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from the March 2021 issue

A French Writer Goes In Search of Lost Time, with a Little Help From Google

Reviewed by Kate Prengel

"In the internet there is a fountain of youth into which at first you drunkenly plunge your face, and then in the dawn light you see your reflection, battered by the years," writes Maël Renouard. In "Fragments of an Infinite Memory", he takes a step back to meditate on the effects of online browsing upon our lives.

Maël Renouard begins Fragments of an Infinite Memory: My Life with the Internet with a memory about memory itself:

One day, as I was daydreaming on the boulevard Beaumarchais, I had the idea—it came and went in a flash, almost in spite of myself—of Googling to find out what I’d been up to and where I’d been two evenings before, at five o’clock, since I couldn’t remember on my own.

What follows is essentially an in-depth exploration of that flash of an idea. What does the internet know, and what is it ignorant of? How far can it go to extend our ability to remember, and what are the repercussions of that extension?

Fragments of an Infinite Memory, translated beautifully from the French by Peter Behrman de Sinéty, is a meditation on the many ways that the internet has changed how we register, remember, and forget the past. For many of us, Google has turned into a kind of gigantic surrogate memory, a backup system for our brains; even as facts slip through our fingers, they are ever-present and easy to access online. This has made for a curiously lopsided relationship between public and private memory. Our personal histories can fall into oblivion, while public knowledge remains accessible forever.

Renouard is concerned with what happens as we all adapt to the omnipresent internet. What are the side effects of outsourcing our memory? How does it impact our personal lives, our relationships, our other thought processes? Can we still tell each other stories? Can we still appreciate art and music? What happens to the parts of our lives that are not documented online?

Many books have been written about the ills of the internet, but this is emphatically not one of them. This is not a how-to manual or a guide to overcoming internet addiction, nor is it a nostalgic paean to the analog days before the information superhighway. No, Renouard’s book is something that we don’t see enough of—a clear-eyed and not particularly sentimental look at the role played by the internet in our intellectual lives.

The book is structured in a way which seems suited to our impatient, internet age: it consists of short notes, some just a few paragraphs long, and all of them self-contained enough as to allow readers to go through the book in any order they like. Most are written by Renouard himself; others cite people he knows, who are referred to only by their first initials. The format seems to cater to our short attention spans, but Renouard’s prose is not designed for careless reading. It is densely packed material, in the tradition of fragmentary and epigrammatic works of cultural criticism such as the aphorisms of Friedrich Nietzsche, the epigrams of Oscar Wilde, or even the diary entries of Samuel Pepys.

Renouard does deal, of course, with the losses that we have all experienced because of the internet. We are ever more distractable; we spend hours chasing scraps of unnecessary information and updating our Facebook status. We’ve all become far less sociable as it’s become easier to spend more time alone burrowing into our own private worlds. Renouard doesn’t shy away from the damage that the internet has done to us all. He describes, in painful and familiar detail, the way a friend of his loses all his productive energy when he becomes obsessed with racking up Facebook “likes.” He also describes the way he wastes his own time hunting down irrelevant pieces of information online, in an obsessive chase after meaning which never materializes, and which he compares to opium use:

In the past, I only used to be able to concentrate at home, in silence and solitude. That’s exactly what I have to get away from now if I want to have any hope of putting the hours of a day to good use; otherwise, I look up everything that crosses my mind on the internet; the brief distractions that normally punctuate a sustained effort take on outsize proportions; time slips through my fingers, and I watch myself waste the hours as I take long puffs of this opium.

 

These aspects of the internet’s destructiveness will feel embarrassingly familiar to anyone who has spent much time online. Most of what the internet does, Renouard points out, is to separate our minds and emotions from our physical selves. When we lose ourselves in an internet search, we are plunging into a mental or spiritual experience and effectively leaving our physical selves behind. To a certain extent, this was always possible in the past too. Before the internet existed, we could plunge ourselves into books, after all. What’s changed now, Renouard argues, is that there is an easily accessible collective intellect which we can plug ourselves into. Not only are we separating ourselves from our physical lives, we are submerging ourselves in this collective mind. As Renouard puts it, “The body barrier will be broken.”

