At least one of these things has probably happened to you: Your typed masterpiece or work report is spell-checked and proofread—and the computer's hard drive self-destructs. Your laptop is stolen, your digital camera mysteriously loses photos, or you accidentally drop your cell phone in the toilet. Every time our electronic communication devices fail us, we're inclined to lift this question (along with a few other choice words) to the heavens: Why didn't I save that information somewhere else?
It's a reminder of how ephemeral our digital storehouses can be, and how much we rely on them. They are our electronic memories. In the United States the trend to record our lives and communicate electronically has resulted in 159 million cell phones and 70 million households with personal computers. People share their experiences through nearly 200 million blogs and journal entries on MySpace and Facebook.
In many ways, these new technologies have had an expanding effect. More of us can consume, receive, and record more information—and share it with more people—than ever before. But as new technologies increasingly govern our interactions, preserve our individual narratives, and shape our cultural history, they also expose the fragility of our collective memory—what historian Thomas Johnson describes as our living, and shared, image of the past.
For example, a March New York Times/CBS News poll found that 48 percent of 18- to 29-year-old Americans approved of the United States' military action in Iraq, as opposed to 28 percent of Americans 65 years and older. Not only do these findings challenge the conventional wisdom that the younger generation is more likely to oppose the war than the older, they expose the disconnection between the two age groups—the latter of which has experienced the devastation of war several times over. This gap suggests a failure to transmit the truth bound up in a shared memory of war and to pass it on to the next generation.
Sociologist Benedict Anderson writes in Imagined Communities that in the New World, the concept of a national identity wasn't formalized until the development of the press. When newspapers—and, to a lesser extent, novels—came along, readers were able to glean a distinct notion of shared identity, an idea of who we were as a nation, albeit a selective one. Even the way we read and interpret the Bible shifted when the printing press made it possible and economically feasible for households to purchase their own copies.
The expansion of the printed press marked a significant cultural shift, and we're experiencing another one today with the emergence of new media and electronic communication. Both revolutions have helped expand literacy and opportunities for the poor and underserved, but we also can trace the division of privilege, class, and race along the digital divide. Consider our human tendency to distort memory, exclude or marginalize the voices and experiences of others, or justify the unsavory aspects of our heritage. The promise of the digital revolution is that these selective tendencies can be overcome; the peril is that they will be perpetuated.
PERHAPS IN RESPONSE to these dangers (and because communicating digitally is less emotionally satisfying), the more ancient practice of sharing stories and experiences orally is making a comeback. One example is StoryCorps, a four-year-old project that helps participants record their own and others' stories in sound booths throughout the country. Another is the New York-based organization The Moth, a group of amateur and professional storytellers who started gathering 10 years ago and who now hold shows at cities across the country. There are many local versions of these organizations, such as Washington, D.C.'s storytelling group, Speakeasy DC.
We began as a human race by telling stories, after all; indeed, most of the Christian message came to us orally. Our liturgies and songs help remind us who we are and where we came from. For some communities, holding on to an oral tradition was a means of surviving, as the work and writings of Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston demonstrate. To lose that taproot, argues critic Mary Ann Wilson, was to lose access to the soul. Echoes of this value system permeate the African-American church today. In my own years as an observer and then member of a historic African-American Baptist church in Boston, the minister's role behind the pulpit was not merely to expound scripture—it was to teach and remind the congregation of its history.
So, too, do we find God repeatedly calling the nation of Israel to remember its own story: "But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this" (Deuteronomy 24:18). The themes of that redemption story are told elsewhere throughout the biblical literature and come to life most vividly when heard, not read. Hearing the biblical literature as it was originally intended, says biblical scholar Paul Borgman, reveals a series of unified narratives that tell the whole story of redemption in a thematic and complex way.
Even the story of the nation of Israel throughout the Hebrew Testament records the people's overly triumphal moments. What can be said for those of us whose social privilege and power were inherited at a cost to others? How do we sharpen collective memory through reviving this oral tradition, painful as it may be? The recent legislative actions by the states of Virginia and Maryland to formally apologize for their role in the slave trade are a hopeful sign.
The most important thing we can do to exercise the muscles of our oral tradition is to react critically—not passively—to the narratives we've inherited and pass them on, responsibly, to those we influence. After all, when we teach our children or Sunday school classes about our faith traditions, we don't drop 10 pounds of Karl Barth's multivolume Dogmatics on their laps and say "read this." We tell them stories. It is important as individuals and communities of faith to cultivate and nourish the story of redemption as part of our collective memory. It's a spiritual discipline.
It is part of human nature to try to make sense of our past; in doing so, we too often make the past reasonable and fair. And it's fruitless, as with the Luddites, to demonize technology for all our social ills. But the fact that so many of our stories are held in the artifice of digital memory is merely symptomatic of our neglect of the bigger picture, the larger story of redemption, those troubling moments in our social history that are easy for the privileged among us to forget. Finding that taproot in oral tradition is one way to reclaim the radical story of redemption, a story that makes room for all of creation.
Jesse Holcomb, a former Sojourners intern and PIRG staff writer, is currently doing graduate work at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.