Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Digital memories overwrite real thing


Tuesday May 09, 2006

Digital memories overwrite real thing
* Camera phones let anyone capture the moment -- but they risk missing the experience.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

None of the 250,000 or so protesters who crowded around Los Angeles City Hall on May 1 have license to forget that day. Nor to remember it incorrectly. The Nation of Islam SUV rolled by just after the mariachi band, not the other way around. Don't believe me? Review the tapes, archived on more than a dozen public photo and video sharing websites like Flickr.com and Buzznet.com. Opinion is irrelevant. We've got the facts.

It's tough to find a cellphone these days that doesn't double as a camera, and at the demonstration, cellphones joined countless digital cameras, video cameras and even conventional film cameras to document history in progress.

Truth is, practically anything beautiful or terrible or just slightly unusual calls for the interposition of a lens these days -- stop along PCH to watch the sun set over the Pacific and you're bound to encounter passersby holding up their phones, watching the digital version. At the recent Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, hundreds of people packed into UCLA's Royce Hall to see Arianna Huffington interview Gore Vidal, and I watched a man watch the entire hourlong conversation on his 1-inch-square cellphone screen, snapping pictures along the way.

Photographing the moment is only the beginning. Next stop is dissemination, in which that experience, that memory, is transferred, at the push of a button to other cellphones, to computers, to any of the several dozen media sharing websites, joining more than 122 million photos on Flickr alone and millions of videos on Youtube.com. And then it spreads further still, filtering through some of the 57 million MySpace.com pages and onward through Facebook.com and Friendster.com, and the rest of the social networking universe.

A memory for one is a memory for all; the fallibility of memory is no more. Arriving home, sweaty and satisfied after an exhilarating immigration protest -- or cool and quiet after watching an auburn sunset across the sea -- talking about your day becomes a different exercise than it once was. Remembrances are no longer ambiguous collages of past and present experiences but rather the well-defined digital records sitting in front of us. We don't close our eyes to invoke memory; we open them wide to decipher the proof, the truth. It's clarity of one sort, though maybe blindness of another.

A stranger across the globe who knows me only as my Internet moniker can stare through my camera-eyes and interpret my experience, perhaps more accurately than I can. Perhaps she notices a smaller mariachi band just before the Nation of Islam SUV, at the border of the frame. Perhaps that sunset was more red than auburn. Perhaps Gore Vidal was rising to stand, at the moment of applause, when I remember him lowering himself toward his wheelchair.

Whatever I remember, the image overwrites it. Computers may catch viruses, may be prone to crashing, but they don't have creative imaginations that color their memories.

We perceive images and videos as "ground truth," says Elizabeth Loftus, distinguished professor of psychology at UC Irvine and an expert on memory. Studies have shown that when people are presented with doctored family photographs, they often adjust their memories, even invent false memories, rather than questioning visual evidence.

Didn't Aunt Betty die in '93? Well, I guess not -- here she is at the reunion in '95. I remember now! She played piano with Cousin Lou!

Technology marches giddily forward, and it's a safe bet that cameras and other recording gadgets will proliferate further, that distribution channels will become more immediate and accessible, and that in sum, collective memory will interact with individual memory in ways we cannot yet comprehend. In one sense, this web of interconnection is the awe-inspiring stuff of Buddhist "inter-being"; it conjures a thousand mystics saying in their various tongues, "we are all one." It threatens to disappear the fractious boundaries of place, time, race, sex, self even.

But it also can be seen as rendering the moment something other than the moment, transporting us into the past and the future -- anywhere but the present -- and transferring our experience to everybody except the self.

It's difficult to imagine Robert Frost, say, stopping in the woods on a snowy evening, giving his harness bells a shake with one hand while holding a camera phone with the other, and still taking in enough of the experience to conjure it later in verse. Another poet could write from Frost's photo record, although whose woods those were he might not know.

Enlightenment or alienation. Or something in between.

"The whole idea of personal experience, if it were simply left to the person alone, would be pretty meaningless and superficial," says Ken Gergen, professor of psychology at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and author of "The Saturated Self." "It's only because we're engaged in relationships that it becomes something. We never do see things through our own eyes; we always see them through the eyes of others. In some sense, it was always the others' sunset, the others' City Hall confrontation."

Yes, humans long to share, and we begin to conceptualize memory before the moment ends. We fantasize about future conversations, rehearsing them in the car and the shower until they finally come to pass. Yet the culture of immediate connectivity is something else -- not good, not bad, but with possibilities for both.

"We're a culture in transition," Gergen says. "We thrive on the notion of authenticity, individuality, interiority. At the same time, there's something isolating about that as well. The techno-civilization is moving us into connectivity very rapidly. There is something to be glad about, which has to do with breaking down these isolations, bringing us together. My sense is there's reason to be optimistic. But only if we start thinking, considering, debating about it."

The danger, I guess, is that we'll watch everything change through our viewfinders and then get so carried away with sharing that we forget to reflect.

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