A picture is worth a thousand words, and if you take as many pictures as I do you have probably accumulated enough words to write a very long book. Every cute dog, personal joke and pretty tree finds its way into the thousands of photos in my camera roll, or else turns into, “I wish I got a picture.” I’m quite familiar with the desire to capture something beautiful, especially when using the phone camera has become so easy. For many of us taking out your phone and clicking the camera circle requires such a small amount of conscious thought that it’s practically automatic. It’s such a problem that my photos and videos have overflowed onto two different cloud services.
We live in a world that encourages this digital documenting habit, and what could be the harm? Photo opportunities seem to multiply right before us. Photo experience “museums,” like the Museum of Ice Cream, are cropping up in every big city. More photo and video apps are facilitating people to capture ever smaller units of our lives: from BeReal to Snapchat to 1 Second Everyday. I could reiterate that the habits of our picture-obsessed culture highlight its egocentric tendencies; I could tell you that it’s inauthentic, and that taking photos with the intent of posting actually changes your perception. Yes, taking pictures “ruins the moment,” but what if there’s more to it than that? What if it also ruins our view of the past?
Most of us aren’t recording, snapping and documenting with calculated, ingenuine motives. We take more pictures thinking it will help to remember the moment better – the sounds, details and feelings. It’s natural to want to be able to look back through one’s personal past and to preserve this from the decay of our memory. The combination of this desire, societal pressures and the ease of taking smartphone photos leads to a unique sort of information overload, where every nice thing jumps out with the potential to be documented.
This obsessive attempt to remember everything through digital means is futile. With so many photos, each individual one begins to mean less. When I look through my own camera roll, I am overwhelmed with clumps of photos from vacations, formal events, and a miscellany of images from my daily life. It doesn’t feel truly representative of the most meaningful, significant memories I have. The same could be said of the ease of documenting things through text messages, social media or phone notes rather than old-fashioned letters or print photographs.
Relying on digitizing everything to store all our memories also leads to a worsened memory overall. By comforting ourselves that every detail is stored on our phones, we never feel prompted to encode these memories ourselves. A memory is more than a photo, and maybe we are cheating ourselves of real memories with the false promises of a picture-taking habit.
Of course, memories will always fade over time, and with them goes the vividness and detail. Our brains will never be able to recall things in finely pixelated clarity; they settle naturally into more of a fuzzy essence. And in the case of bad memories this is helpful. Seeing the past with a set of rose-tinted glasses can help hold a more satisfying view of life. While this isn’t to promote the harmful repression of traumatic memories, there’s no need to relive all the small embarrassing and painful moments inhabiting our camera rolls. We can let them slip away quietly with time like they are meant to instead of coming back every year in Snapchat memories to haunt us.
By forgetting the little things, practical cognitive processes also become more efficient. We are able to prioritize, learn and create. Forgetting is what makes memory a functional component to our survival, rather than an unremitting catalog of intense imagery and feeling. We can make sense through all the noise in a world with endless digital chaos. Forgetting isn’t a glitch in our brain, it’s what makes our memories useful. It’s frustrating to fail to remember things but a normal level of forgetting is also how we manage to move forward in the world. Lingering reminders of embarrassment and past mistakes can leave a paralyzing feeling that hinders you from being the person you are at the moment.
Though it won’t be an easy change, we can unlearn our digital documenting habits. The desire to remember might come from the existential fear of forgetting and being forgotten. Still, by reminding ourselves of the practicality of forgetting, we can set aside the pressure to remember things so thoroughly and let the past settle on its own.