Issue 11. August 2017

design & permanence

In this day of seemingly unlimited storage, we are cultivating our assumption of permanence every time we hit Save. Our pictures, our documents, our thoughts, our memories, and our lives, all being captured, redundant and secure.

Even though we can’t see it, even with no idea how we might retrieve this data, we take a certain comfort in knowing that it is somewhere, unchanging as a stone, waiting for us. Or, perhaps, waiting for others to discover long after we have gone. Some mark on the world as a reminder that we were here.

A renewed faith in the eternal for the information age.

However, even in faith, we are responsible for the outcome and so should reflect on what we are trying to achieve. Are our prayers for permanence self-serving blasphemies of a corrupt people or the righteous pleas for the strength to build a greater world for those to come? What if our faith is entirely misguided?


Anything that we cannot perceive as changeable, we call permanent. But this is a linguistic and epistemological error. The inability to perceive something has led us to declare its absence.

Johan Nystrom-Persson, Permanence and Technology, Monomorphic, 2010

I don’t know why we long so for permanence, why the fleeting nature of things so disturbs. With futility, we cling to the old wallet long after it has fallen apart. We visit and revisit the old neighborhood where we grew up, searching for the remembered grove of trees and the little fence. We clutch our old photographs. In our churches and synagogues and mosques, we pray to the everlasting and eternal. Yet, in every nook and cranny, nature screams at the top of her lungs that nothing lasts, that it is all passing away. All that we see around us, including our own bodies, is shifting and evaporating and one day will be gone.

Alan Lightman, The Temporary Universe, , 2014

Scientists are finding parallels between why babies forget misfortune and why crash victims can't remember the accident. A third study is uncovering the mechanism that prevents many teenagers from forgetting – causing adolescent anxiety, depression and addiction – and its similarities to post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).

Andrew Masterson, The Science of Forgetting, The Sydney Morning Herald, 2017

system goals

We spread our genes, write books and essays, prove theorems, invent family recipes, compose poems and symphonies, paint and sculpt, anything to create some sort of permanence, something to defy oblivion.

Marcelo Gleiser, Mastering Death, The Edge, 2009

When you think about the quantity of documentation from our daily lives that is captured in digital form, like our interactions by email, people’s tweets, and all of the world wide web, it’s clear that we stand to lose an awful lot of our history. We don’t want our digital lives to fade away. If we want to preserve them, we need to make sure that the digital objects we create today can still be rendered far into the future.

Google’s Vint Cerf warns of 'forgotten century', The Guardian, 2015

‘I think, for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience. Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change. Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball. But I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.

Jonathan Franzen, E-books are Damaging Society, The Telegraph, 2012

Innovation is often meant to improve upon what came before. But sometimes the aim of progress is to help us appreciate what we already have, or pine for what we lost... People who have for the past fifteen years acclimated to the ephemeral and limitless nature of digital goods are reacquiring a taste for things that feel enduring, authentic, and worth keeping. In effect, we are harnessing today's technology to instill a sense of permanence in our lives.

John Gerzema, Innovation for the Sake of Permanence, 2013

We need the results of scientific work, once published, to stay as they were published.

Craig Jones, The Need For Permanence, , 2015

systemic failure

But just as nothing can be permanently retained, nothing is ever really gone. Somewhere out there, perhaps in the Cloud or in some clandestine server, is the optical afterimage of our interaction: the faces, the shoes, the texts. In these all-seeing days, the traffic between memory and forgetting becomes untrackable. Photography is at the nerve center of our paradoxical memorial impulses: we need it there for how it helps us frame our losses, but we can also sense it crowding in on ongoing experience, imposing closure on what should still be open.

Teju Cole, Memories of Things Unseen, 2016

We’ve known for years that the Web allows for unprecedented voyeurism, exhibitionism and inadvertent indiscretion, but we are only beginning to understand the costs of an age in which so much of what we say, and of what others say about us, goes into our permanent — and public — digital files. The fact that the Internet never seems to forget is threatening, at an almost existential level, our ability to control our identities; to preserve the option of reinventing ourselves and starting anew; to overcome our checkered pasts.

Jeffrey Rosen, The Web Means the End of Forgetting, New York Times Magazine, 2010

Our behaviors change, as do the things we like, yet every aspect of a person that is shared through these services goes toward creating what is intended to be a durable record, one that is catalogued and indexed for later viewing on Facebook or Google or Twitter. And permanence, by its nature, offers a pretense of truth. This Spotify stream and those Facebook photos and the links they shared are who that person really is, right? Or at least close enough?

Matt Buchanan, Delete This When You’re Done, The New Yorker, 2013

Fear begins and ends with the desire to be secure; inward and outward security, with the desire to be certain, to have permanency. The continuity of permanence is sought in every direction, in virtue, in relationship, in action, in experience, in knowledge, in outward and inward things. To find and be secure is the everlasting cry. It is this insistent demand that breeds fear.

Jiddu Krishnamurti, Notebook (85) 14th, , 1962


Even if a memory seems to be gone, it is still there. It’s a matter of how to retrieve it.

Susumu Tonegawa, “Lost” Memories Can be Found, MIT News, 2016

The wounded self may be the part of us incapable of forgetting, and perhaps, not actually meant to forget, as if, like the foundational dynamics of the physiological immune system our psychological defenses must remember and organize against any future attacks… It is that wounded, branded, un-forgetting part of us that eventually makes forgiveness an act of compassion rather than one of simple forgetting.

David Whyte, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, 2015

The Library of Congress recently announced that it will be acquiring — and permanently storing — the entire archive of public Twitter posts since 2006.

Jeffrey Rosen, The Web Means the End of Forgetting, , 2010