Have you ever been so intent on taking a picture, be it a fireworks display, a sunset, or some other important moment, that you end up missing the experience as a whole? We’ve all done it, been so busy trying to capture and share a special event, to document it, that we did not live in that moment. According to a new TED Book, Our Virtual Shadow: Why We Are Obsessed with Documenting Our Lives Online, “Our virtual shadows are stronger than ever, while our present lives are slowly being killed by a thousand virtual paper cuts. We’re now on the ultimate fool’s errand: sacrificing everything to capture our lives, even if that requires not being fully present in those lives as we are living them.”
Author Damon Brown first explains how long term and short term memories are made, before contending that a person who doesn’t take in every multisensory aspect—sights, sounds, scents, taste and touch to create a collective whole—will not form as much of an in-depth and cohesive long-term memory of an event. What our brains can store in intellectual and sensory data cannot be recreated by technology at this point to give us the same rich emotional context. It remains to be seen if that will change, since “Futurists are convinced that new technology will give us the ability to record smell, to map touch, and to save other sensory data to a computer or send it to another person.” Brown says, “We don’t want to lift a finger because tech is now our indentured servant.”
Hopefully, at least in my opinion, you aren’t so hooked on documenting every moment that you would be one of those people who tweets during your own wedding, or posts a Facebook status update during childbirth? Sure, most folks think it’s great to be retweeted, or to have a Facebook status liked, or even to have what you shared on Google+ to have tons of +1s, but do you live for it? Brown maintains, “The subtle, almost subconscious pressure we are all under today was previously reserved for celebrities, world leaders, and religious figures. Our legacy — our virtual shadow — is always in question, and it changes from day to day.”
Interview with Damon Brown
You wrote, “The biggest reason we have become obsessed with documenting our lives is fear. It is the fear of letting a special moment in our lives blossom without our interference. It is the fear of having a bad experience if we don’t read a restaurant review first. It is the fear of the unexpected.” If you were hiring a contractor and it was going to cost thousands of dollars, then yes, I agree that it would be wise to research and read reviews first. In fact, it would seem like wisdom to read reviews before purchasing a new smartphone or drop serious dollars on some other tech device. But seriously, you think people are so afraid of the unexpected that they can’t eat out without first reading reviews?
Brown: When you stop and think about it, when is the last time you or I went to a restaurant without checking out its Yelp score, getting a solid online recommendation from a friend, or even hearing of it because someone checked in to the location? It is now rare that we experience something without any knowledge. I love new food experiences, particularly when I'm traveling, and some of my best ones happened by chance. Staying with the food theme, there is a certain inherent risk that we had before our current era, like trying a random diner during a roadtrip or hanging out at a small, unknown restaurant somewhere abroad. Now we are more likely to try to look a place up before we give it a shot. I'm not saying those experiences don't exist anymore. I am saying that those experiences are less and less likely as we become more plugged into excessive information.
You mentioned the social aspect of Amazon, regarding ebooks, such as how highlighting passages of books could influence readers before downloading it. Conversely, a reader may self-censor and not highlight something of note “because it could be exposed to Amazon, and therefore the public.” You wrote, “Amazon keeps an ongoing list of the most highlighted lines among its Kindle users” and then invited readers to feel free to highlight your book. I realize you want to sell books, but you don’t regard such tactics of tracking every word of what you read, and everything that you highlight to be an invasion of privacy?
Brown: Perhaps my sarcasm was missed here. Forget a Kindle book - A TED book itself is perhaps the ultimate sensory overload: Images, videos, and links baked into the reading experience, coupled with social media quicklinks that make it feel like you are reading within a group of millions. I don't discount the irony that I'm discussing the issues with our hyper-connected books inside of a hyper-connected book! It was my tongue-in-cheek way of acknowledging it, not a tactic to sell books. It's like how in the book I discuss co-creating Quote UnQuote, my own app for documenting our lives, and through the development process realized that I was contributing to people over-documenting things! I think it's important for all of us to see where we fit within the bigger picture, even if we don't have an immediate solution to the problem.
Some folks don’t record and share much of anything personal online. Others over-share every tiny detail of their day. So what do you personally find to be the best of both worlds, the right balance between no virtual shadow and becoming a “mere passenger with our virtual shadows at the wheel”?
Brown: For myself, I have very personal things that have never been discussed online, and likely never will be. I also am very open about things that others wouldn't even bring up at a whisper - I've written about sexuality, cancer, and other controversial, often personal subjects. It really comes down to your personal comfort level, just as it would when you have met a stranger at a party or sat next to someone at the bar. One of the undercurrents of Our Virtual Shadow is that the separation between our online environment and our daily, physical environment is paper thin. I believe common sense applies to both environments.
I think it's also important to emphasize that the book isn't about oversharing, but overdocumenting. Who cares if someone posts their own private info online? We can waggle our fingers, but their decisions are rarely going to directly affect our own lives. Instead, the discussion should be on how our personal quality of life is being affected by the need to document an abnormal amount of moments in our lives. I argue that our current tools - namely social media - require us to shift our focus from fully experiencing a moment *to* managing the software to document that moment as it's happening. Study after study shows that we're not so great at multitasking, so something's got to give. It would be a shame to miss a one-in-a-lifetime moment because we were so busy trying to capture it on a social network.
Brown is a co-founder of Quote Unquote, a new app that allows you to document interesting things you hear people say. He’s been a journalist for over a decade and has written over a dozen books, notably Playboy’s Greatest Covers with Hugh Hefner and Porn & Pong: How Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider and Other Sexy Games Changed Our Culture. You can get his TED book for $2.99 via Amazon, Apple's iBookstore, and Barnes and Noble. Then you can ponder Brown's points that if you are so obsessed with tech and social media, so busy documenting and sharing your virtual life . . . that you are actually missing out on enjoying your real life.