digital media, how and by whom human memory is captured, stored and circulated is changing and so, too, the gender of memories, and memories of gender.
Mediated memories are now made, stored and shared through “globital” memory. The once personal one-off diary is now the publicly shared blog; the discrete letter is an email chain; the photograph album is a mobile and social gallery on our mobile phone. Atrocities once unrecorded are witnessed through mobile phones and made public through the Internet. Globital memory has become a field of action which enmeshes us within patriarchal capitalism. This “globital” memory field reaches inside our bodies through medical and security imaging and extends to the far reaches of the universe sending back recorded sounds and images of a universe long past.
In the globital age, wherever we are on the planet, we are born, live and die within, painfully astride or outside of an unevenly wired world: where once museums and archives were locked within buildings for the privileged few, and memorials were made to stay in their commemorative place, with the Internet, mobile phones and social media our mediated memories are captured and mobilized to travel, mutate, and stick our past together in new ways.
Pregnancy and birth
The memory of gender and gendering of memory has changed through the impact of medical imaging, particularly the obstetric sonogram. Since the advent of the sonogram in the late 1950s feminists have critiqued how the technology promotes a Hobbesian view of humankind in which the foetus is isolated from the rest of humanity with women and the womb simply background noise. Medical facilities now sell the image of the foetus to parents who then mobilize her or him through their social networks.
Where once a gender neutral foetus could snug-up in the dark for nine months in a mother’s womb, it is now routine for the sonogram to make visible the foetus, including their biological sex which then begins pre-birth the human’s gendered life story through a social birth witnessed on-line with family and friends. At the same time studies show that it is now at the point of the obstetric sonogram that male partners in heterosexual relationships feel for the first time a palpable connection to their offspring, with the visual image forming a keystone in their remembered future narrative of the gendered baby, overriding the physical organic memory of the mother.
Digital technologies also change how parents remember pregnancy loss. The experience of miscarriage − marked historically by a notable absence of memorialization in Western culture in comparison with East Asia − is now often shared through the digitization of the foetal image. There are now on-line memorial websites dedicated to the babies that died before term or who were still born. The organic, embodied, felt memory and grief of the parents during the pregnancy has for many become a networked fixed image on screen in which grief is socially networked and shared.
Yet, the mnemonic resource of the networked, digital memory of the unborn is like all world resources unevenly distributed and unequally accessed. Ultrasound is a routine part of obstetric care in early pregnancy for women in the global north, but in the global south, especially in rural areas, access to obstetric ultrasound is poor. Even within the richest countries access to ultrasound is uneven: African American and Latin-American women are twice as likely as white American women to receive late prenatal care with no ultrasound in the third trimester. Such gendered narratives of the unborn are thus globital – digitally mnemonically uneven – as a result of economic inequalities.
Social networking, on-line photo sharing sites and the mobile have unevenly changed the recorded story of a family’s everyday life. The mobile phone in late capitalist society enables the human body to be “clothed” in networked digital memories carried in pockets, in the hand, in a handbag. Such technologies provide new possibilities for what is remembered of our everyday lives: in research I conducted in a London primary school women used their phones to capture and share with partners seemingly prosaic moments of life. Yet an ordinary image of an empty plate may be read as a metonym for the labour of a meal planned, shopped for, cooked and fed to the baby or toddler. An image of a child in a seemingly ordinary playpark is a metonym for all the daily routinized trips of the mother or father to the park as well as signifying the privileged place of peace and security in which that particular child is being raised.
Such imaged memories before mobile phones were rare: most domestic photographic images figured around important events – holidays, namings, weddings – not the everyday and ordinary. Where once the mundane repetitive domestic and emotional labour done largely still by women worldwide went unrecorded, we see new memories of gender on record.
Mobile and social technologies have also changed public witnessing and news gathering. Atrocities can be casually witnessed through bystanders using mobile and social media, with images of terrorist attacks and state repression being circulated from the local to the global in a matter of minutes and hours. We also see the use of the phone for collective live witnessing: Machsom Watch, a women’s organisation uses mobile and social technologies to witness and monitor the challenges faced by Palestinians going through Israeli checkpoints.
Women and girls are also able to gain a foothold in the world’s media through micro and social media. Bana Alabed, known as Aleppo’s tweeting girl, who was seven when she started tweeting about her experiences of the bombing in Syria, had her story picked up by mainstream press around the world. Farah Baker, a young women in Gaza who tweeted her thoughts and emotions during bombing raids by the Israeli Defence Force on her home was interviewed by NBC and numerous newspapers.
Actions – feminist memory
The globital age while reproducing gendered divisions and social inequalities also enables new kinds of feminist memories to mobilise action around injustice. The Parramatta Female Factory Precinct Memory Project in Sydney Australia, which I have followed for some years, has drawn attention to the injustice and abuse of girls that took place at Sydney’s longest standing site of female containment. Over more than 150 years girls were raped, humiliated, abused and used as forced labour at the site in its various Church and State run guises as a female factory, asylum, orphanage and girl’s home.
Part of the work of the “Parragirls” survivors of the time when it was a girls’ home in the 1970s and 80s has involved using digital media to remember, archive and campaign, thus drawing national and international attention to the human rights abuses that took place at the site. The site is now recognized as a member of the International Sites of Conscience.
There is a darker side to global-digital or globital memory. For every wifi connected iphone there is a global supply chain involving materials mined from the earth, transported and wrangled into the parts that go into devices and infrastructures that make our digital memories possible. The commercial rhetoric of the “cloud” obfuscates the fact that digital memory is not cheap, green or abundant. It comes at a cost to the world’s poorest and at a cost to the planet.
To see that vibrant red colour on your computer screen requires the rare earth Europium, mined by companies that are frequently situated on indigenous people’s lands. In Western Australia, despite regulation, the living memories of rock forms and rock art sites many thousands of years old are being destroyed through the mining of rare earths. The mineral is shipped thousands of miles to “special economic zones” to be processed, which causes radioactive waste that if not properly managed leaks into water systems destroying communities’ livelihoods and damaging the DNA of future generations.
It is also worth remembering where all our digital memory gadgets go when they die. The bulk of the world’s e-waste is processed in China mostly by women and children. As they work they breathe in toxic chemicals released as the plastics are burnt off from our digital gadgets so that the labourers can retrieve for low pay the precious metals within. Those women will not remember our Facebook “like” of a meal about to be eaten and to remember them in our Facebook post or this article is already too late.
Digitized and globalised technologies mediate and implicate human memory in important ways. This creates new challenges for gender equality and for media development. It also creates new possibilities for different kinds of gendered memories to be activated and mobilized to make a difference.
Anna Reading is Professor of Culture and Creative Industries at King’s College, London, UK. She has a BA Honours (First Class) in English and Politics (1987) and an MA in Women’s Studies (with Distinction) both from the University of York, UK (1988) and a PhD in Communication with a thesis on “Socially inherited memory, gender and the public sphere in Poland” from the University of Westminster, UK (1996). Her most recent publications include: Gender and Memory in the Globital Age (2016) Palgrave; Cultural Memories of Non-Violent Struggles: Powerful Times (2015) with T. Katriel T (eds.) Palgrave; Save As… Digital Memories (2009) with J. Garde-Hansen and A. Hoskins (eds) Palgrave; and The Social Inheritance of the Holocaust: Gender, Culture and Memory (2002) Palgrave.