Opinion: Documenting the present aids the past

Assistant Copy Chief Meg Robison argues that documentation of events is beneficial in the long run.

It seems like I can barely send a text in public without someone making a comment about how dependent my generation is on technology. Again and again I have listened to adults claim technological advancements are making their children antisocial and emotionally distant, that we are obsessed with documenting our lives but not really living them. Older people love to boast about how they had a “real” childhood, untainted by the devices poisoning today’s youth. But I have to wonder how accurate their nostalgia is. Memory has a way of leaving the unpleasant details behind.

It’s easy to remember past events as better than they were. I’ve fallen into that trap more times than I can count. When I’m swamped with deadlines and adult responsibilities, it can be tempting to daydream about how much easier life was when I was fifteen and didn’t have to pay for textbooks or make my own meals. But revisiting my old Facebook statuses, tumblr posts and journal entries quickly dispels those warm feelings.

The tendency to remember our pasts more favorably than they were is natural. Our brains prioritize the storage of memories that motivate us and make us feel good, and memories that become stories we share with our friends are more likely to stay in the forefronts of our minds than the embarrassing moments we keep to ourselves. But sharing memories can distort them even further, making us more likely to remember the way we told them as stories than the events themselves. During a study conducted by Northwestern Medicine and published in the 2012 Journal of Neuroscience, researchers discovered the way our brains retrieve memories is less like opening a file on a computer and more like a game of telephone.

“A memory is not simply an image produced by time traveling back to the original event – it can be an image that is somewhat distorted because of the prior times you remembered it,” according to the 2012 article “Your Memory is like the Telephone Game” on the Northwestern University website. “Your memory of an event can grow less precise even to the point of being totally false with each retrieval. … Memories aren’t static. If you remember something in the context of a new environment and time, or if you are even in a different mood, your memories might integrate the new information.”

I cannot think of a single scenario where having a cell phone or video camera has inhibited my enjoyment of an event. In fact, I’ve found I enjoy myself more when I’m not worrying I might forget something important. If I know a performance or speech is being videotaped, I can let myself relax and get caught up in it emotionally rather than frantically try to memorize every detail. Videotaping events like this also allows them to reach a much bigger audience than just those present. The idea that social media isolates people from each other is ridiculous when the basis of social media is sharing.

This might be the history buff in me, but I want to be able to share an accurate glimpse of my past with younger generations. I’d rather pull up pictures and statuses from events as they occurred than try to recollect something that happened years ago. And if older people still feel compelled to boast about how much better it was growing up before the age of cell phones and laptops, it’s probably because they’re remembering an idealized version of the past.