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Opinion Smartphones and our memories: Don’t take a picture. It’ll last longer​

A cellphone-carrying member of Team USA takes a picture during the Parade of Athletes at the closing ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Brandon Ambrosino wonders why an athlete who trained so long to get to the Games would want to view the ceremony through a lens.

DAN ISTITENE/GETTY IMAGES

Brandon Ambrosino is a freelance writer in Delaware.

As the Opening Ceremonies unfolded, I sat glued to my television set watching and cheering on the athletes who paraded around the 35,000-seat stadium in Pyeongchang. But my enthusiasm was mixed with a twinge of frustration: While I adored many of the colourful outfits the athletes were wearing, there was one accessory that irked my nerves, and not only because it wasn’t designer-approved.

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I’m talking, of course, about all the smartphones the athletes were holding as they marched around the stadium, “taking it all in.”

All the eyes of the world were on the athletes, and their eyes were … where, exactly?

I’m going to place a warning up top for you to read. I’m sure I sound like a fuddy-duddy to some of you, as I was recently reminded by a young student who attended a talk I gave on this same subject. “I like recording live events as I experience them,” he said, with all the snide condescension of a walking talking tweet.

“Okay,” I responded. “But if you record events as you experience them, then how can you say you’re actually experiencing them?”

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, ever since a fateful visit to Ernest Hemingway’s gorgeous Key West home. For most of our tour through the second floor, my partner and I were stuck behind a woman who insisted on recording the entire thing on her smartphone, which was stretched out in her hands about a foot in front of her. Before we turned a corner, she did; before she did, her camera did. Whenever she entered a new room, her camera was already there. While later reflecting on this episode for The Wilson Quarterly, I realized why the memory made such a lasting impression on me. What bothered me about the woman wasn’t that she was taking pictures of what she was seeing – it’s that she was taking pictures before she was seeing. Instead of seeing. What’s more: The presence of her smartphone actually altered the way that I was taking in the experience. Between the house and my vision, there was a screen.

I’ve noticed the same phenomenon happening at Disney World during fireworks. As soon as the lights go out at 9 p.m, and the first blast goes off high above Cinderella Castle, everyone quickly – instinctively, without thought, as if it were the most normal thing in the world – reaches for their smartphones. If you’re short, like I am, the impressive colourful display is hidden from your immediate sight. Imagine: The lights dim throughout Magic Kingdom, an announcement tells you to stand still and turn your gaze up to the sky. But your gaze only makes it up a few feet before being obstructed by a sea of screens. Not only do these artificial lights distort the effects of the show, but they end up distorting your vision as well by forcing you to look at the unfolding present within the frame of a camera.

In other words, smartphones trick us into looking at the present moment as if it were already past. We are no longer remembering; we’re pre-membering.

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A visitor takes a photo of fireworks exploding over the Disney castle at Shanghai Disneyland. At Disney World, as Brandon Ambrosino observes, the sea of glowing smartphone screens can distort others’ view of the fireworks.

CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Documentary vision

About a decade ago, medical experts started warning the public about so-called “text neck,” a condition that results from too much screen time. The concern is that the continuous overbending of our necks to allow us to look at our hand-held devices is actually degenerating our spines and affecting our posture. Our screens are physically changing us.

Something similar is happening with our vision. Armed with smartphones, we are increasingly obsessed with documenting events we never truly experience.

Internet critic Nathan Jurgenson, editor-in-chief of Real Life magazine and host of Theorizing the Web, has written about this phenomenon in a great series of essays on Instagram. Social media, he writes, “forces us to view our present as increasingly a potentially documented past.” He calls this “documentary vision.” It’s kind of like how photographers look at everything as a potential photograph. If you have a hammer, everything is a nail; and if you have a camera with a nearly unlimited amount of memory – and most of us with smartphones and cloud storage do – then every moment you greet is fodder for documentation.

“What worries me most about this digital gaze is distraction and deferral,” says Damon Young, author of Distraction and How To Think About Exercise. Of course, he notes, there are times when cameras can sharpen our perception of a given situation. But if we just record by default, Mr. Young says, “we’re actually taking very little of that situation in. Not because digital technology is automatically a distraction, but because something of lesser value (a poorly composed video or photograph) is taking our attention away from something of greater value (the situation and its experiences).”

When we watch reality unfold through the tiny lens of a camera, he says, “we’re barely there.”

There. Here. In the moment.

