Jan Assmann: Internet unsuitable as a means to store cultural memory

Cultural scientist and Blumenberg professor speaks at Cluster of Excellence about the effects of digitalization on the cultural memory of societies

Press release from 3 February 2021

Prof. Dr. Jan Assmann – Hans Blumenberg Visiting Professor
© Martin Kraft

According to cultural scientist Jan Assmann, the Internet fails to fulfil important functions in the cultural memory of societies. “First of all, it is not suitable as a means to store cultural memory because it is unreliable”, says the Blumenberg Visiting Professor at the University of Münster’s Cluster of Excellence “Religion and Politics”. “What you can find on the web today will not necessarily be there again tomorrow”. Moreover, the Internet cannot decide what is relevant or not. “It will not be decided on the web what tomorrow regards as a significant part of our past and what will live on in cultural memory”.

While the Internet may well increase the circulation of knowledge and the contents of memory, it also makes it easier to access a wide range of different stores of tradition, says Assmann. This applies, for example, to digital access to libraries and archives where knowledge exists in a canonized form. “But if you don’t already have such relevance structures in your head, the Internet doesn’t provide them, either – you won’t find what you need without these structures”. To the extent that the web increases circulation, so it dissolves the perspectives on meaning provided by the canon.

Assmann, who is the Hans Blumenberg Visiting Professor of the Cluster of Excellence in the winter term of 2020/21, spoke in a workshop about cultural memory in times of digital change, a concept developed with his wife Aleida Assmann. The starting-point is the idea that culture connects people through rules and values, and uses the memory of a shared past to form a bridge from yesterday to today, with images and writing making it possible to draw on what has been forgotten.

“New religious options with a digital congregation”

Assmann also spoke about the effects of digitalization on the history of religion. “The religion of faith as we know it today lives from corporeality. The celebrating, praying, listening congregation cannot be digitalized”, says Assmann. “The social form of the congregation is part of the signature of this faith. But there is some evidence of a new religion establishing itself with a digital congregation of users”. This will not replace the religion experienced offline, however, but will at best exist as a special feature in the market of cultural options – “just as the e-book exists alongside conventionally printed books without contesting their status”.

Assmann compared the emergence of the Internet with the invention of writing 3,000 years BC and of printing around 1500 AD. These are innovations of similar epochal importance in the history of media, he said. “Writing and printing have done an enormous amount to promote the dynamics of tradition and innovation, and this also applies to the dynamics of the religious: the invention of writing did not bring about monotheism, and printing did not bring about the Reformation – but neither is conceivable without these inventions”.

The programme of the Blumenberg Visiting Professorship also includes a master class with early-career researchers and advanced students at the Cluster on “Religion – Violence – Memory”. Named after the influential Münster philosopher Hans Blumenberg (1920-1996), the “Hans Blumenberg Visiting Professorship for Religion and Politics” is intended to bring innovative ideas to Münster and to strengthen the Cluster’s interdisciplinarity. The summer term of 2021 will see the arrival of the social scientist Marc Helbling from the University of Mannheim, whose research is on integration, xenophobia, and the dynamic role of religion in politics. (vvm/maz)