Permanent recording and unremembered pleasures

A few weeks ago, Nicolas Carr, who’s generally a reliable source of technoskepticism, had a column in the Guardian about the capability we now have to record every aspect of our own lives — “life logging”, as it was called in a recent New Yorker article Carr links to. Carr points out that this trend is likely only to intensify as technology improves and companies become more aggressive about marketing it:

As surprising as it may seem, we’re probably only in the early stages of this phenomenon. Big companies like Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo! and Google, as well as many internet startups, are working hard to give us new and even more powerful tools for recording our lives. They want to make self-recording automatic, as natural as breathing. Their goal isn’t just to sell us more computers and cameras; they know that the more details of our existence that we encode and send over the internet, the more they’ll learn about who we are, how we act, what products we’ll buy and what advertisements will catch our eyes. The more we reveal about ourselves, the more attractive we become as targets for marketers.

That’s a pretty grim prognosis; our narcissism will allow advertisers to target us in real time, and we’ll probably be flattered by this, that we are known personally to these large transnational institutions. The more personalized the ads aimed at us become — the personalized recommendations on Amazon, etc. — the more intense our narcissism may grow, as our expectations will adjust to having everything tailored for us. We may grow intolerant of one-size-fits-all offerings and choose to channel more of our existence through virtual reality, where more personalization and customization can be blended in seamlessly. Of course other people will be annoyed that they can’t escape from themselves, that their environment always seems to anticipate just who they are and doesn’t permit them the fantasy of becoming a different sort of person with different desires.

But because we can record every aspect of our lives, does that mean we must? And what do we sacrifice for all this self-mediation? By attending so much to recording our lives, are we putting ourselves at one remove from the life we are supposed to be living and recording?

What exactly is behind our rage to document the minutiae of our daily existence? That’s hard to say. Maybe it’s just another manifestation of modern-day narcissism. Maybe it’s a byproduct of our media-saturated culture, with its sense that nothing’s real until it’s been recorded and broadcast. Or maybe it goes deeper than that. In striving to preserve the moments of our lives, to immortalise them, might we simply be expressing our fear of death?

As for Socrates, it’s hard to imagine that he’d be pleased with any of this. We’re so busy recording our lives that we have little time left to examine them. And perhaps that, more than anything else, is the real point.

So the real point is that we are using technology to reject the prospect of an examined life, of considering more deeply what it is we are actually doing? Instinctually I want to agree with this. I recently got a digital camera, and I took it on a trip I made recently to the California desert. I took some pictures while I was there:

And I was pretty happy with how they turned out. But I spent most of the time I was out on the dunes thinking about taking pictures rather than the vast nothingness I had hoped would be meditative, would take me away from the world I would share the pictures with. The camera became a tie, holding me to a conceptual place where the photos would reside and be shared.

But at the same time the camera gave me a way of focusing, a way of taking the time to really look at the landscape around me. It made me ask questions I wouldn’t otherwise have thought to ask. Like, who is receiving mail here?

This was in the wasteland that rings the Salton Sea, one of the most bizarre places I’ve ever been. Amid the scary shacks like the one above are brand new McMansion looking houses but they are detatched from their natural environment in planned developments and are out here where nothing apears planned. These three-garage houses will have port-a-potties in the front “yard” (strange to call it a yard because nothing grows) because there aren’t any sewage lines out there. Anyway, having a camera made my meandering through this forbidding landscape much more interesting and compelling. It didn’t feel like self-recording at the time. The idea that you’re recording could have the effect of making one choose more interesting things to do or work harder to make things seem more interesting in the way they are recorded. But such a life, artificially heightened, would probably become exhausting, crowding out the time when one could replenish one’s capabilities to take things in and process them at a more-than-superficial level. What permanent recording deprives us of most of all is that contemplative “dead” time in which we restore ourselves — the sort of time Wordworth describes in “Tintern Abbey”:

But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din

Of towns and cities, I have owed to them

In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,

Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;

And passing even into my purer mind,

With tranquil restoration: — feelings too

Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,

As have no slight or trivial influence

On that best portion of a good man’s life,

His little, nameless, unremembered, acts

Of kindness and of love.

If Carr is write about the future, the very idea of an unremembered pleasure will become impossible; the phrase will become an oxymoron.