“It may be that the digital revolution has had a more profound effect on biography and life writing than on any other branch of literature, perhaps any branch of the arts,” writes the scholar Paul Longley Arthur.
The developments of Web 2.0—think the internet of things (or IoT), user-generated content, social media, and time-stamped everything—were “extraordinarily liberating” for the discipline of life writing, the category that encompasses biography, autobiography, memoir, journals, and diaries, and draws on myriad source materials and ways of interpretation.
He writes that “born out of mistrust in the capacity of ‘literature’—in its crafted completeness—to represent lives, and growing up in the shadow of the respected and well-established literary genres of biography/autobiography, life writing found a natural affinity with the freer, more spontaneous modes of expression and communication that digital technologies made possible.” The internet, Arthur argues, gives us comprehensive and franker information about a subject, and enables the biographer to render the subject in a more comprehensive and frank way.
It may be that digital technologies free subjects to express themselves, and thus generate more source materials, but to scholars, Web 2.0 has also vastly complicated the production of biography and life writing.
Internet-induced complications to the discipline of biography can be placed into two categories. The first is practical: Can biographers actually access and then organize the abundance of data on a given subject? The second is philosophical: Once a biographer has collected and digested all this new digital information, can it be interpreted using the same rules applied to the materials of an analog era?
For the twenty-first century biographer, the records of a subject’s life are innumerable. A subject who dies today may leave behind a stack of letters and papers on their desk (likely junk mail), but also social media accounts, email inboxes, text messages, blogs, digital calendars, files stored in the famous “cloud,” computer hard drives, photos stamped with time and location, credit scores, transaction histories, location data, comment histories, internet browser histories, data about blood pressure and heart rate and menstrual cycles, exercise activity, genetic profiles, calls placed, music listened to, movies watched, metro cards swiped, dates ghosted, reservations made, and tasks completed.
“Traditional functions associated with the auto/biographical, including preserving and sharing material about a life for (self-)reflection, remain in place, but on a scale impossible to manage,” write scholars Laurie McNeill and John David Zuern. Data must be found and cleaned, organized and verified.
The quantity of information available is further complicated by a biographer’s ability to get to it. Sometimes, the barriers to accessing a subject’s personal records are confoundingly low and irksomely durable. If a biographer lacks the passcode to a subject’s phone or password to their email, their search may halt there. If she does happen to have the passcodes, there is the problem of security questions and two-factor authentication.
Even some who aren’t biographers, but are looking for biographical information, are stumped by technological gates. Famously, the FBI was unable to crack an iPhone that belonged to one of the shooters who killed fourteen people in San Bernardino, California, in 2015. Apple, the manufacturer of that phone, had not built a “back door” into its software, and has since taken further measures to safeguard user data by ratcheting up the sophistication of its encryption, in some cases making it inaccessible to Apple itself.
Like anything man-made, hardware and software can be broken into, but doing so requires money and skilled engineers. It took the FBI months, about a million dollars, and a third-party to get into that phone. Biographers aren’t known for their deep pockets or tech-world connections.
“As a result of password protection, computer upgrades, and software updates it will be common for personal digital data to be inaccessible even to ourselves—let alone any future biographers,” Arthur writes.
Additionally, digital records are no more permanent than their physical predecessors. As McNeill and Zuern note, links break or software becomes obsolete—and puts valuable information out of reach.
Obsolescence, says Craig Howes, the director of the Center for Biographical Research at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, is one of the most problematic barriers to access. Tech required to read old formats, like floppy disks, for example, isn’t readily available, and even if you can get your hands on it, that film may have deteriorated beyond the point of readability.
“It’s still working out that the single best medium for retaining information is paper because it’s worked for 3,000 years,” Howes tells JSTOR Daily.
Now add this: Just because it exists online, doesn’t mean it can be used. Howes notes that publishers are asking biographers to get rights authorization above what is required by law to avoid being sued. “Most contracts will indicate that the biographer is totally responsible and that the press accepts no responsibility whatsoever for permissions,” he says.
Even if information can be accessed and manage, the question, Arthur wonders, remains: “Where, in all this, is the self?”
