Disposable experience: a celebration

speedracer

The human sensorium perpetually replenishes its abundance. Life is much of a muchness, as the Dormouse said. If you want to drive someone crazy, literally, close the windows and draw the blinds on his senses. Starved, the brain eats itself.

To be replenished, experience must be disposable. The cup must be emptied to be refilled. Most of what we see and hear and smell and touch and taste, most of what we say and do, is quickly forgotten. Experience evaporates, leaving at most a smudged trace in memory. What matters is what happens, not what happened.

The evanescence of experience is joy. Beauty is pied and fleeting, fickle and freckled. Vitality is motion. But in that unceasing cycle of disposal and replenishment lies melancholy, too, a foretaste of our final leave-taking. There’s a part of the mind that rebels, that wants to save everything, to pile up experience’s goods as a kind of barricade against mortality. It doesn’t work.¬†The record of experience becomes a record of loss and of decay.¬†Every memento turns into a memento mori. Around the hoarder sadness thickens.

Our newfound ability to turn everyday experience into stored data gives another turn to the old screw. It ratchets up the tension between the natural and necessary disposability of experience and the vain but understandable desire to make experience permanent, to never let it go. The egoist and the solipsist outfit themselves with cameras and microphones and scanners, spend their days recording everything. By definition, their experiences are invaluable. Like bars of gold, each one must be kept in a vault.

Only oddballs go to such extremes. Life-logging is the trend that never happened. Most of us are happy that experience is disposable. We want the next experience, not the last one. Even for those who are always pulling out their phones to snap pictures or shoot videos, to text or tweet or tumble or otherwise share the moments of their being, the pleasure lies mainly in the recording, not in the record. The act of recording is itself a disposable experience. The tools for recording and sharing are disposable as well. They get old.

This is a problem for those who operate social networks or otherwise have a financial stake in our record-keeping. They want nothing more than to turn us all into sad hoarders, to have us care as much about the record of the experience as about the experience itself. They want us to live retrospectively, to think about our lives as a Timeline. But we frustrate them. We get bored with the record. We flock to the new experience, the new tool, and the more disposable the better: IM, blog, text, tweet, gif, pin, instagram, snap, vine. Words and sounds and images on the wind. Here and gone.

You can’t catch us, no matter how hard you try. Your schemes are joyless, and they’re doomed.

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6 Responses to Disposable experience: a celebration

  1. http://www.sccs.swarthmore.edu/users/00/pwillen1/lit/borg&i.htm
    “The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things.

    Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.

    I do not know which of us has written this page.”

  2. Nick –

    1. We’ve been recording our experiences, memories, thoughts and feelings outside our brains for several hundred years by means books and paintings. We used these media, these extra-cranial recording devices, to save and share not only our considerations but also – as nearly as the medium allowed – our perceptions themselves. To render them available to others and to preserve them for posterity, we built libraries and museums… More recently, before the advent of social media, we were using Kodak/Fujifilm to “capture” moments as artefacts which we could preserve and share. The principal advances of our time, for recording and sharing, would to be those of electronic memory, electronic displays and the internet. A fundamental question, it appears to me, is: What is so different qualitatively about electronic media? (The immediate answer from physics is obvious, but just doesn’t feel like it answers the question.)

    2. I agree that recording experience beyond a point “doesn’t work”. I’m less sure where exactly that point is. Clearly, the technologies of memory and its sharing are more ubiquitous and more available than they’ve ever been. The problem is not this itself, but that when we become more concerned with recording experience than with experience itself, it begins to feel wrong, less satisfying, less intense, less real… We don’t want our lives taken over by the recording of life (ever easier though that becomes). We don’t want to be addicted to Facebook, Instagram or Silicon Valley’s *social* gimmick of the month. But neither do we want to throw out the picture albums of our childhood or the notes of our thoughts/feelings at distant but significant moments in our lives. We don’t want to sacrifice experience to remembering. But neither do we want it to be too hard to remember. Again, I’m not sure I know where on that spectrum we can best manage this tension. But we can be sure it won’t be going away any time soon.

  3. Daniel Cole

    I enjoy your poetic entries. The cold jargon that coats so much of the conversation about media and technology goes a long way all by itself toward dehumanizing the subject, which I view as part and parcel of the trend toward ceasing to treat the human being as a distinct entity. Much better to view it as a stream of information to be manipulated or an arrangement of matter to be tinkered with without any lingering moral connotations.

    More to the point, though, aren’t we capable of contradictory desires? We want to travel out, yet stay close to home. We want intimacy as well as independence. We want our experiences recorded and retrievable, yet we also want a steady influx of novelty. We want the security of control, as well as the excitement of danger. I think these kinds of illogical, seemingly irreconcilable dualities are the reason we’ve made it this far without being bored to death. Satisfaction is inertia.

  4. Tim

    I am reminded of “The Time-tombs” by J.G. Ballard. And happy to have the memory of it.

  5. John Schoettler

    Nicholas, I thought you would find this article about the rise of digital dementia among young people interesting @ http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/southkorea/10138403/Surge-in-digital-dementia.html

  6. grizzlymarmot

    I am not certain that this phenomenon is all that innocent. First of all, I am not always the one who decides if my experiences are being recorded. The second issue is that the act of recording will change the action. Ultimately the second issue may be the point. Perhaps the real goal is to alter what we do. Whether it is in the name of national security; or for youtube, Facebook and their ilk to obtain more content freely contributed.