The Out-Sourcing of Memory

May 27, 2014 § 2 Comments

Four or five years ago, we saw Josh Ritter at La Sala Rossa in Montreal.  Sala is one of my favourite places in the world to see a gig.  In fact, I’d rank it just below the legendary Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver, with its bouncing dance floor.  Anyway.  We made our way up to the front which, frankly, wasn’t that difficult, Josh Ritter fans aren’t exactly scary people.  But after Ritter took the stage with his excellent Royal City Band, something strange happened.  The crowd around us became younger.  A lot of early 20-somethings.  And very female.  They were cooing over Ritter himself, and his bassist, Zack Hickman.  This had happened to me once before, at a Grapes of Wrath gig in c. 1992.  The teeney-boppers at this all ages gig in Ottawa went nuts when the Grapes hit the stage and nearly mauled my companion to death.  She required first aid.

Anyway.  This Josh Ritter gig happened just after cellphones began to be equipped with decent phones.  There was still some novelty in them.  But all these 2o-somethings watched the gig through the lens of their phones, snapping picture after picture of Ritter and Hickman.  It got incredibly frustrating, especially when they stepped on us to get a better shot.  But I just felt sorry for them, their entire experience of Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band was mediated through their cellphone camera lens.  They wouldn’t take any memories away from the show.  Not that I really did, either.  I remember getting stepped on and all the 20-somethings with their camera phones.

But photos aren’t memories.  I recently went through some old photos for some reason I no longer recall.  Included in these files (all photos are on the hard drive of my MacBook now, of course) were pictures of a trip to Tanglewood in the summer of 2006 with my then-girlfriend, now wife.  I have very distinct memories of that day.  It was the July 4 weekend, we went with her sister and her parents, to see Garrison Keilor and a live performance of A Prairie Home Companion.  I had no idea what any of this meant, frankly, I’m Canadian and lived in Canada then.  And avoided NPR and PBS like the plague (I’ve modified my stance somewhat since).  But in looking at these photos, I found they didn’t necessarily match up with my memories. In fact, I think I’ve conflated two or three trips to Tanglewood in my memories of that day.  I think this because I remember the night time stars and sitting with Margo by ourselves looking up at them hearing classical music.  But that couldn’t have happened in 2006, it was the time we saw Yo-Yo Ma with the Boston Pops in 2008 or 2009, after we got married.  But such is memory, it’s dynamic and our memories evolve over time.

Indeed, this is the point made in this article on NPR.org (so clearly I’ve modified my views of public radio in the US) today by a psychologist, Linda Henkel.  She notes exactly that,

It’s also a mistake to think of photographs as memories. The photo will remain the same each time to you look at it, but memories change over time. Henkel likens it relying on photos to remember your high school graduation.

“Each time I remember what my high school graduation was like, I might be coloring and changing that memory because of my current perspective — because of new ideas that I have or things that I learned afterwards,” she says. “Human memory is much more dynamic than photographs are capable of.”

The larger context of the article is our addiction to taking photos on our cameras, due to its simplicity.  No kidding.  I have over 1,000 photographs on my iPhone.  And I’ve probably deleted another 1,000, some because they’re bad, some because they’re not all that remarkable in the long-term.  And this from a guy who probably took a grand total of 50 photographs from 1989-2006.  We’re hyper-memorialising everything.  I presume I’m not all that different than anyone else in how often I look at old photographs, which is close to never, unless I’m looking for something.  And yet, every time I see an old photo, my memory of the events doesn’t entirely jive with the photographic record.

Henkel did an interesting experiment with her students.  She sent her students to the university art museum and instructed them to view some items and photograph others.  Then she gave them a sort of test when they got back on their memories:

[She] found what she called a “photo-taking impairment effect.”

“The objects that they had taken photos of — they actually remembered fewer of them, and remembered fewer details about those objects. Like, how was this statue’s hands positioned, or what was this statue wearing on its head. They remembered fewer of the details if they took photos of them, rather than if they had just looked at them,” she says.

Henkel says her students’ memories were impaired because relying on an external memory aid means you subconsciously count on the camera to remember the details for you.

“As soon as you hit ‘click’ on that camera, it’s as if you’ve outsourced your memory,” she says. “Any time we … count on these external memory devices, we’re taking away from the kind of mental cognitive processing that might help us actually remember that stuff on our own.”

And so I come back to those early 20-something girls at the Josh Ritter gig in Montreal on a cold, snowy February night four or so years ago.  What do they remember from that night? Probably next to nothing, they outsourced it all to their phones.  But, of course, the phones we had in 2010 compared to the phones in 2014.  The camera in my two year old iPhone 4s is infinitely better than the camera that was in my then-state-of-the-art Motorola Razr.  So, chances are, their photos are long lost.  And they just have a vague recollection of a gig.

Compare that with an old friend of mine who, whilst bored and sick this week, attempted to reconstruct her entire concert-going life over the past 25 years.  Relying largely on her memory, and aided by the internet and some photos, she did manage to reconstruct most of her concert-going life.  Why? Because she didn’t outsource her memory to her phone.  Largely because we didn’t have phones to take pictures on (or even digital cameras, for that matter) in 1992.

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§ 2 Responses to The Out-Sourcing of Memory

  • Brian Bixby says:

    So what does one get that’s positive from photos? You presumably know the argument that writing, by outsourcing memory (not the terms that are usually used), cost us our ability to memorize long epic poems, but eventually gave us everything from the novel to the Weekly World News. So what do we gain by using photos? More reliable external memory?

    • Maybe, maybe not, given that photos aren’t memories, they’re documentary evidence of a moment in time, unlike our subjective memory. But, at the same time, photos are also subjective in how they are framed.

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