I can’t be the only one who shrivels up inside when forced to watch childhood videos of myself. Fortunately, I will probably never have to again, since VHS tapes have gone the way of the dodo. My children will not be so lucky. At least now I know why my parents did it. As a kid, life is about putting things behind you, moving on, growing up. The life of a parent is about these things too, except now you are trying to hold on to all of them as they pass you by. When I go back and look through the five years of photos of my children, I can only think about how much I had forgotten. The technology in my pocket lets me record all of the little moments, the cute outfits, the sweet smiles. We can capture every meal, if we desire, and every outing, every person we meet. Everything, in other words, that isn’t memorable.
Not too long ago it was the opposite. Remember when a camcorder was the size of a cinder block? Forget about carrying it in your purse, much less you pocket. Cameras had a thing called film, and you only got 24 shots at a time, no retakes. You didn’t even know how terrible your photos were until the drug store had them for a day. So you couldn’t afford to waste your shots on just anything. You had to wait for the perfect time, the perfect lighting, the perfect setting, the ones you really, really wanted to remember and display. You took your camera on your vacation, not your lunch break. You recorded the school play, not playing school in the living room. It was a way to mark big occasions and create a record of them.
Digital cameras cracked that mindset. Smartphones shattered it. Unlimited photos and videos allows us to augment our memory to preserve the unmemorable, the daily, the routine. But it also has, as many have observed, gotten in the way of our memories. It’s possible to become so absorbed in capturing a moment that we forget to experience it. We’ve all seen the parent staring into a little rectangle instead of watching the full field in front of them. And what happens to that video of that game of that Tuesday? Like most memories, it’s quickly forgotten. Since we declined to fully experience it, counting on the video recording, we are less likely to have committed it to our own memories. As writing diminished our verbal memory, so video has diminished our visual memory. The more we can record, the less we need to remember and the less memorable everything becomes.
So we’ve entered a new phase of our technological life where the special occasions are the only things we don’t record. At least, we do our best. It’s hard not to snap a shot of our kid on the field or in the play or on the first day of school to share. But at some point we try to put the phone down and just watch and experience where we are.
I went to Hamilton the other night with my wife. We sat up in a balcony overlooking the stage and the crowd. Before the show started, an announcer reminded the audience that recording was not allowed, but that struck me as uniquely unnecessary. Of course, we took a shot of the stage, you know, for proof. But when the lights fell and the music started, everyone went quiet and the whole room was dark. The last thing on our minds was saving this for later. We were all right there, right then, to witness and experience a cultural event. Only at intermission did all those little lights flicker into existence, fading again as the curtain rose once more. We watched and we cheered and we enjoyed, recognizing that trying to record it would in fact diminish it. So a year from now, though I may not be able to play back every scene and song, I know I will remember that night.