Saturday, 15 November 2014

Mismemories and Misremembering in the Digital Age

“Better late than never” is feeling more like a daily mantra for me this term than something uttered as I run doggedly into a coffee shop to meet a friend 15 minutes late, but here I am with my first #tiebc post… 2 book club meetings (I missed the 3rd) and 5 chapters in to Clive Thompson’s book, Smarter Than You Think.  Better. Late. Than. Never. Indeed.

Our #tiegrad book club meets every couple of weeks, and I must say how much I value these informal get-togethers, as much for the opportunity to discuss and share our thoughts on the readings as for the time to find the humour in our downtrodden moments, gain clarification or insight on some aspect of class, or discuss apparent obsessions with pirates and elephants.  My mood is always positive by the end of a #tiebc session and I am grateful.

In reflecting on my reading and our #tiebc discussions thus far, Chapter 2, “We, the Memorious“, particularly resonated with me. However, when we came together, our book club discussion didn’t lean into this chapter to any great extent. The chapter examines the way people use technology to record many, and in some cases, all aspects of their lives.  There were examples of people who chose to become virtual “lifeloggers”, recording all aspects of their lives in digital form, using digital logs to access details and memories that would otherwise be murky or altogether lost. I was intrigued as I read of MIT speech scientist, Deb Roy’s, “Total Recall” experiment where he and his wife wired their house to capture all aspects of their child’s first year.

One particularly interesting phenomenon revealed in the Roy experiment was the inaccuracies discovered in some of Roy’s own recollection of events;  when he looked at video footage of his son’s first steps, he discovered that “he’d completely mis-remembered the event” (p. 21).  While the “mis-remembered” aspects of the memory could be considered the less important details (time of day, sun shining, who was in the room), it is intriguing to me that our minds have the capability and inclination to fill in any memory gaps with creatively and logically constructed details, to make the memory complete.  I don’t see it as necessarily positive or negative, but it has me wondering why and at what point in time do these little shifts in the details of our memory occur? In Roy’s case, it didn't take much time at all to replace the actual details of the event with his mind’s own version of the details. 

This memory gap-filling phenomenon has me wondering which details of my own childhood or my children’s early years I have recreated or revised in one way or another. I met with my cousin yesterday and we briefly reminisced about a shared experience from our own childhood, and there were distinct differences in how we had “stored” the details of this specific event; certainly we were able to fill in some of each other’s gaps, but there were startling differences in what we remembered.  He remembers falling down a hill and hitting his head, of which I have no recollection, and I remember we wandered for what seemed like hours, lost in the woods.  The location, our ages, and circumstances all match, but key aspects of the memory have been remembered very differently.  I can see how the mis-remembered details of more serious events could be problematic. When I think about the fact that Roy’s mis-memory was skewed within a relatively short time, you can imagine the potential inaccuracies of recounted events from 10, 20, or 30 years ago.  

A potential solution for these memory gaps and mis-memories is the practice of “lifelogging”.  There are varying degrees of lifelogging.  At a basic level, for example, my father has, for years, habitually recorded the date, the weather, his physical activity (run: 52 mins. along the seawall with Bill), and any other random notables that seem worthy on a daily basis, without fail. The brevity and consistency of his record keeping make for a good reference point. When I ask, for example, what restaurant we ate at after that 10 km race 15 years ago, he can look through his “log” and tell me.  I can see the value of this habit, but, personally, I can also live quite well without it.  Taken to the other extreme, lifelogging with very intentional and constant recordings and / or photographs seems like an almost invasive and disruptive way to live one’s life. The idea of technology documenting all aspects of my life or my home in an ongoing, auto-set kind of way, is disturbing to me as well.  I get that there might be a time or circumstance where it’s really convenient to be able to look back at something, but I think I prefer to relying on my less than reliable grey matter.

In a sense, we are currently engaging in a form of lifelogging as we look at the prevalence of “selfies” and status updates.  Many, if not most, people are never without their smart phone or tablet, and we regularly engage in logging our lives this way.  It’s perhaps a step away from true lifelogging, but the outcome is much the same.  I think we have to consider how much time we, as a society, spend doing so and what we are missing as we are immersed in efforts to digitally record our lives. There have been many presentations, videos and talks to try to emphasize that we are missing much by trying to capture everything, and I am quick to agree. A great visual of this point is represented in the short video, I forgot my phone; while the video is, yes, dramatic, it presents familiar scenarios that many people can relate to.  

In considering both the ongoing, never-miss-a-second recording options for capturing “life” such as that used by Roy, and society’s current obsession with intentionally capturing meals, moments, and milestones via Instagram, Vine, Snapchat, and other means of social media, I can’t say that I see either as completely healthy or necessary. Like most things in life, there’s undeniable value to social media recordkeeping and documenting aspects of our lives digitally; I, for one, won’t be surprised if lifelogging as a practice becomes increasingly commonplace in the years to come.  However, there’s something very personal about our own, grey-matter-based, unrecorded memories and the fact that no one else can see them exactly as we do, in our own minds. Those mis-memories, with inaccuracies that are specific to the memory-holder, make for the best stories.


deGuzman, Charlene (Charstarlene). (2013, Aug 22). I Forgot My Phone (video file). Retrieved from
Thompson, C. (2013). Smarter than you think.  New York, New York: The Penguin Press

No comments:

Post a Comment