Yet in a different sense, it can be seen as yet another Facebook-facilitated and empty exercise in the manipulation of information, an exercise of a type that fascinates even Zipper Harris’s slacker room-mate in Doonesbury.24 it is empty because information alone is distinct from meaning, and, in a world increasingly dominated by information technology, a world where the internet, the search engine, the social network, and the blogosphere have facilitated the illusion (or the fascist fantasy) of instantaneous access to a comprehensive archive that we ourselves contrive both to construct and manipulate, “meaning is irrelevant.”25

And this, of course, defines the darker “other hand,” opposed to the sense of liberation outlined immediately above. Even if the technology of the archive does not devour itself tail-first like the worm Ouroboros so that we fall into an eternal cycle of necessary re-archivization running ever faster simply not to lose ground (and, given the rate of technological innovation in the post-modern world, this seems a distinct possibility) we may soon awake to find ourselves stranded in an endless wasteland of information bereft of meaning.

There is after all no guarantee that this fate will not befall a culture that so often seems intent on projecting itself into a future beyond memory and history. Nor, however, is there any necessity that it must be so. Even if the path to that meaning laid down in the archive of personal, communal, and cultural memory is as slender as a thread, we can still follow it out of the labyrinth. If only we are willing to “[take up our] pen with a trembling heart.”

Glenn Harcourt received a PhD in the History of Art from the University of California, Berkeley. He currently lives and works in Los Angeles.

Footnotes

  1. See the Sunday strip for October 2, 2011. http://www.gocomics.com/doonesbury/2011/10/02. See also the strip for Sunday October 16, 2011, http://www.gocomics.com/doonesbury/2011/10/16, which introduces the website www.daisyd.com, “the digital afterlife of [Michael’s mom] Daisy Doonesbury,” a URL which (as of October 18, 2011) unfortunately (and oops!) links to a website apparently unrelated to the afterlife of Mike’s dearly departed mom.
  2. The idea of an essential disconnect between information (so often associated with power) and meaning was first developed by Claude Shannon, one of the founders of the study of information theory. For a discussion of this observation in relation to our present topic, see Freeman Dyson’s review of James Gleick’s The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, in the New York Review of Books, March 10, 2011; http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/ mar/10/how-we-know/.
Further Reading