Ahead of Meik Wiking‘s talk at the Idler Dinner later this month, we are pleased to share a preview from his new book, The Art of Making Memories. In it, Wiking, founder of the Happiness Research Institute, explores the nature of happy memories and how we can use them to construct a positive narrative of our lives. This extract focuses on the dangers of outsourcing memories and digital amnesia.
When we asked people in our Happy Memory Study why they remembered a specific memory, 7 per cent said that they had some sort of memento from the event – for instance, a photograph. Each year, humans take more than a trillion photos. A trillion is a thousand billion – I had to look it up. It is no wonder that we sometimes feel that we are drowning in snapshots of other people’s lives. I think the number is best visualized by an exhibition by Dutch artist Erik Kessels in which he printed out 350,000 photographs from Flickr – the number shared in one day – and placed them in a gallery.
Most of our photos these days remain in the cloud, on drives, inside apps or on social media and never make it into print. Browsing old school photo albums has been almost completely replaced by scrolling through Instagram and Facebook.
On Thursdays and Fridays, my feed is flooded with #tbt and #fbf – also known as Throwback Thursdays and Flashback Fridays. Taking it one step further is Timehop, described as #tbt every day. Here, users’ social media posts and pictures from the same day from several years are pulled together in a time capsule that can be shared with others. Timehop’s motto is ‘Celebrate your best memories every day’ and their goal is to reinvent reminiscing and help people find new ways to connect with each other around the past.
The fact that we are outsourcing our memory to the internet makes things even more complicated. The Instagram generation are not only their own PR managers; they are also architects of their future memories. However, we also risk digital amnesia through losing our precious photographs and messages along with our phone or laptop. Studies also show that, if we think we can re-find a fact online later, we are less likely to commit it to memory in the first place.
One study by Ian Robertson, a professor of neuropsychology based at Trinity College Dublin, conducted with 3,000 Britons found that a third of those under the age of thirty were unable to recall their telephone number without using their phone. The study was published in 2007 and we certainly haven’t become less dependent on our devices since then.
Life logging is not a new thing. We used to call it keeping a diary. But a new breed of apps and gadgets is taking it to a new level of details and vividness. A wide selection of life-logging cameras capture moments throughout the day.
Some are worn around the neck and can shoot up to 2,000 photos per day, while others shoot two photos a minute and tag where they were taken using a built-in GPS.
Through our devices and social media accounts, we store mountains of details from our lives, but we never seem to organize them. As I see it, the problem is not the lack of collecting but the lack of curating and preserving.
Our digital libraries are a total mess. We store photos – but we seldom see them. We get crushed under our own big data. To make matters worse, we not only suffer from this photo fatigue but also risk digital amnesia. Because, contrary to what many people think, digital records are often more difficult to preserve than traditional print records.
Twelve years ago I attended a wedding in Siena. It was stunning. There were ladies in big hats and gentlemen in flax suits. We spent a week there in a villa outside the town, having dinner at long tables and going for walks in the hills.
I must have taken a thousand pictures that week. They are all gone. I am not sure when or how. They were on a camera. They were on a computer. One was stolen. One broke down. One hundred years after the lost generation, we see a generation of lost memories.
That is a real contrast to the experience I had this year with old school photographs. The photo albums I had not seen in twenty years were still there. Faded, yes. Cropped faces, yes. But they were there. I have now started to print out the digital shots recording the moments that are most meaningful to me.
Extract from The Art of Making Memories: How to Create and Remember Happy Moments by Meik Wiking (Penguin Life, £12.99). Pre-order a copy here.