Kate Eichhorn on her book, The End of Forgetting

Interview by Shuting Li

https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674976696

Shuting Li: In this book, you follow image-making technology’s trajectory, from Kodak film camera, home videos, to smartphone. I find that your previous works (The Archival Turn in Feminism and Adjusted Margin) focus on archives, xerography, feminism, and activist movements. Are there any connections between your previous works and this project? What did inspire you to start this project?

Kate Eichhorn: My books always look back, in some way or another, to explore questions about new and emerging media technologies. This methodology is something I adopted many years ago–back when research on digital culture was still, somewhat falsely, described as Internet research. In the mid to late 1990s, it was challenging to research digital culture because one’s research subject was in constant flux. Even our understanding of what we were researching was shifting. It now seems ridiculous that at one point I was asking myself whether I should approach my research of Geocities communities as a textual researcher or ethnographer, but here, one must remember that in 1997, much of what was happening online was text-based and rather static. These spaces held some but not all of the obvious markers of an active and dynamic community.  

To find a way to investigate these emerging spaces, I started to look back to early periods of technological change, specifically to the early years of print culture. At one point, I abandoned my research on new media altogether and tried to reimagine myself as a serious book historian. Clearly, I didn’t end up pursuing that path, but in the process, I did develop a methodology that is very historically grounded. Some people describe my methodology as media archaeology, and while I appreciate media archaeology, I don’t think that is an accurate label for my work. I’m more influenced by media historians like Carolyn Marvin than I am by media archeologists, especially those associated with the German media studies tradition. This likely reflects the fact that I come to media studies through cultural studies, so I can’t easily sideline questions concerning social practices and power. 

Shuting Li: Your work demonstrates how entering a digital era shapes people’s forgetting of childhood and raises concerns and questions about the erosion of the line between childhood and adulthood. Can you elaborate your argument on forgetting and why does it matter in people’s memory of childhood? 

Kate Eichhorn: As I discuss in my last book, there has long been a false assumption that new media technologies threaten childhood. I’m thinking here about claims made by people like Neil Postman in The Disappearance of Childhood. Postman was writing about television culture, but the assumption that new media pose a threat to childhood is a very pervasive myth, one that has shaped practices and public policy for decades. Henry Jenkins makes this argument in much of his work on children, youth, and media.  

In The End of Forgetting, I suggest that we may be witnessing something remarkably different. It’s not that childhood is threatened by digital culture, but rather than it now plays on an endless loop. Worse yet, social networks formed in childhood—for example, on social media platforms—now follow one into their adult life. A very concrete way to understand this shift is to think about the experience of leaving home to attend college. In the late 1980s or early 1990s, one still had the option to make a clean break with the past. You left for college with a few phone numbers of close friends, but you didn’t carry with you online networks going back to your elementary school years. My students now arrive in college with their social networks, some dating back to elementary school, still in place. They carry these social networks with them on various social media accounts. I wanted to explore what was at stake in this shift? What does it mean never to have the opportunity to start anew–to leave the past behind? What are the implications for one’s social identity development?  Certainly, not everyone feels a burning desire to start anew, but some people do. In fact, some people’s social mobility or even survival depends on this possibility. 

Shuting Li: As social media blurs the line between childhood and adulthood, users are turned into data subjects and subsumed into communicative capitalism. Can you say more on these concepts? When claiming their controls of memory, what challenges will people encounter in the digital era? 

Kate Eichhorn: In The End of Forgetting, I make the argument that we can’t lose sight of the fact that young people finally have access to the media tools needed to record and broadcast images of their lives but that this isn’t necessarily because the world suddenly cares about what young people have to say. These tools are now available to children and youth because these demographics have the capacity to generate a lot of data, including the content needed to make social media sites profitable.

It’s difficult to imagine a platform like TikTok existing at all without the contributions of young people. From a capitalist perspective, this is rather brilliant—for decades, in developed economies at least, we had an entire segment of the population who weren’t producing anything at all. Social media platforms essentially found a way to exploit this untapped segment of the labor market, and to do so legally. In most developed nations, after all, there are rules about when and how many hours children can work. Social media platforms circumvent existing child labor laws. Now, all children and adolescents are legally able to be producers—that is, content producers—but they do this work for free. To be clear, I am not suggesting that we can or should compare a thirteen-year-old girl turning out content on TikTok to a child working in a factory during the industrial revolution. But I do think that the success—and by success, I mean profits—of many social media companies has rested on the capacity to turn a previously untapped segment of the labor market into producers.

Of course, long before children and teens start to produce content for a platform like TikTok, they are already generating data. Here, I would recommend another book, which I recently reviewed—Veronica Barassi’s Child Data Citizen. Barassi does a great job laying out how children, from birth, are turned into data. 

Kate Eichhorn: Certainly, everyone has been producing a lot of data since the beginning of the pandemic. But the pandemic has also shown the limits of digital sociality. At the start of the pandemic, there was a false assumption that the two demographics that would likely be fine were adolescents and people in their early twenties. The assumption seemed to be that since young people spend so much time online, their lives will just continue as usual. In fact, in terms of mental health, adolescents and young adults have suffered the most. Spending all their time online, both socially and at school, has been remarkably difficult for these demographics. Interestingly, the group that seems to be coping best in the world of Zoom, at least in terms of mental health, are older adults, including senior citizens. As someone who researches youth culture and social media, what I have found more interesting about the pandemic is the extent to which it has exposed the fact that for most youth, digital interactions are ultimately a supplement but not replacement for face-to-face sociality.

Shuting Li: My last question is broad and related to the current circumstance. Owing to the pandemic, people have become much more dependent on digital technology. The use of digital technology inevitably produces more data or memory that lie beyond people’s control. Would you like to share your reflections on this shift or any thoughts on people’s forgetting in the future?

Kate Eichhorn: Certainly, everyone has been producing a lot of data since the beginning of the pandemic. But the pandemic has also shown the limits of digital sociality. At the start of the pandemic, there was a false assumption that the two demographics that would likely be fine were adolescents and people in their early twenties. The assumption seemed to be that since young people spend so much time online, their lives will just continue as usual. In fact, in terms of mental health, adolescents and young adults have suffered the most. Spending all their time online, both socially and at school, has been remarkably difficult for these demographics. Interestingly, the group that seems to be coping best in the world of Zoom, at least in terms of mental health, are older adults, including senior citizens. As someone who researches youth culture and social media, what I have found more interesting about the pandemic is the extent to which it has exposed the fact that for most youth, digital interactions are ultimately a supplement but not replacement for face-to-face sociality.