Sunday, February 28, 2016

Mislead By a Metaphor

Carter F. Hanson states Nicholas Carr’s idea of “the digital age’s mistaken metaphor of portraying the human brain as a computer and human memory as data” (266), citing:

Biological memory is alive. Computer memory is not. Those who celebrate the “outsourcing” of memory to the Web have been misled by a metaphor. They overlook the fundamentally organic nature of biological memory… The Web provides a convenient and compelling supplement to personal memory, but when we start using the Web as a substitute for personal memory… we risk emptying our minds of their riches… The Web is a technology of forgetfulness. (191-93)

After reading Carr’s commentary, I immediately thought about the increased use of social media platforms—not necessarily the use of the programs, but exactly how we are using them.

A lot of the chatter we hear from those against social media and the immersion of our culture into a “digital age” focuses around the programs themselves. Comments about the time spent on the applications, as well as the idea that most users are oversharing or projecting digital versions ofthemselves, are among the top complaints. What I find interesting about this is, with the exception of selfies and “food porn,” not many are discussing how the digital age is literally replacing memory with social media applications.

Carr’s quote seems to be discussing the transfer of information from physical to technical—how we used to physically search for information (giant encyclopedias, anyone?) and acquire knowledge, as opposed to storing a plethora of information on a server now accessible from our fingertips. Although I think this is an important discussion in and of itself, I am more interested in how we store memories digitally.

For example, the development of photography has evolved similarly to the way we now acquire most of our information. I remember being a young child and visiting my great-grandparents’ homes—smiling for Polaroid cameras while I blew out the candles on my birthday cakes, racing my scooter around the giant tripod camera stand that videotaped the events going on outside—and being fascinated as my grandparents would shake the little piece of paper until an image occurred, or watching as they removed the little tiny cassette tape from the camcorder and placed it into a bigger videocassette that would then be inserted into a VHS player so we could watch the footage again and again through the television. There was a distinction between the memories of being with my grandparents (blowing out the candles and riding around on the scooter) and the memories of collecting the memories themselves (taking pictures or videotaping each individual event).

This distinction can be traced throughout our use of “analog” systems of memory recording. Whether through photographs, videotapes, audio recordings—all of these things required a physical action and a specific tool necessary to complete the job. Does anyone remember recording songs off the radio onto cassette tapes? I used to spend hours in front of the boombox waiting for the perfect songs, all so I could quickly press down the “record” button and watch as the tape would spin in the cassette deck beneath the button. These tapes would accompany me on the bus, on trips with my parents, while I got ready for school or bed—and I have the memories of both creating them and using them throughout my childhood and well into my adolescent years.

This distinction seems to be what is missing with our switch to a digital age. We don’t necessarily have a way of remembering what we’re remembering. With applications like Facebook, we are free to share our photographs and videos, but we do not obtain physical copies of those items. When we take a picture of something on our phone, we don’t have to pay to print out the evidence of that memory. When we post a video to Facebook, we don’t have the obligation of setting up a camcorder with a tripod, and we certainly don’t have to worry about finding the videocassette adapter that can play the tiny little tapes produced by the camcorder.

When Carr claims that computer memory isn’t alive, is there even a way to disagree with him? I could argue that computer memory is alive because humans create and maintain it, and without our need to digitize our memories through Facebook and other social media applications, there would be no need for such programs.

But I’m not satisfied with (nor confident in) that counterargument.

When I log into Facebook and have the option of viewing my “memories,” I do it every time. I read through a list of angsty teenage statuses and pictures with friends and families from past events and try to remember the memories from those moments. Despite having an entire database of the past seven years of my life, I often struggle trying to recreate what exactly happened the day those pictures or statuses were posted. I can’t remember what I felt like the day my grandpa died, but I can tell you exactly what I wrote about him the day after his funeral four years ago. I have lost the feeling of mourning and have replaced it with what I selectively posted for my Facebook friends nearly a week after his death.

