An addicted insider’s account of our real lives in the era of the realtime, social web.

Confession #48: We All Have Photographic Memories

John McEnroe wants to remember having the experience, not watching it.

McEnroe has never watched the video of his dramatic 1980 Wimbledon final against Bjorn Borg. I’ve heard him explain that he wants to maintain his personal recollection of the match. He doesn’t want to take the chance that his memory of the experience will be altered or even replaced by a new memory of the video version of the event.

Avoiding a digitized version of a very public experience from 1980 is hard enough. Avoiding often immediately available digitized versions of our modern experiences is nearly impossible. This is especially true for kids whose entire childhoods seem to be digitally documented. Digital photography provides so many images — and the access to those images is so immediate — that our actual memories or perceptions of a moment can be replaced by a digital memory in near realtime.

We’ve ceded many of our remembering duties (birthdays, schedules, phone numbers, directions) to a hard drive in the cloud. And to a large extent, we’ve now handed over our memories of experiences to digital cameras.

For his third birthday, my son had a surf-themed party at a way too cold beach in San Francisco. I’m sure he had created a self-image of how he looked in his rash-guard and shades as he balanced on a freshly waxed, beach-bound longboard. Like most parents, I felt compelled to go paparazzi on my son and his friends from the second we unloaded the car. And because he is a child of the digital age, my son followed nearly every snap of the camera with the same request: “Can I see the picture?”

The instant my son looked at the image, his imagination-driven perception of himself was replaced by a digital reproduction of the moment he had just experienced.

During a presentation on happiness at the Ted Conference, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman makes a distinction between the experiencing self and the remembering self. Digital photography gives additional dominance to the remembering self. At his birthday party on the beach, my son almost leapfrogged over his realtime experience. He was no longer imagining what he looked like on that surf board. He was looking at what he looked like. The wave of emotions, senses and reactions that made up his initial experience were swept away by the undertow of a single sense: what his eyes saw on a two inch viewfinder.

The digital age gives a new (and almost opposite) meaning to having a photographic memory. The experience of the moment has become the experience of the photo.

And it’s not only the subjects of the photos who are affected. In the age of the realtime, social web, the person taking the photos is often distracted by the urgent desire to share near realtime photos of an experience. Is it worth reducing an entire real life experience to what can be seen through a tiny screen? I recently attended a concert where I was the only one in my section who had no device between my eyes and the performance — and that was only because I forgot my iPhone.

Snapping and sharing photos from meaningful events is nothing new. But the frequency with which we take pictures and the immediacy with which we view them will clearly have a deep impact on the way we remember. And with cameras being inserted into more devices, our collective shutterspeed will only increase.

Maybe all of this is a long-winded apology to my son for not getting a decent photo of him on his third birthday. For his fourth birthday party, he’s asked us to dress him and all his friends in superhero costumes. At least the photos will come a little closer to his self-image this year.


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My name is Dave Pell, internet superhero. This blog provides an addicted insider's account of what's happening to us in the era of the realtime, social web. You can read more about the site, grab the rss feed, follow me on twitter, join the Facebook page, or get email updates.