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Does documenting your life online keep you from actually living it?: An excerpt from the new TED Book, Our Virtual Shadow

Our-Virtual-Shadow-coverBy Damon Brown

The morning of our wedding, my wife and I only had one major discussion: Should we bring our cell phones? She loved Facebook as much as I loved Twitter, and since we’ve lived and made friends all across the country, the social networks made it easier to stay connected to our loved ones far away. We wanted those who couldn’t make it to the wedding to feel connected, too. But we decided to put the smartphones away. Our decision turned out to be the right one: I can honestly still remember every single moment of the ceremony. I was fully present.

A few months later, my favorite uncle shared some good news: He had pictures — hundreds of pictures — from our wedding day. He’d gotten some gorgeous shots, he said, and he couldn’t wait to send them to us. He also told me that he couldn’t wait to get the official video, since he’d been distracted and missed a lot. He was excited to watch a recap of what had happened because he had been busy trying to capture the beautiful moments as they were actually happening.

At this point, the discussion usually veers into our overly plugged-in society — the subsidized cell phone industry makes photo-ready smartphones really cheap, the prevalence of phones encourages everyone to take more pictures, our phones encourage us to use them every time they buzz, etc. But let’s throw that red herring back into the digital river. Our need to capture our memories certainly didn’t start with Instagram.

The decisions I, my wife, and my uncle faced are part of the same conflict humans have had throughout time: how do we capture and save a potentially significant moment? It is the prehistoric caveman making images on the wall, the elementary-school class creating a time capsule, every man in an army platoon getting the same tattoo right before a battle. Each moldy Polaroid, FourSquare check-in, and uploaded YouTube video creates a breadcrumb trail back through our lives. We want these archives, whether digital or physical, to point back to the very real experience we had, or, just as importantly, to give us insight into someone else’s experience. Silicon Valley tech culture expert Paul Philleo calls these mementos anchors of memory.

If you picture all the experiences in our lifetimes as drops in the ocean, anchors of memory are those manmade landmarks reminding us that something of note is located there. Without them, we risk forgetting our most important moments in a sea of mundane recollections. For instance, the first time you visit the Statue of Liberty, you may create an anchor of memory that is physical, like writing a passage in your diary, or an anchor of memory that is virtual, like checking into the location on an app. The physical anchor of memory takes up physical space and requires physical maintenance: keeping your diary dry, finding a safe place to store it, etc. A virtual anchor of memory takes up virtual space and requires time maintenance: making sure your account is active, managing relationships on the check-in service, etc. The physical anchors of memory represent the stuff we make the space to own, which constitute our possessions; our virtual anchors of memory represent the stuff we make the time to upload, which create our virtual shadow. In both cases, we’ve reserved a spot for a particular symbolic gesture in our life.

To better understand the anchors of memory, let’s look at them as what a programmer would call them: pointers. A pointer is an empty object whose sole purpose is to represent something else with actual content. The Polaroid doesn’t contain your 1978 family reunion, but it points to the memory of that event in your mind. A Twitter status is 140 organized symbols that, for you, trigger a particular idea. Or, in more physical terms, a city mile marker is merely metal with scribbles on it, but it shows you where you have to go to get to that particular place.

But what happens if the pointer, this empty piece of symbolism, aims at something that is inaccurate, incomplete, or, worse, not of value at all?

This essay has been excerpted from the new TED Book Our Virtual Shadow: Why We Are Obsessed with Documenting Our Lives Online, by culture writer Damon Brown, creator of the app Quote Unquote and author of more than a dozen books, including Porn & Pong: How Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider and Other Sexy Games Changed Our Culture. His new TED Book takes a look at what happens to us as individuals in a world of infinite status updates, constant tweeting, obsessive Instagraming. It answers the question: Does documenting our lives keep us from living them? And more important: How can we use social media tools, which satisfy a real need to be heard and remembered, to help us stay present in actual life?

Our Virtual Shadow” is available for the Kindle, Nook, or through the iBookstore. Or download the TED Books app for your iPad or iPhone. Read more »