In my nonfiction, I’ve spent a lot of time learning about reconstructive memory. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, AlleyDog provides a basic definition: “the process of assembling information from stored knowledge when a clear or coherent memory of specific events does not exist.” Although reconstructive memory can occur when a person has been distanced from an event through time, I would argue that the effect is even more warped through our use of digital memory. Applications like Timehop or Facebook Memories trick us into believing that our memories are authentic, and perhaps even objective. By seeing the photographic or videographic evidence, we believe that whatever we are viewing is the truth. We can’t argue with that kind of evidence, right?

But what happens to our memories when we subconsciously stop using the part of the brain that stores them? What happens to our brains when we trick them into recreating variations of memories that might not actually exist?

When Carr claims that we’ve been “misled by a metaphor,” I cannot help but agree. When the Internet evolves its formatting, or we suffer from a global Facebook crash, will we be capable of recovering those memories? Do we have access to the mental artifacts buried in the corners of our minds?


  1. Your point about people generally failing to discuss "how the digital age is literally replacing memory with social media applications" rings true. Empirical analysis would surely produce some fascinating results regarding how the natural reconstruction of memory has become digitalized and possibly compromised in some way. What complicates this even further is how information is continuously being replaced by the next hot-button topic, making it even more difficult to track our impressions of any one event/memory. I respect the fact that you, as a true connoisseur of social media, have come up with such an engaging critique. It is much easier to attack that which we don't agree with (as you know of me!), rather than doing some empirical-based thinking that explores the issue(s) much more objectively.

  2. McKenzie, I agree with what you argue with Carr in that computer memory is alive through the maintenance and organization that people themselves do. For example, we "create" or share digital memories through the use of social media like Facebook and Twitter, but we can also selectively delete these "memories" as we please or, if we wanted, can completely "erase our memories" in the digital age by completely removing our social media accounts (losing photos, posts on our walls, and those 'likes' we all crave) and starting over with a new slate if we so choose.

    You pose the question "What happens to our brains when we trick them into recreating variations of memories that might not actually exist," and that is a great question. Elizabeth Loftus has an amazing TED talk entitled "How reliable is your memory?" (mentioned in a similar TED blog post by Liz Jacobs) attempts to ask and answer the same thing. The TED talk shows just how poor and unreliable our memory is and how astonishingly easy it is for our memory to be dissuaded and falsified or otherwise point us in the wrong direction (both of which I will link at the bottom). There has been many, many studies on the deceptiveness of memory and just how easy it is to trick someone into remembering something differently or just plain wrong (some of which are noted in the blog). The human brain is great at doing many things, but remembering is not one of those things. We are only good at remembering major, important things and those that we pay absolute attention to (oftentimes not even noticing many things that we aren't watching for. Anyone remember this video about attention to detail?:

    Your conclusion is also important and thought provoking. Because Facebook and other social media are our new "brain" for memories, ways for us to remember conclusively, what happens when we lose that brain? Will our brains be able to cope or make up for it? I can't even remember some of the things I posted in the last few days (or if I even posted at all), let alone things that happened months or even years ago that might have been important when I posted, but not important enough for me to remember on my own. Does that make those memories any less important and/or memories I kept to be more important?

  3. One thing I feel that is happening that most people forget is that it is a choice to engage in these things. Don't get me wrong, I check my social media several times a day when I'm bored, but I don't engage in it for use of memories. I know for my loved ones, they get annoyed when we go somewhere special. On vacations, to concerts, even just a fun night out, I often don't bother with taking photos. I want to be completely in the moment so that when I reflect back on it, I can remember the vivid details that happened to me on that day or evening. The problem is, with more and more people engaging in these social media sites, they have become use to having technology become memory for them. Just last night I was out and took pictures with several people that I didn't know. I'm sure I'm on someone's Facebook or Instagram right now and they have no idea who I am, but for them it will be a memory. It'll be a moment they look back at and say "Hey I remember meeting this random person at the bar." I think that's just part of the problem though. When you're willing to disengage your everyday life with to just build memories for social media, it destroys the part of the memory that you would cherish.