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During a recent ride on Splash Mountain at Disney World, one of my friends insisted on Snapchatting the entire log flume journey. She was having fun recording her kids, and I didn’t want to ruin her video so I kept my eye-rolling in check and limited my angst to silent internal screaming. I kept trying to understand things from her perspective: Disney World is a special trip for most families, and parents want to be sure to have a record of the experience. But to clarify, what they want is a record of the experience. A memory of the moment. When you watch reality unfold on your screen, records are the experience. There’s no here. There’s no there.

What I’m calling pre-membering, cultural critic Fredric Jameson has calls nostalgia for the present: “We draw back from our immersion in the here and now and grasp it as a kind of thing.” But is it really possible to grasp the present as a thing? Doesn’t the present become unpresented the instant we attempt to grasp it at all? Yet thanks to social media, we’ve come to believe that they only way we can experience the present is by grasping it – in a status, in a live feed, in a photograph.

We warn ourselves that whatever goes into the cloud will stay there forever. True enough: The internet makes it impossible to forget. But what’s going into the cloud aren’t our memories. Memories have an of – memories of childhood, memories of early romance, memories of trauma. Many of the images and videos we put into the cloud do not have an of.

We’re collecting memories that we haven’t earned, documenting events we’ve never experienced, moments to which we’ve never arrived.

An observer captures an image on his smartphone of The Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I at London’s National Maritime Museum. A 2013 study on memory and photography found that taking pictures during a museum tour ‘had a detrimental effect on memory of the objects.’

Michael Bowles/GETTY IMAGES FOR THE ART FUND

Digital amnesia

For a 2013 study on memory and photography, participants were given digital cameras and taken on a tour of an art museum. Researchers instructed subjects to take specific pictures of some objects, and not of others. One day later, the participants were shown a mix of images from the previous day’s tour and brand new images. The goal was to see if they could distinguish between images they saw, images they photographed, and brand new images.

The findings from this study showed researchers that “photographing objects on a museum tour had a detrimental effect on memory of the objects,” according to Linda Henkel, psychology professor at Fairfield University, who authored the research article. “Despite the added time or attention required to angle the camera and adjust the lens so as to capture the best shot of the object in its entirety, the act of photographing the object appears to enable people to dismiss the object from memory, thereby relying on the external device of the camera to ‘remember’ for them,” Prof. Henkel concluded.

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One instruction that mitigated these findings was asking participants to zoom in on specific aspects of the art they were viewing. Participants who interacted meaningfully with (for example, zoomed in on) the objects had better recall, suggesting to researchers that “the additional attentional and cognitive processes engaged by this focused activity can eliminate the photo-taking-impairment effect.”

Years ago, researchers started referring to a phenomenon called the Google Effect: the results of off-loading our memory to the cloud. According to this theory, we’re less likely to store events and information in our long-term memories if we believe we’ll have access to them in the future (such as by pulling them up digitally). A study by the Kaspersky Lab followed up on this research, and found that ”digital amnesia” – forgetting information you trust a digital device to “remember” – was a growing concern for today’s digital world. Notably, the trend was discovered across every age group studied, from 16 years to over 55.

One professor associated with the study, Maria Wimber, lecturer at the University of Birmingham’s school of psychology, made an explicit connection between digital amnesia and pre-membering: “There seems to be a risk that the constant recording of information on digital devices makes us less likely to commit this information to long term memory, and might even distract us from properly encoding an event as it happens.”

In a wide-reaching 2017 analysis of research looking at mobile technology habits and cognitive functioning, the study authors concluded, “The available evidence suggests that when we turn to these devices, we generally learn and remember less from our experiences.”

Of course, as the same authors point out, concerns about “memory externalization” aren’t new. Take, for example, the Rolodex, a “rolling index” invented in the 1950s for the purpose of externally storing contact information outside of your brain. Were we worse off for this invention, or is it possible that such externalization freed up our space in our memories to concentrate on more important things? Granted, a Rolodex and an iPhone certainly seem like different beasts, and it’s up to researchers in the future to determine whether and how their effects on human memory differ.

Similarly, William Charles Uricchio, professor of comparative media studies at MIT, points out that concerns about media and memory have a long history, going back to Plato’s Phaedrus. (Writing, says Thamus, “will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory.”) That said, today’s media offer certain twists on the old narrative, as Prof. Uricchio notes. Unlike older memory externalization systems, contemporary media “do indeed stand between us and the world we physically experience,” he says. “This ‘mediation’ enables us to ‘see’ in a different way, to flatten and re-render in terms familiar from our deep pictorial history.”

