In the current online issue of Newsweek, Eleanor Clift alludes to Marshall McLuhan's prophecy that externalizing aspects of the human nervous system will result in a significant change in our media ecology. We used to hear about news items “disappearing down the memory hole." With the advent of YouTube, blogs, Google, Lexis-Nexis and other web-based resources, we can now draw almost anything from the Internet-based Memory Well. Clift notes that:
Thanks to technology, what goes on in the confines of Congress doesn't have to stay in the chambers’ corridors. “There’s no more transparent moment than putting something on the Internet,” says Karina Newton, director of new media for Speaker Pelosi. It’s her job to glean the moments and put them out on YouTube, and what breaks through is sometimes a surprise. Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank being heckled by Republicans and asking, “Does whining come out of my time,” drew nearly 50,000 hits. A 10-minute clip of bureaucratic jousting about what constitutes a power-point presentation attracted almost 100,000 viewers. “It’s where the message and the medium come together,” says Newton, echoing Marshall McLuhan, whose “the medium is the message” defined the television age.
The Memory Well will redefine private vs. public areas. As Joshua Meyerowitz described in No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior, the older mass media have already blurred the distinctions between adult and child, between genders and between social classes. Even so, some areas remained more “hidden” than others.
When we lived under conditions of primary orality, human memory was the only way to transmit cultural heritage from one generation to the next. During the manuscript and print eras, written documents replaced memory as the primary means of transmitting information over time and space. In the early years of electronic media, only a few had access to external memory devices to record and preserve our culture. An electronic broadcast would be sent to many, but then disappear into the "aether."
With video cell phones, cheap editing technology and internet access, what once was available to few is available to many. What was private has now become public. And the Internet has added a readily accessible Memory Well to enable cultural recall and dissemination. Items dropped down the Memory Well no longer vanish forever. We now can retrieve video, audio, text and photos at will.
The ability easily to retrieve many if not all of our artifacts will bring about an ontological shift in our culture. For example, in oral cultures a person’s word was his bond. Without written records to provide proof, people had to depend on the spoken word to bind agreements. Our political leaders must now cope with a new power the Memory Well has given to the spoken word. This has profound implications for politics, education, social policy and the mass media themselves, including broadcast news organizations and the press.
Jon Stewart, among many others, already makes great use of the Memory Well to call our leaders and celebrities to account. Juxtapositioning what they say now with what they said then generates laughter now, but will have more dire consequences in the future as the new Media Well-based standards take hold.