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Data Vs. Memory

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2014-07-03


I've discovered that whenever I'm seeking some transcendent truth about the big questions in life it's best to skip past the irrefutable, reliable sources of collective wisdom (the Bible, Shakespeare, Greek philosophy, Russian novels) and go straight to the heart of all true, human illumination--i.e., the cartoon bank at the "New Yorker" magazine. In it I usually find the answer to whatever troubling questions that I've allowed to plague my existence and keep me up nights.

For instance: I've been trying to reach some sort of epiphany about the current mania for documenting every moment of your life, that ever-present, smart phone-driven phenomenon that seemingly turns everybody into a semi-professional photographer or reality-show film maker. I've been trying to figure out if it's a good thing, a bad thing, if it's an irreversible part of the contemporary landscape now and, if it is, what could be lost by the transformation. This is relevant to me because my beat-up, throwback flip-phone is finally reaching the end of its productivity, and I have to decide if a commitment to a brand new smart phone will influence my social habits in a notable way.

So anyway, the "New Yorker" cartoon that explains this to me shows a father reaching for a handmade VHS tape (and I know: VHS! It's like from the Middle Ages.) Before putting the tape in, the father reflects a moment and then says, "You know, son, back in the old days, people were forced to 'remember' the things they liked." And the son, unblinking, uncomprehending, is of course just waiting for the TV to be turned on.

Besides being dead-on funny and accurate, what's really interesting about the cartoon is how prescient it is this was from the 90s, remember, when the "documentation" culture was just starting to assert itself. In technological terms, that's about 20 generations ago. Yet the cartoonist was still sort of able to predict, right then, the inevitable consequence of all this endless filming and rehearsing and posing--a gradual assault on authenticity and spontaneity and a general devaluation of simple cognitive exercises like using your memory.

I know I sound a little hysterical here, but look, if I have to endure another "conversation" with an acquaintance that consists entirely of them dragging out their cell phone and showing dozens of boring-assed pictures to highlight every single aspect of their narrative, well, I'm gonna jump off a bridge. This happened to me recently (the pictures, not the bridge) at a dinner party, and finally I just had to say, Good God, man: Enough. You can just tell me about the pork shank you had at a nice restaurant, I don't need the accompanying photograph. And really, I don't need to see pictures of your car, or your house, or your dog, or that funny guy at work who told you that funny story. You can just tell me; I trust that they exist. I'm not a refusenik, I don't need the video proof.

It's funny, it used to be that the most dreaded social interaction was when some dorky neighbor or uncle wanted to show you slides of their summer vacation. It was sort of a commonly understood joke, a tacit agreement amongst all, that watching someone else's pictures was just about the most tedious and excruciatingly boring thing that could ever be forced upon another person. But now it's become one of the preferred modes of communication and storytelling. (And let's be clear: it still IS just about the most tedious and excruciatingly boring thing you can do to anyone.)

I know my reactionary stance about this is because I've always been delighted by words, with words, and I've always been delighted by those who use words playfully, wittily, with great care and dexterity. And I can't help it: I love the sound of the human voice. The reason I don't text much is because I'd rather hear someone speak than just glance at the typed characters. I know you develop a "voice" when you text, when you write e-mails, etc., but I much prefer the auditory version, the pauses and the nuances and the accents and all. The human part.

And I know this is a tiny, insignificant thing to get upset about, but you know what I really miss? Trivia. I miss playing trivia. I miss being with a group of friends and trying to figure out who won Best Actor in 1987, or who made the Final Four in 1979. (Michigan State, Indiana State, DePaul, and . . . was it Penn? Some Ivy League school?) For what happens today is, somebody will pose a similar question and instead of relying on your collective memories and indulging in a little playful cognitive exercise, some joyless and unimaginative techno geek in your group will yank out his smart phone and zip zip zip, he'll kill all your fun by blandly announcing the correct answer. Thanks a lot.

And look, I know, all the things you can do now, the great advances, the age of information, brave new world, etc., look how far we've come and yes: I get that. But I still believe everyone needs to develop a ruling intelligence that can synthesize all the available technology and use just the right tool without letting it dominate all your conscious energies. I've said it before but it bears repetition: there is technology that can improve the quality of your life, and there is technology that can only improve the depth of your compulsions. Knowing the difference is a crucial skill in the new world.

In closing, I'd like to point out that that "New Yorker" cartoon I referenced in the earlier paragraphs, well, I'm not exactly sure what the caption really is. As a big-deal journalist I know I should track it down and get the correct wording, but I didn't; I decided to just go ahead and rely on my memory. More fun that way.

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