Thursday, September 25, 2014

Ephemeral Permanence: The Horrifyingly Beautiful Constraint of Digital Media

I have often wondered what my last words will be. I know that, someday, I will die. I know that, even if I live to be over 100 years old, I will only have lived for a fraction of a percent of human history. Thus, I want to leave my mark on whatever history humanity has left to write. I would prefer that, when I die, I say something particularly eloquent and memorable (nothing at all like Civil War General John Sedgwick’s last words: “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist-”). I am perfectly aware that that a wish to leave a mark on the world, particularly through words, is shared by most if not all of the human race. We stand, staring into the face of the future, and wonder about how long our words will last. The answer is, of course, that they will not last long at all.
            One may think that, in the new world of digital media, written words and other forms of rhetoric will last forever. This is not necessarily true. It is true that our words on Twitter, our videos on YouTube, and our photos on Facebook are saved electronically, but this does not necessarily mean that they will be remembered. Even words written in stone do not go unforgotten. This turns the mind to a poem called Ozymandias, written by Horace Smith in the early 1800’s. It is as follows:

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things.
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My Name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
That lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Clearly Ozymandias did not live forever, and his empire did not last. Even though his words were set in stone, they are nearly dust. There are no works to look upon and despair about. Even a man who was once feared and admired for his power and wealth cannot make his words last for eternity. Lives end, empires crumble, and words turn to dust. All one has to do is wait for a certain amount of time. Certainly, different media have different “life spans,” so to speak. This begs an answer to the question “How long does digital media last before it ‘dies’?” Certainly Facebook Posts, YouTube videos, and tweets are “saved,” but this does not guarantee their eternity in our memories. Such a nature offers a constraint which limits and provides opportunities for the rhetor’s persuasive choices. This is both a blessing and a curse. Digital media offers millions of people a chance to create content and communicate. That amount of interconnectivity between different people is impressive and, frankly, beautiful. However, this means that an extremely large volume of material is created. This hinders the amount of genuinely enjoyable content that will be viewed or remembered. Content is often buried under boundless amounts of other material. This makes tweets, for example, extremely ephemeral in nature. That is not to say that a tweet will eventually cease to exist. Tweets can be saved permanently, assuming the electronic means to do so are available. It is to say that tweets do not last very long before they are forgotten: before they “die.”
Out of curiosity about exactly how ephemeral their nature is, I found this article by Randall Munroe, a former NASA roboticist with an interest in hypothetical thought experiments. He calculates that a Twitter timeline that followed every user would stretch for eight million kilometers. That is approximately 345 billion tweets, and the number has grown since his calculations. Using an approach to statistical analysis known as the “German tank problem,” he approximated that Twitter will reach the end of its lifetime by 690 billion tweets. This would theoretically occur in about five years. Twitter’s short expected lifespan makes it very difficult to argue that such digital media will last very long. Even if content lasts long, it will be lost in a mass of tweets, videos, and photos. The media certainly shapes the message. In fact, digital media shapes billions of messages. It makes their lives in our memories incredibly short. Authors and creators of content on the web enter the process of constructing material knowing that whatever they make will not last long and may be lost in an unnavigable sea of digital matter.
One can easily see this constraint: that digital media itself not only makes it easy for written words to be forgotten, but forces written words to be forgotten. This makes leaving a meaningful legacy or mark on the world through digital media effectively impossible. There will always be new content being generated, burying the old. The sands will fill in over our digital monuments, and over time, they will be lost.


Palczewsky, Catherine Helen., Richard Ice, and John Fritch. Rhetoric in Civic Life. State College, PA: Strata Pub., 2012. Print.

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