The Virtual World Is a World Without Memories

On some random weekday last month I found myself driving in circles around our neighborhood. Most of the kids had fallen asleep in the car, and since our family does not seem to have that gene that allows some parents to transfer sleeping children from cars to beds without waking them, I decided to cruise around for a while to let them get a nap.

It was one of the last days of summer before the public schools began their Fall sessions, and kids were everywhere, enjoying their last few moments of summer. Three girls walked down the street toward the park. The pool was ringed with teens bronzed from the blazing sun. Down the street, boys took turns on a skateboard ramp in the cul de sac. As I passed each of these vignettes, I thought of my own memories of summer vacation. Some are good, some are not so good, but they're all vivid. The images and sensations I experienced are painted into my memory with bright colors and bold strokes, so that hearing "Summer of '92" instantly brings up a set of associations that's entirely different than when I hear "Summer of '94."

As I meandered through the neighborhood I thought of these kids, and wondered what their recollections of the Summer of '12 would be. And then, on my second or third pass by the gathered groups of young people, I noticed something: Almost all of them were staring into their smartphones. Two of the three girls who walked toward the park were tapping on their phones as they walked. The skateboarding boys only put their devices back in their pockets to take a turn on the ramp, then got them out again. Most of the kids at the pool who weren't swimming were similarly entranced with their iPhones and Androids.

Beholding these scenes left me with all the usual reactions most of us have when we see something like that: We, as a society, spend too much time staring into glowing screens, we need to spend more time being present to those around us, etc. etc. etc. Nothing new there. But when I thought again about how these kids would remember the Summer of '12, for the first time I wondered how our smartphone use is going to impact our memories of the lives we're living today.

When I think back to the Summer of '92, for example, I picture meandering around the town square with my best friend. The hostess at the corner cafe got used to seeing us, and would sometimes catch our attention to motion us in for free glasses of freshly-squeezed lemonade. We'd see familiar cars rolling down the street and wave at them when they passed by. We'd say hi to the owner of the clothing boutique as she swept off the entryway of her building, and gaze at the new titles on display at the used books store nextdoor. Each of these small moments is like a brush stroke on a canvass, and together they form a richly colored picture that will remain with me for the rest of my life...but I was only able to experience them because I was fully present to the world around me.

I compared that to a memory of a recent event that I attended. I had some childcare issues come up, and ended up moving to a back corner of the room so that I could send text messages to my mother and husband to get the situation worked out. I made every effort to pay attention to the event, and was genuinely interested in it, but I don't remember it well. I had one foot in the physical world around me, and another in the virtual world inside of my phone. My memories of that summer 20 years ago are far more vivid than my memories of this event two months ago.

It says something about the ultimate hollowness of virtual activities that they'd don't leave us with memories. With rare exceptions, nobody remembers what texts they sent last month, or the status updates they read and posted last year. In my last pass through the neighborhood late this summer, I looked again at the kids immersed in their electronic devices, and wondered how clearly they'll be able to remember these months when so much of their attention was off in a virtual world. And, of course, I couldn't help but apply that question to myself. I thought about my own moments of texting during time with the kids, glancing at email during phone calls with friends or family members, getting immersed in status updates to the point that I forget the real world around me, and I wondered if my own recollections of these years will be pocked with blank spots, made less vivid by countless moments lost in glowing screens.