Posted by: structureofnews | February 23, 2015

We Can Remember It For You Wholesale

080312-total-recallIn the Philip K. Dick short story on which the two (not terribly good) Total Recall movies were based, people can pay to get false memories implanted in them, in lieu of real experiences. We don’t have that technology (yet), but it’s true that we’re increasingly outsourcing the task of remembering our lives to machines.

Is that a good thing? And should journalists care? I vote for yes.

But that’s not necessarily a conclusion of an interesting New York Times piece on Sunday that explores the process of memory as we take thousands upon thousands of photos and videos of our daily experiences.

Are shutterbug parents wiping away their mental databases of experiences with their offspring while bulking up their digital ones? And when children grow up reviewing thousands of pictures and hours of video of their young lives, will these images supersede their memories?

It’s almost certainly true that technology is changing what and how we remember – and we’re certainly losing something of ourselves in that process.  On the other hand, we’re gaining volume and accuracy, and that’s not a small thing.  As the Times piece notes, quoting Linda Henkel, a professor of psychology at Fairfield University:

“It’s like the family stories we tell. There’s the original experience, and then the story everyone tells every Thanksgiving. The story becomes exaggerated, a schema of the original event. The physical photo doesn’t change over time, but the photo becomes the memory.”

Human memory is notoriously fallible – as Brian Williams has discovered, to his cost – because we’re designed to remember meaning, not details. And as our relationship to events change over time, so too do our recollections.

Which is tricky for journalists, given how much we rely on people telling us what they remember of events.  And so the more there are contemporaneous reports of any event – other eyewitnesses, records, data, photographs, video – the more confidence we can have that something is true.

It’s also true that we lose something in the process.  Dr. Henkel’s research shows that, when participants in a study took photos of exhibits in a museum, they remembered fewer objects and fewer details about them than if they hadn’t taken photos.  In effect, they didn’t try as hard to remember because they figured technology would do it for them.  As the NYT notes:

“Saying, ‘Here we are having fun, now everybody look and smile!’ can be a disruption of the experience,” she said, adding that the interruption of attention can also hinder our future retrospection. “We’re collecting trophies of our experiences rather than being engaged in the experiences.”

On the other hand, we gave up something too when we stopped memorizing epic poems to tell around the fireplace and committed them to scrolls and books; it’s part of our evolution and our interaction with technology. Not that it’s always an unmitigated good – but there are pluses and minuses we have to understand.

And better records – and hopefully better journalism – is one of them.


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