Friday, July 20, 2012

Memory, Remembering, Social Media - Our Many Selves

I recently read Daniel Kahneman's interview in Der Spiegel.* The conversation was littered with interesting results and hypotheses, which comes as no surprise given that Kahneman is a multidisciplinary titan. His path-breaking Nobel prize-winning work has furthered our understanding of the frailties, flaws and quirks underpinning human cognition. Kahneman (and his collaborator, Amos Tversky) have busted the myth of human rationality. With his latest book – Thinking, Fast and Slow – Kahneman goes even further, examining the extent and mechanics of our innate irrationality.

One of the most compelling conclusions he discusses in the interview is the existence of two selves – the Experiencing Self and the Remembering Self. The Remembering Self has an unfair evolutionary upper hand. We are hardwired to privilege memory over experience, and so the experiencing self must often suffer monotony in order to provide the remembering self with fodder for memory. Memory also trumps experience in more insidious ways. Apparently, recall of experiences is shaped by peaks and troughs, beginnings and ends. So entire hours, days, and even weeks of pleasant (though unremarkable) experiences can be sullied by a bad ending. Apparently, it doesn’t matter how things happen as much as it matters how they begin, peak and end.

Comforting thought? I don’t think so. Because in a sense this means that in living our everyday lives, we are just marking time between dramas. And for those of us who lack the gift of theater, drama is occasional and perhaps even unwanted. Does this mean we’re condemned to eke out an existence that’s evolutionarily damned?

Maybe not. What if experience were to be immediately translated into something worth remembering? What if social media – Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, Pinterest, status updates, photo uploads, likes, comments – were a sort of salvation we’ve unwittingly invented for ourselves? After all, we spend time on these sites to elevate the mundane into memory. We take pictures of an otherwise ordinary meal and upload it for posterity. We create something and feel the need to share it as a display picture or a link. We share what we think/feel/do, on impulse, with a community of friends and family. Dinner and drinks become events, complete with invites. And blogs, of course, serve to crystallize what would otherwise be merely passing thoughts and snatches of conversation. What if, in some bizarre way, social media – criticized for the frenetic engagement and self-absorption it seems to engender – is really just one way in which we make something of our experience?

It sounds preposterous, but it might not be. In the same interview, Kahneman describes how Buddhist tradition emphasizes the importance of being present. Zen masters, as per the few books I’ve read, seek total and complete awareness. Meditation requires being in the here and now, and that’s hard work. Maybe, at some unconscious level, meditation slackers and heathens (i.e., most of us), unconsciously sense that the moments and years are slipping away. Maybe we grasp at tweets and updates in order to preserve them. “The days are long, but the years are short.” And it would be terrifying to have little to show for them.

I’m willing to bet that if intrepid researchers try to replicate Kahneman’s work 10 or 15 years down the line, they will come up with surprising results. The Facebook generation is likely to have a very different sense of memory and experience, and will probably not distinguish between the two in the manner of previous generations. But we are talking about evolutionary processes here, and hard-wiring may not have changed to keep pace with our social media habits. Biology may not have got the memo.

Even so, it’s a fascinating question. What selves are we, the foot-soldiers of web 2.0, fashioning? 

*Thanks for the link, KS. You are, as always, too kind.  

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