Undoings

Once heard, things can’t be unheard.

Once seen, things can’t be unseen.

Once written, things can be unwritten, edited, deleted. The same goes for audio and video recordings. History can be rewritten since it’s nothing more than our attempt to play back recorded past. The past is plastic, the present a flowing river. You can remould what’s been moulded but you can’t stay a rushing rapid.

The birth of history is the birth of recording technology, from epigraphy to the flash drive. What gets recorded can become unrecorded.

Recording technology creates practices of unrecording. Who controls the past controls the future, Orwell wrote. Who controls the recording technology has power over unrecording as well.

Roman emperors instituted damnationes memoriae, banning the remembrance of past emperors in an effort to write them out of history. State bureaucracies of 20th-century dictatorships perfected these practices.

The historical record, even when engraved in stone, is not set in stone. History, the science of releasing the lowest-compression rate for the playback of the past, is an evolving thing. The record may be cut in the most accurate manner, but we need equally accurate technology for listening to it. We may not be able to unhear what we’ve heard, but we can make sure to hear it better and better again.

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