I just returned from a moving and enlightening trip to Peru, visiting the Andes, Machu Pichu, and the Sacred Valley. Everywhere we went I was awestruck by the beauty of a culture and people who had to work intimately with nature to preserve their history and arts.
But, everywhere we turned, one exceptional artifice also glared – the selfie stick. Like a real-life version of the Amy Schumer SNL skit, people were taking selfies before every sacred statue and monument. I began to get the sense of walking through a giant photographers’ studio, where patrons picked and chose exotic backdrops with an eye to getting the best Instagram pic.
Now, I’m certainly not coming down against selfies, Instagram, or picture-taking in general. It can be a lovely way to connect with people, to make the world feel broader, to bring those at home closer to where you are. My son took many beautiful pictures on our trip, capturing the complexities of our journey; the beautiful locales…the peerless ancient temples…the terror of being accosted by a ferocious, territorial alpaca who thinks your sweater makes you a rival male. Pictures can be a key way we attest to where we are, and remind ourselves of those moments in future.
But they can also become more about our perception to others than our own experiences. If you spend half your trip with your face to the camera, you may get wonderful photos of you to send back home, but you could also fall victim to forgetting to truly be where you are. Sense memories are some of the most informative emotional building-blocks of who we are and how we create our identities. If we neglect them because we know we can easily just snap a photo, we will lose them; and we may just find ourselves looking over a series of gorgeous pics, scratching our heads and realizing that we don’t remember what it really felt like to be in them.
Memory is a use-it-or-lose-it commodity. The more we rely on technology to supplement it, the weaker our brains become when we have to rely on remembrance alone. A future of virtual memories and weakened emotional contact with our lives does not bode well for the future of our relationships to others and ourselves. As I indicate in “Connecting or Not in The Golden Age of Communication,” relationships and true-self love don’t play well with onscreen overstimulation.
While this phenomenon may only seem to immediately impact how we remember travel, it goes far beyond that. Love does not work in a world in which experiences are overly virtual. Basic human emotional hardware was created centuries before such technology, and face-to-face interaction remains the primary way we can communicate and connect fully. As the many horror stories of cyber bullying and online harassment attest, it is easier to be cruel in the virtual world; because the human emotional system evolved to privilege face-to-face contact, removal of that element makes those on the other end of an account or web page seem less real. And the less real something seems, whether it be an experience, a place, or a person, the less connection we feel, and thus, the less responsibility for what we do.
I do wonder if preserving memories virtually may lead to a lack of interest in preserving the world around us, since, if we have the pictures, who needs the reality? Technology has a wonderful power to connect us – but the moment we forget the real place or person on the other end of it, it becomes a force to divide us.