About Change and Digital Oblivion by Szilard Borbely

I am searching on the internet. I am searching for the word “change.” The most important change to shape the technology of research is the fact that now we always start with the internet. Myself included. The internet does not recognize change since all the details of a particular configuration preceding a change immediately disappear from websites. Thus, change as such is not what it used to be. In the sense that, before the internet, we still had the chance to observe a difference in the liminal space between the stages of before and after. Change consisted in the knowledge of this difference. That is what is vanishing now. The difference. That is, the perceptibility of a difference.

The design of a website changes because the layout is replaced. It is updated. The only trace of this occurrence on the website is displayed through a date. Last updated on, and then the year, month, day. The previous layout disappears without a trace. And soon everybody forgets about it. The act of updating is the metaphor of forgetting. Refreshing your memory, the memory of a network, means the deletion of a previous state. Digital oblivion. There is no old and new anymore. The Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, one of the great overtures of the modern age, is no more on the agenda. That is the most radical symptom in the development of our understanding of what change is. Because there is no change. Change has become imperceptible. Updating is the self-eliminating change of the meaning of change. But that is not change anymore. It is something else. It is updating. Which is just a metaphor.

In any case, change rarely leaves any trace. As a rule, it takes the form of metaphors, expressions, and words. In the past, technology was supervised by rhetoric. Today it is controlled by digitalization. That is why one of the most important kinds of knowledge is the knowledge concentrated in the humanities—due to its attention to change. Due to its wish to know the meaning of something before a change occurred. Due to its practice of observing and signaling the transformation of meanings. The study of change means a study of the control over the meaning of things and a study of the possession of power. As such, it is meant to safeguard the continuity of memory. However, safe-keeping and the preservation of values is not desirable anymore. The world is entering a new era. One in which we will not be able to trace back changes.

I am searching on the internet. I would like to learn about the cultural history of the encyclopedia. Or just simply about the history of the encyclopedia. I am not interested in one specific type, but encyclopedia in general. That is what I am searching for. Because the meaning of the word “encyclopedia” changes. The meanings of words constantly change. The paradox here is that without the help of the word “change” we cannot describe change. But what does the word “change” even mean? It denotes nothing, it just signifies. It points out that one thing is not what it was before. Yet it does not say anything about what it was or what it is. The words “change” or “to change” are empty signifiers and reveal nothing about themselves. Or about the things they address.

“Say yes to change!”; “We need to push for change, because change is good.” These sentences say nothing to us since they fail to communicate anything about the two different states of a thing, about the stages of before and after. They just record the fact that any given thing is not one, but two. At least. And that these two are not the same. However, we should not confuse the qualification of “not identical with a previous state” with that of “not similar with a previous state.”
“How you’ve changed!” we sometimes say to each other. Meaning: you are not who you were before. But, being polite, we never say how you actually changed. Whether in a good or a bad way. By saying it we simply indicate that we are in between two stages. That we have knowledge of an old and of a new state of affairs, but we are still on a journey from the former towards the latter—trying to understand.

However, the acknowledgement of change is nothing more than the recognition of a transformation: it tells nothing about how the change will occur, and what the result will be. Because there is no such thing as change. There is no such thing as time. Change only exists in speech. That is: language dominates the knowledge about change. Yet the word “language” signifies an abstract generality. There is no such thing as language. There are only people who speak to each other. People who declare that there is no such thing as change. Or that there is, indeed, such a thing as change. Because change is a linguistic category. We either believe it, or not. Language has the power to make us believe or not believe it. Language dominates change. This is why classical rhetoric managed to formalize our access to it through the four categories of change.

The word “change” remains imperceptible if change actually takes place. It becomes evident only if there is no change. Which is, of course, a contradiction. Since, in this case, only the word is being emphasized. There are only words, shapes, and figures. Repeated and re-shuffled. Classical rhetoric supervised it. With the onset of modernization, the discourses of power appropriated it. And now digitalization eliminates it. The new name of change is updating. It suggests that there is no change happening: things just moved through time. They overtook the past. The future stepped into the present. And became the past.

By Szilard Borbely 

Translated by Szabolcs László

 This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe on 22 September 2015.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory

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