Monday, July 27, 2009

Places of Memory, Memory of Place

I’ve been playing around a little bit with maps.

Like, I suspect, many a blogger or website owner, I have a near-obsessive relationship with readership tracking software, in my case Google Analytics, a devilish contraption that I’ve been using since this blog’s inception. Having absolutely no idea what to expect at the time, I vaguely assumed that for the first few weeks if not months I’d be tracking a number very close to zero, and was looking forward to that peace and quiet as an occasion for mucking around in search of my rhetorical groove. But of course the Internet has a way of putting you in touch with others, and Russell offering very early on to co-host on Public Address my Italian ramblings can’t have hurt either. So soon enough I found that I had what you could call a readership, however small, and with a readership came projected expectations. What are they like, what do they like, and can I afford not to care? How does one get more of these very addictive and delicious readers?

Yes, of course it’s an exercise in vanity, but you get that I’m self-publishing, right, so what’s your point? Besides, I do think one gains some insights from studying this information that has broader applicability and interest. For instance: not every reader is a good reader: or rather, not every reader makes you a good writer. To a good chunk of my visitors, like the person who recently came here looking for “what does floor joyce beam sit below”, I’m a mild irritant at best, somebody who has no business coming up at the top of a completely unrelated search. It matters more to me that I do well with the phrase “memory and technology”, being my topic and all, but number one on Google? That’s a little steep. Ditto the hits I get for musings on Caravaggio’s Saint Matthew cycle that hardly compare with the learned essays they sometimes displace in the relevant searches due to Google’s wonky algorithms and notorious bias for blogs.

It pays, in other words, not to get too excited about the baseline numbers, which are unlikely to reflect your actual readership, except in relative terms - meaning that a blog with ten times the page loads I get is likely to have ten times as many loyal, interested and engaged readers. For something approaching a credible estimate of the absolute figure I like to rely on the average weekly returning readers: I post once a week, so it works quite neatly, and I figure that if people come back, it’s probably not in order to sneer at my towels. But occasionally you get a big bump, a spike in the numbers, either because somebody linked to something you wrote that week, or it resonated enough to produce word of mouth by other means (it is a network after all). Such was the case with my last post, and it mattered to me in a way that went quite beyond the customary stroking of the ego, so I tried to peer into that process more than I would ordinarily do; and I played around with a new site tracker and its rather wonderful maps.

For those who weren’t here, I wrote about my father. The last time I had been so invested in a piece of writing, it was my PhD and I knew exactly how many people were reading it and who they were and where they lived and worked: keeping track of two people isn’t all that difficult. Now by contrast on its first day the blog post in question travelled to the countries coloured in on this map, as per Google Analytics:

The darker the shading, the greater the number of visits
Whereas towards the end of its front page tenure, and switching to my newly installed StatCounter, the post was beamed to the following locations:

Each pin represents a location, no matter how many visits it generated, so this map underrepresents New Zealand (which accounts for 30% or so of my visitors).
As well as broadening the range of available maps and their granularity, StatCounter correlates more visitor information, revealing stops in truly strange places.

I shit you not.
Now that the exercise is over, I'm not sure of what I learned from it, or even how I feel about it. My father travelled up and down Italy and visited a handful of European countries, but never had a chance to see the United States or India or Japan, nor for that matter New Zealand, much as he would have liked to: when Mum came to visit us, in late 2000, it was in fact in order to fulfil his wish rather than her own. Now I don’t mean to suggest that I took Dad to any of those places on the maps above - on the contrary, my point in writing the post was to emphasise that I could only fall short on that count - but neither do I think we should be too literal minded and maintain that those words about him and those pictures of him don't constitute any sort of presence whatsoever, if only of a memorial nature.

Think of your own travels in cyberspace, and the extent in which they rely on metaphor and tropes, yet result in interactions that are quite concrete. The Web has its own geography, and it sometimes matches the world's physical geography, sometimes it subverts it, and plenty of other things in between. In focussing as I have thus far on undermining the narrative according to which we are the sum of our digital traces, and on anchoring memory back to its various forms of embodiment, I have neglected to talk about the place of space: what Pierre Nora famously called les lieux de mémoire, the sites of memory, and how they interact with the virtual, are themselves virtual. It is a tremendously complex tangle that anybody who has visited a virtual museum, or operated a remote webcam, or made a phone call for that matter, is familiar with and yet liable to be stupefied by as soon as it manifests itself in a novel way. As stupefied as I was the first time I ran Google Earth and visited my memory places, finding them impossibly real and close, and at the same time heartbreakingly virtual and far; and then later again when the terrain became more sharply defined, and in came Street View, and you could almost hear the collective gasp: 'So we can do this now? Crikey.' And we all checked out our own houses.

There is in cyberspace a virtual planet pressing to become coextensive with ours, always increasing in resolution and trending towards Borges' map of the Empire on a scale of one to one; aspiring, finally, to superimpose itself onto the world and replace it altogether. Its politics are all about omniscience and control, and come to include such apparently idle and harmless pastimes as checking the readership of one's blog. Tell me if this isn't a chilling image:

You can hunt down your readers, according to this promotion for eXTReme Tracking. I think I saw the dude in the red top in Enemy of the State.
It doesn't matter that it cannot be done (I think at the most what they can tell about you is this), it's the fact that it should even be mooted in a piece of advertising, and represented so precisely as panopticism from above, 'eye in the sky' like, that I find revealing, not to mention personally a little troubling, insofar as over the last fortnight I played with plotting site visitors on a map of the world myself. So here's my pledge to you, dear reader: I shall never stalk you. But clearly I cannot claim to be completely immune from the lure of the ever-expanding map.

More rants will (predictably) follow, but for now I'll begrudgingly admit that what Google does, by means of satellites and monster vans with a thousand eyes, is an asset in itself and can be tremendously useful for all sorts of memory work. Those images will further appreciate in time, too: walking down the streets of a foreign city on Street View today might be a harmless act of ersatz tourism at best, or an exercise in alienation at worst, but think of what it would be like to be able to visit, say, today's Tokyo in fifty or one hundred years - assuming the infrastructure for doing so is still there. There is much to critique in the archival project, but something to be gained from it too.

If walls could scream, photo by wellurban
Image credit licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Of an entirely different quality, however, is the work that is being done already to apprehend, understand and reimagine our geographies, urban or otherwise, and that happens to be shared on the same networks. I feel privileged for instance to be able to see Wellington through wellurban's eyes: it often seems so much more interesting and richly layered than the city in which I live. Then from that image above I might choose to visit the Extinct flickr pool, and delight in that counter-narrative to Google's perfectly preserved world inhabited by blurry-faced automatons. But even that doesn't match the excitement of a new post by Owen Hatherley, and the sense of possibility - for critique, for political action, for solidarity, for reinvention - that it makes palpable.

I expect that most of you will be familiar with his fine work, but everybody else should make their way to Owen's blog, starting perhaps from this splendid essay on his native Southampton, or this more recent foray into the madness of security by design. You'll get a sense of the need to rethink public and shared spaces as a matter of pressing political necessity, and develop an ear for the language in which to make our case and couch our demands: I struggle in both of these regards to think of a contemporary writer of greater relevance. But on a more personal level, I wish I were able to write as well as he could about my home town - that is to say, more pointedly, my father's - and in that manner better understand its history and articulate what needs to be done. I'd love to know how to find the words for that.