A few mornings ago as I finished feeding my 10 month-old daughter, I had The Today Show on in the background. A girl-pop group I’d never heard of called Little Mix performed, and offered fun, dancey, cotton candy jams to the adoring group of adolescent girls in the audience who nodded along enthusiastically. None of this is exactly news, and before you completely tune out of this post, I promise I have a point.
The thing that struck me watching them perform was how the live audience was watching them. So many of the audience members weren’t looking directly at Little Mix as they jumped and danced and sang onstage, they looked at Little Mix through the small screen of their phone capturing and saving the moment in their personal digital files forever (presumably – although how long any individual digital files lives is anyone’s guess), a small, individual version of a performance seen by millions of people.
I understand the impulse, but my question is: Is this actually a good thing?
As I write this post, I have more than 2,000 photos saved on this very hard drive. After taking a quick digital stroll through them, many of these photos I haven’t looked at in years, and, to be perfectly honest, many of them suck quality-wise. What I am saving them for? What will I do with them? I can’t delete them because the thought of doing that makes me want to have a panic attack. These are my memories. I can’t just cast them aside. How cold-hearted would I have to be to discard MEMORIES???? [clutches pearls]
But to get philosophical for a moment, if I never look at these photos, what’s the point in having them? Do they even exist in a practical sense if I never look at them? Are my memories more or less important with the existence of these photos I never look at? And am I more inclined to discard a memory if all I have to remember is that I took a photo of it, and it exists somewhere in the bottomless pit of my hard drive?
I don’t have answers to any of these questions, but what I do know to be objectively true is that those girls in the audience recording Little Mix while watching them perform outside 30 Rock are not enjoying their performance to the fullest the first time, which is the best time. They’re staring at them on a little screen and not absorbing the show in all its glory with their very own eyes.
If they’re hoping to keep their very own little version of the performance for all-time, fine. Again, I get it. But have you ever re-watched video you’ve taken of a live music performance on your phone? I can pretty much guarantee you it’s not even a close facsimile of what the experience was like live and in person. It’s removed, tiny, and antiseptic. The sound quality sucks, and the video is nothing like you remember it looking. Honestly, re-watching a concert video you took yourself is incredibly dispiriting.
By contrast, I can recall with incredible clarity the last time I saw Strung Out (one of my favorite bands) perform their first two albums in their entirety. I remember where I stood in the Summit Music Hall, I remember how lead singer Jason Cruz looked as the sweat cascaded off him and soaked his black shirt and tight black pants, and I remember very vividly putting my arm around the dude next to me (someone I’d never met, and haven’t seen since) and singing our faces off as our favorite band tore the house down. The lucidity of this memory is stronger than even the best HD camera used by the best photojournalist in the entire world.
And yet I can’t always help myself, and find myself struck by the desire to capture, catalog, and preserve forever. This is just how we live now. It’s a point that’s been made before, and one that was probably best captured in the Sports Illustrated cover photo of American Pharaoh winning the Triple Crown. Look at everyone trying to capture the moment on their own little device to preserve for eternity.
As someone who partially makes his living in the digital space, part of me hesitates even publishing this essay because the central thesis here could be read as articulating the pointlessness of digital artifacts and the advocacy of living in the moment, not in the endless void of cyberspace and digital storage. As a content provider, professional obligation requires me to want you to keep staring at your phone.
But simply as a member of the world, I want you to pick your head up and experience the world as it happens, not through a substandard-to-your-magical-and-endlessly-capable-brain intermediary. You are your own best capturer, cataloger, and preserver. And I’m certain you don’t need ME to explain this to you, but a gentle reminder never hurt anyone.
I don’t think we give ourselves enough credit. And since thanks to smartphones life is an open book test, we don’t have to give ourselves enough credit. It’s easier to check the box and store everything in the magical pocket device. Hey, at least I know it’s there. I’ve got my digital memory all shored up.
But your real memory trumps your digital memory every time. I’m trying to learn to trust mine more. Will you?