Current scholars of life writing are debating the question of how to study the autobiographical data available via digital technology. In the early days of the internet, writes Madeleine Sorapure, digestion and interpretation of early online writing was not that different than it was in the past when all materials that describe a life were physical ones. “I could approach the study of online diaries with methods and assumptions quite similar to those that I brought to print diaries: I identified interesting online diaries and made observations about the genre based on a close reading of these artifacts, informed by autobiography theory developed from their print counterparts.”
But in Web 2.0, the same isn’t true. In addition to the digital diary (blogs) and digital correspondence (email/text messages), biographers must contend with all the new, editable, and ephemeral records and their templatized prompts. Sorapure writes: “With unstable fragments of autobiographical writing spread across different platforms, and shaped and constrained by an array of programs, templates, and interfaces, to what extent do the methods and concepts of traditional autobiography scholarship still apply?”
Arthur notes that where biographers once made “selections from finite stores of ‘evidence,’” they must now consider that “endlessly circulating data flows define subjects.” With the disappearance of the clear line between one’s offline life and their online one, and also one’s public and private life, biographers argue that it is more difficult to interpret digital evidence.
For one, there is the misconception that digitally recorded information is somehow more objective, and biographers must avoid the temptation to apply less scrutiny to digital records. “Measuring and quantifying aspects of their lives via data gives the impression of objectivity; data becomes ‘fact,’ which feeds into the presumption of truthfulness of autobiography,” Sorapure observes.
The reality is that people misrepresent themselves on the internet (a photo posted on Instagram and tagged London may have, in fact, been taken in Birmingham), and records that are kept about someone, not necessarily by someone, can be misleading (did the subject really listen to “Careless Whisper” on repeat for sixteen hours, or did they leave their computer on mute and forget to pause the song?).
Biographers must also consider that digital data does not only reflect a subject, it shapes the subject. Profile templates on social media tell users what information to share, users have little control over what happens to their information once it is shared, and personal “narratives” are not only non-linear, they may include other voices as well (a Twitter feed may include both original thoughts and retweets).
Further, the normalization of surveillance—in the form of records we keep about ourselves and the records being kept about us—affects the way we live. Constant feedback in the form of likes, comments, shares, page views, and bounce rates means lives are increasingly influenced by invisible outside sources. “As we traverse the web, we leave a digital trail—and through this trail, whether we like it or not, we weave our online identities—and have them fashioned for us,” Arthur writes. “In this era of the ‘digital aggregated self,’ identity is not revealed but rather continually accumulated and assembled from scattered bits and pieces via search tools that are governed by principles that are nonhuman.”
We’re not the sole catalogers of our lives, anyone else on the internet gets a say too. Our invisible audience is ever-present and standing by to provide instantaneous feedback.
What is lost in biographical writing in the digital age is the hope of constructing a singular image of a subject, Arthur argues. At least, we no longer can ascribe to the myth that lives take on a narrative form. He writes that “the self can never be fixed or finalized, and that it can be produced and reproduced from multiple reference points in endless permutations.”
The constant feedback loop produces “lower-intensity, finer-grained embellishments and omissions” that “raise old questions about truth-telling in autobiography in the context of a new configuration of cultural norms and technological means of self-representation.”
The critic Lewis Mumford wrote in 1934 about a new form of biographical writing that was emerging at the time. He didn’t call it life writing, but today it might be characterized that way. Instead of stacking up a list of chronological “facts,” biographers were increasingly interpreting and questioning a subject’s materials to render a picture of inner life, a person with both “surface and depth.”
He anticipated the problem of material overload. To the biographer writing about twentieth century subjects, no record was too small to be beside the point, and in fact, in Mumford’s harsh estimation, the biographer who is unaware or ignores a subject’s “unconscious” movements is “guilty of ignorance or childless cowardice.”
Mumford supported a writer’s intellectual involvement but warned of a potential mistake: the belief that a human is more distillable when more information is considered. To assume that what these records will reveal to us a person that makes rational sense will, as Mumford describes it, “throw the entire picture into the most twisted kind of confusion.” It seems Mumford saw much of this coming, insofar as the desire to depict a three-dimensional life often means we think we can.
He puts it this way: “Try as we will, we cannot grasp more than a fragment of the totality of our living.”