This desire for a purely spiritual life with no physical constraints dates back thousands of years, Renouard reasons:

Survival is not the only thing at stake in a victory of mind. The prize is also the ecstasy that would spring from dwelling in the realm of essences. Plato entrusted this hope to what would later be termed metaphysics. Romanticism left it to art.

And now, of course, we have Wikipedia.

Fragments of an Infinite Memory continually flattens out the difference between “high” and “low” culture, so that metaphysics and web pages can be discussed on the same terms. Renouard peppers his book with references to Hegel, Bergson, Teilhard de Chardin, and other philosophers. But he also talks about Google Earth, Facebook, and Wikipedia.

YouTube comes in for a particularly warm mention. Renouard describes the experience of staying up all night looking for songs from his early youth. And as he plays his favorite songs, he also reads through the nostalgic comments left by people from around the world, who have all been involved, at various times, in a similarly Proustian search for their past. “Melancholy is the future of emotion,” Renouard observes, noting how much we all seem to relish that blend of losing and rediscovering bits of our past. At the same time, the YouTube experience has the same non-bodily quality as every other online experience and, as such, carries with it a whiff of danger:

In the internet there is a fountain of youth into which at first you drunkenly plunge your face, and then in the dawn light you see your reflection, battered by the years.

Renouard excels at pointing out the emotional underbelly of intellectual work and mapping out the surges of feeling that accompany each stage of developing an idea. In fact, much of the book’s weight comes from its combination of philosophy and felt experience. Reading Fragments of an Infinite Memory is reminiscent of reading the most accessible works of Roland Barthes or Jean Baudrillard. Like those authors, Renouard finds value and meaning in the most ordinary human activities. And, like them, he is relentlessly cerebral, subjecting everything to the same rigorous analysis.

Some readers may wonder about everything that’s been left out of Fragments of an Infinite Memory. For a book about the internet, there is very little in here about social media, for example. The references to Facebook are all about the solitary use of that platform—the experience of posting status updates and waiting for “likes.” There’s nothing about online conversations, social groups, or social media pressures; there is absolutely nothing about the politics of fact-checking online. For an author who laments that we’ve all become less sociable, Renouard seems strangely unaware of the potential for online socializing. His experience of the internet is almost completely solitary, like a library patron in a multimedia reading room. He is aware of the other patrons, but he does not directly interact with them.

This itself may be a token of how quickly technology is moving forward. Renouard’s book was originally published in 2016—social media was already omnipresent at the time, but it is even more so today. Those of us who read this book during the COVID-19 outbreak will probably also be struck by how much life has changed since the onset of the pandemic. Renouard was able to spend his days sitting in cafés with his friends or going to the movie theater. His social life takes place almost entirely in person, something which, for many of us, seems like a throwback to an impossibly remote time. It’s hard to remember a time when we could power down the laptop and head out for the evening, instead of opening up Zoom to meet up with our friends.

Renouard concludes his book by noting that he grew up before the advent of the internet and that, therefore, he likely has a different experience of the online world. Those who were born later may well have a different relationship to the internet. Instead of divorcing their private, physical lives from the collective knowledge online, young people will experience a more seamless reality:

Perhaps those who grow up with the internet will leave enough traces of themselves to find their way through their own memories without fail. Their personal cartography will have lost its unknown territories. They will no longer bury their secrets in nothingness; they will bury them in the infinite.

Reading Fragments of an Infinite Memory, I took comfort from the idea that no matter how far the internet’s tentacles may reach, we are still capable of taking a step back and examining it as one more stage in human development. Renouard’s writing, tied as it is to an older philosophical tradition, seems to promise that the online world has not engulfed us completely—that, if anything, we can use our experience of the internet to add to our larger understanding of the nature of human memory and desire.

It will be interesting to see how people who have grown up in the age of the internet will respond to Renouard’s approach. Will readers a decade from now still want to take a step back from the internet? Or will they be so thoroughly enmeshed in the online world that stepping back from it would be an absurd exercise, like abandoning gravity? Only time will tell.

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