First of all, whatever your age or orientation, go see Pixar’s new movie, Inside Out. If you need more reason than “it’s Pixar,” try this: it’s a sophisticated, hilarious, brilliant, warm, beautiful, and perfectly paced film that — finally — stars a girl who is not a princess.
While nominally about the emotions in a young girl’s head, the movie is also fundamentally about memories — how they stay with us, how they influence us, and how our feelings about them change.
One of my favorite scenes was a reminder that memories sometimes have to be cleared out for others to survive. I won’t say more about it, so as not to spoil a truly beautiful sequence, but it drove home a fundamental truth: Not every memory has equal value.
This might seem self-evident, but all our life-tracking apps and social networks aren’t really built to support a life of change and variance. Isn’t it worth considering how these digital tools might be taking something away from us — and how the very act of remembering, left in our own hands, might bring unexpected rewards?
We record everything. What we eat, whom we see, where we go. Between OpenTable, Uber, Instagram, and Fandango, you could probably replicate a huge portion of your life with frightening accuracy. (And that’s without access to credit card statements or the search history on your Google Maps.)
This is hardly a new phenomenon. One of the 20th century’s great conceptual artists, On Kawara, made a career of measuring and recording his life. In his date paintings, for instance, he painted the date of whatever day he worked on the canvas, each painting no more or less than a marker of the day that he painted it.
He did this for more than 3,000 days.
His piece, I Got Up, encompasses about 1,500 postcards that he mailed to friends over the course of several years. Each card read only, “I got up” and the time that he arose. Other work includes maps recording his walking paths and lists of people he met.
Until recently, there was probably no human in history whose life had been so meticulously recorded. But, after two hours at the recent Guggenheim retrospective, absorbing thousands of details about On Kawara’s life, I still had no idea who he was.
I tend to think that scale absolves art — meaning that we don’t usually judge incredibly large or incredibly small works solely on merit. Their size requires a different (and usually more forgiving) rubric. In the case of On Kawara’s work, the scale is the art. There’s nothing there except the vast scope of his efforts. In these pages and postcards, we see the structure of his life, but it’s strangely vacant. We can piece together the movement, but can’t see the thing that moves.
Unlike On Kawara, you and I can record things about our lives without much effort at all. We do much of it by “sharing” — perhaps our least examined and most celebrated modern virtue — and the rest happens automatically. We may not write, “I went to work,” on a sheet of paper, but our email archives and our calendar serve the same purpose.
What is the impact of all this reflection? We spend our days on apps and sites with streams and timelines, making looking backward easier than moving forward.
This is not inherently bad. A sense of longitudinal consistency can boost fitness or help us kick a bad habit, and all of us have, at some point, found the warmth that comes from stumbling on a years-old post and remembering a good moment. (The popularity of apps like TimeHop seem evidence enough of our love for this “accidental” discovery.)
Just like On Kawara’s life work, though, I think these data outline our lives without describing us. These discrete memories, however well recorded, don’t tell us anything about ourselves.
Maybe that’s because they aren’t actually memories — they’re reminders.
Scientists have understood for decades that memories are not fixed. The human brain is notoriously poor at objective recollection, influenced not just in how we perceive something at the time it’s “recorded,” but how we perceive the event when we try to recall it.
This malleability is actually vital to our development. We naturally (and often subconsciously) adapt memories to help build and define our own sense of self. This is how we’re able, for instance, to take an embarrassing or sad memory and make it instructive instead of depressing.
We don’t just adapt, of course — we elevate certain memories, granting them disproportionate importance. A first kiss might be seconds long, but you remember it as the turning point of your life. A flubbed presentation might have been one of hundreds you’ve given, but it might be the one you can’t forget.
The psychologist and author Marybaird Carlsen, building on ideas developed by Harvard’s Bob Kegan, summed this up poetically: “No one can hand us a ready-made meaning; nor is something meaningful until it has been born within ourselves and woven into the tapestries of ourselves.”
What we may not realize is that emails and tweets and Facebook posts resist meaning. Twitter has no idea if one tweet is more significant to you than another, and no way to display it differently if it is. These posts also aren’t subject to our internal editing process — they’re fixed in a database, limiting our ability to appropriate them into an evolving narrative.
I’m not encouraging you to delete your Facebook account or erase every email in your archive. I’m not suggesting that the only way to move forward in this life is by scrubbing the Internet of every mention about you (as if that were even possible).
I do wonder, though, if we might benefit from some distance. Distance from our earlier lives, distance from yesterday and last year and the previous decade. I wonder what would happen if we relied more on ourselves to make the connections between our memories, instead of letting technology tell our stories.
Context matters. But creating context requires distance that our retrospective culture doesn’t afford.
I’m also hoping that we find a way to grant others some flexibility. We can disagree, we can dislike another’s actions, and we should call people out on destructive behavior. But as the records of our lives become more detailed and more accessible, I hope we can learn to see them as an outline and not the full picture.
Let’s consider the benefits of forgetting what is worth forgetting, taking back the power of telling our own stories — and letting other people be the authors of theirs.