Sherry Turkle on the Documented Life

Sherry Turkle articulates, quite gently, a familiar complaint about–among other things–the smartphone-and-selfie obsession:

A selfie, like any photograph, interrupts experience to mark the moment. In this, it shares something with all the other ways we break up our day, when we text during class, in meetings, at the theater, at dinners with friends. And yes, at funerals, but also more regularly at church and synagogue services. We text when we are in bed with our partners and spouses. We watch our political representatives text during sessions.

Technology doesn’t just do things for us. It does thing[s] to us, changing not just what we do but who we are. The selfie makes us accustomed to putting ourselves and those around us “on pause” in order to document our lives. It is an extension of how we have learned to put our conversations “on pause” when we send or receive a text, an image, an email, a call. When you get accustomed to a life of stops and starts, you get less accustomed to reflecting on where you are and what you are thinking.

Fair enough. I presume Turkle would be just as dismayed at those who raise their phones to take photographs at rock concerts or those who seem to spend a great deal of time taking photographs at national parks rather than ‘just taking it all in.’

Turkle is fighting a losing battle here though.

This battle is not a lost one because the smartphone generation–to use a familiar pejorative description for it–is the most narcissistic in living memory. Rather, it is because documenting our life–in some shape or form and stepping out of the immediately experienced moment–is an old, deeply hard-wired and ingrained instinct of ours. It cannot but be given our nature as creatures that do not always live in the moment, that remember their pasts and anticipate their futures.

Note, for instance, that in days gone by, and even now, a common reaction to the visible beauty of nature was to sketch it, or perhaps write about it. These were reactions to the moment but they were also records for the future. We know the pleasure of the remembered moment just as well as that of the current experience; the  bitter-sweetness of nostalgia includes, as is obvious, sweetness too.  We anticipate the remembered moment; we seek raw material for reflection later; we cannot but document as we go along. Sometimes in diaries, sometimes in photo albums, sometimes in various forms of art.

The smartphone photograph, in many ways, is the modern version of these older modes of remembering and filing away for the future. We know we will look back on the past in the future; why would we not aid ourselves in that endeavor?

Perhaps it is our curse, as a species, to not be able to live in the moment. But it is also an often singular distinction that lets us traverse great mental landscapes in remembering, planning, and yes, looking back. Those journeys often need aids; the documents of our lives are one such.

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