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In other words, pre-membering allows us to take the dynamic, startling, unfamiliar experiences of life and reduce them to systematic, shareable, clickable content.

‘Once we’re present, the camera can help deepen our experience – but we have to arrive first,’ Christine Valters Paintner writes in Eyes of the Heart.

LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Being in the moment

For many of us, this is now instinctual, as Toronto native Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin, spiritual leader of Israel Center of Conservative Judaism in Queens, N.Y., told me.

“When I was in LA last week, I sat myself down at the ocean and the first thing I wanted to do was take my phone out to video it. I did that for about 10 seconds, watching the tide come in. But then I took a deep breath and silently watched God’s creation. I don’t do that enough.”

Rabbi Bodzin said the experience made her realize that she wants to be more present and “in the moment” with her own daughter, rather than using their time together to take pictures of their interactions.

“There’s always a screen,” she said – except on the Sabbath, when Rabbi Bodzin, as with other Jewish people, turns her screens off. “My brain has been rewired to share and post,” she says. “On Shabbat I just am.”

For about 24 hours a week, Rabbi Bodzin gets to put away her screen, take a breath, and watch reality unfold before her. When something memorable happens on a Friday night, she doesn’t reach for her phone – she fully participates in the moment, and commits it to her memory.

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I’m not Jewish, but I have recently found the good in taking my own regular social media breaks. I’ve learned that when I’m not worried about things such as camera angles and lighting and my physical appearance, I’m able to more deeply interact with what I see – because I’m able to actually see it.

“Nobody sees a flower really,” Georgia O’Keefe said, “it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time.”

Here’s my confession: I love taking pictures. I love being silly on social media. I love Snapchat and Instagram, and my accounts are full of selfies of my partner and I and my great big wonderful family. I’m not alone in this: More than three billion images are shared across social media each day. But when I do use social media, I try to do so mindfully. The question, though, is: How exactly do you do that? And there’s not one exact answer I can think of besides ‘slow down.’ Take a breath. See what you want to take a picture of before you take the picture. Do you notice anything special about the way the sunlight is reflecting off of that puddle?

Christine Valters Paintner, in Eyes of the Heart, a book that explores photography as a contemplative practice, contrasts taking a picture and receiving a picture. It’s the difference, Ms. Paintner explained to me, between seizing things and letting them come to us. Taking a picture is forceful: You grab at the moment, “grasp [the present] as a king of thing,” as Prof. Jameson says. When you receive a picture, on the other hand, you let it come to your vision.

“Instead of going through the world wanting to capture everything, we arrive present fully to ourselves, and then to the world around us,” she says. “Once we’re present, the camera can help deepen our experience – but we have to arrive first.”

We have to actually get here before we can take a picture of it.

Ms. Paintner is a contemplative, but adopting a posture of contemplation doesn’t have to be limited to religious practice. The word comes from the Latin word contemplor, which means “to gaze at.” Just as listening is a more intentional process than merely hearing sounds – as any parent or teacher who has tried to convey verbal instructions to children will tell you – gazing is a more intentional form of seeing than merely looking. To contemplate something, as the Jesuit priest Walter Burghardt famously put it, is to take “a long, loving look at the real.”

Or, we could say, contemplating something just means to zoom in on it. Like the participants from the artwork study.

Do our social media images deepen our look at the real, or minimize it? Does Snapchat enhance our vision or diminish it? The urgent ethical challenge that we need to face today is that technology is either going to make us more or less human – we have to figure out which way we want to evolve.

Perhaps some of this concern was behind former president Barack Obama’s selfie prohibition, which he announced during his 2017 Obama Foundation Summit. “It may seem trivial, but it’s not,” he said. “One of the weird things about becoming president is I found that people were no longer looking me in the eye.”

In his groundbreaking book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues that the most important condition for achieving a flow state is “the ability to find rewards in the events of each moment.” That is, our happiness depends on finding the joy of experiencing the present unfold. To be here. To be aware of what is here with me. To see it without a frame. To see it for what it is: a moment coming to greet me.

How many misunderstandings would be avoided if we made a concerted effort to look at each other eye to eye, without the mediation of screens? If we retrained our eyes to see as they once did before they were habituated to documentary vision?

We can and should take pictures of experiences – but only after we experience them. Otherwise, all we’re left with is a collection of images showing ourselves having experiences that we never actually felt.

Digital living: More from The Globe and Mail

Can we ever kick our smartphone addiction? Jim Balsillie and Norman Doidge discuss

Why we’ve said no to smartphones for our kids

The importance of taking a break

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