Why do I like technology? Well, I don’t, actually. I think back wistfully do the days before computers and my love affair with the typewriter and my newspaper cuttings library (which I still have, weirdly.) But technology isn’t going away, so rejecting it is a bit like rejecting clothing. But if I was being honest, I would say: technology allows us to think hard about the future, to see it more clearly, and to be able to argue with people who are much smarter than us.
Take a column I have just been reading by a guy called Nicholas Carr. He’s a very smart fellow, written a skeptical book about IT called Does IT Matter? and generally says things that are smart. But like a lot of people, he doesn’t always seem to get things. One thing he doesn’t like is the idea that as technology gets more ubiquitous, so does recording our lives get easier. This, he says, in a recent editorial piece in The Guardian, would make Socrates (who said that “the unexamined life is not worth living”) turn over in his grave: “We’re so busy recording our lives that we have little time left to examine them.”
This is the kind of thing that technology users have learned to live with: the nonsense that everyone who uses technology is obsessed by it, and watches as their lives roll by. But like all balderdash it has some truth to it. As parents we seem more determined to plot our child’s progress through the filter of an viewfinder or LCD monitor than to actually absorb the moment through our eyeballs (babies one day are going to start thinking a human face has one big eye on it, one vast rectangular ear and a blinking red light for a nose.) And as I’ve mentioned before, we cubicle wallahs may be forgiven for mistaking virtual lives via our Twitter and instant messaging lists for real ones.
But Nicholas is not really talking about that. He’s talking about things called lifestreams – where we nerds create a digital feed of all the things we’re doing, reading or taking photos of and share it with anyone who’s interested. One or two folk take this a stage further, and walk around with cameras on their head. Or they record on their Twitter page what they’re eating, or write blogs that redefine the notion of boring your audience to tears. (I have read blogs that have had me literally weeping with boredom.)
Now I can understand that non-techies may feel this is a vast waste of time, and can’t think of anyone whose lives they’d want to follow in such excruciating detail. But just because we, and Nicholas Carr, can’t imagine anyone wanting to see or hear or read this deluge of life-data doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. As with all technologies, we’ll both adapt it to our needs, and adapt to it.
Posterity is a funny thing: We don’t know what it is our future selves and descendants are going to be interested in. A BBC website requesting photos and recollections of the 1970s, for example, found that most British people fondly remembered the strike-induced blackouts. (This is true: I remember looking forward to them because we all slowed down for 10 seconds and Dad told us a story around the fire.) But don’t expect to see any family snaps of that particular aspect of life back then. Unsurprisingly, not many people thought, as they shopped in the flickering gloom of candlelight, “Oo! I should record this for posterity! We’ll look back on these grim days in 30 years’ time with fondness!”
Then take a look at Flickr, or any online photo sharing site and see what people record and share these days. Now, technology allows us not only to see ourselves immediately — no more waiting for the film to come back from the developer, no more tiny digital display that doesn’t let us see much of what we’ve just shot — but also, via 3G and GPS, to share it immediately with anyone else on the planet. Technology, in other words, lets us hold a mirror up to our existence, which we can observe in real time. Socrates wouldn’t be alarmed, he’d be dancing around considering the possibilities.
True, we may not use this mirror as well as we could. A lot of what people record is banal, but who knows what people are going to find interesting about us 30, 50, 300 years down the track? Who knows what we’re going to find interesting about us 10 years down the track? (I’m guessing the lurch in male fashion from long pants to those over-the-knee numbers.) The point is that we’re not just recording our lives because technology allows us to. We’re recording them because we want to. Nicholas Carr thinks this is narcissism. For some it probably is. For others the technology becomes a fence from which to hide behind and not participate. For the rest of us it offers chance to capture and reflect on a life that goes by way too quickly.
From a cultural perspective, I can see why it would be interesting to go back and look at how things were in the past. Although, I think people often misinterpret what is going on unless they have a guide from the times available to supply commentary along with what’s in the photo or what’s on screen. That’s one of the issues in the ethics of photography, after all: when you take a picture of someone or something, you are taking away that person’s ability to explain what is going on in the picture and are leaving it open to someone else’s interpretation. You’re misrepresenting the object of your attention just by capturing an non-contextual image of it.
But, from a personal perspective, I don’t understand the value of being able to look back at how things were in the past. Why do I care what I looked like or what I did when I was younger? What possible function does it serve? Since people usually only take pictures of the good times, it skews your perspective about how things really were at the time. People do that anyway, but recorded memories amplify it.
Generation Y was one of the first to become nostalgic about the past before they reached the age of 30. They were also the first generation to be immersed in technology from day one. Is there a connection?
Great Post Jeremy, I provided my spin on your post at the Lifestream Blog Hope you enjoy it.
“I don’t understand the value of being able to look back at how things were in the past.”
Mattbg Are you serious? I am a techie with a wife and kids. I have every digital picture and home video on my server and can stream the info to watch on my family room tv as well as access over the internet. This is just the modern day version of pulling a handful of static pictures from our wallets to show people. But I enjoy going back and watching my childrens progression over the years.
Regardless of my personal reasons,I’m sure many others can offer why they like to wax nostalgic and I guarantee you it goes beyond the Gen Y crowd.
I suppose, if you enjoy it, it has value to you. But, I still don’t understand why. If a memory is worth remembering, you will remember it. If you need to force yourself to remember it, maybe you’re trying too hard to convince yourself of something.
Anyway, stored memories are roughly equivalent to the idea of keeping a pet. It can’t complain. It can’t talk back and tell you what a mess you’ve made of its life. It can’t tell you the truth. It can only sit there and let you interpret (misrepresent) its reality for it for your own benefit. And there’s nothing wrong with that…
Regarding Gen Y… I was simply pointing out that this generation is nostalgic far earlier than would be considered normal.