Do we still need non-digital ways of remembering and sharing our experiences?
(Approximately a 6 - 7 minute read)
There are aspects of re-experiencing and sharing a story, that cannot be digitally preserved.
When your friend says, “Remember that camping trip?” they are not just recalling dry facts, the names of campsites, stops marked off on an itinerary.
Your friend is recalling a host of felt perceptions and experiences that have shaped the relationship you share and have become part of who you are.
Recently my kids and I joined some other homeschooling families on a camping trip in outback Queensland, to follow part of “Australia’s Dinosaur Trail.”
Visiting the Hughenden Museum during our trip, we saw a short movie describing the formation of beautiful, ancient Porcupine George, a popular bush camping spot north of Hughenden.
The movie spanned time, from the Big Bang all the way to the present day, describing the geological forces that shaped the layers of rock that one can see in Porcupine George.
It was a good movie, but I couldn’t help wondering how much more easily our children might have understood it, had they heard that story from a person rather than seen it on a screen.
Imagine a dusty, firelit stage, beneath the stars
Why do I feel cheated, that in my time information about our world and our origins is more often shared via a screen than by a living person?
Rather than an air-conditioned room and a screen flashing words and images, I imagined a wise old person, perhaps painted and adorned, beside a campfire, beneath the spectacular stars of those clear inland skies.
I imagined this person telling the story in concrete body language and voice tones and well-crafted symbolism.
Perhaps the story teller would use holistic metaphors as much as linear facts – metaphors that might then lie quietly within the young listener, waiting to unfold layers of meaning for them throughout the coming stages of their lives.
Are we impoverishing ourselves by relying on digital devices to record and share information?
Oral tradition among Australian aborigines is known to reach back, accurately in terms of their descriptions of the land forms around them, as far as 8 to 10,000 years.
Thousands of years’ worth of wisdom and experience and perspective, captured in story, song and dance, retaining accuracy generation upon generation.
I, modern human, in contrast, can’t remember what I did before lunch yesterday.
With so many ways we can now record and pass on information, we no longer need to be able to remember and share our stories in the ways we once did.
Or do we?
The power of a living story
When we compromise ownership of our stories, we lose something of their life and power.
Information can now be recorded without us retaining it as part of who we are.
Does it matter that some of the richness, depth and complexity we would once have embodied is now stored outside of our selves, on digital devices?
Something of the life and power of our stories is lost when we hand story telling over entirely to mainstream media.
Let electronic media enhance, not replace, older ways of sharing
Yes, here I am - writing to you and sharing my thoughts via digital media.
I enjoy and use digital media as much as anybody does. I’ve read material, heard music, and seen movies, all via modern media, that have moved me deeply, changed me, and made me richer. And important, powerful stories can be shared more widely with the help of digital media.
But let that not blind us to the slow, quiet power of a living story, simply told, on an earthen stage beneath the sky.
How digital cameras remove us from what’s real
In a very amateurish way, I enjoy the challenge of trying to capture an experience in an image.
But I’m beginning to recognize a downside to owning a digital camera-toy. Its so easy to be distracted from the experience at hand, by a desire to photograph it.
Why do I get caught up in the desire to take the perfect photo of what I’m seeing? Several reasons, but one of them is so that I can earn some approval when I show the photo to someone else.
During our camping trip, one morning I left my kids with other parents for a short time and went to sit alone on the lookout above Porcupine George.
It was blissful, but even while I sat there on the ridge, I knew I was not fully present. Part of me was already in the future, showing off my photos to someone whose good opinion might make me feel fleetingly better about myself.
The earth, the top of that ancient ridge, the buffeting wind and the scratchy grasses and the scurrying ants and the silent, timeless sky – those are things I had an opportunity to be with.
Capturing images of an experience may be a surface game that leaves the deepest parts of us un-nourished.
By not being fully there, I missed an opportunity to allow them to nourish the part of me that lies deeper inside me than the need for recognition or approval.
Standing aside from the earth and wind and the sky and in order to photograph them, part of me was working on earning points in the “I’ve been to at least as many interesting and zen-like paces as you have” game.
Capturing images of an experience, if it prevents us from being in the experience, is a surface game. It takes us out of the deepest parts of ourselves and leaves those parts un-nourished.
A category of “otherness” that keeps us eternally searching
Placing the natural world in a category of "otherness" keeps us eternally searching for a missing piece of ourselves.
You might be going to say: Wasn’t I just taking pics so I could remember?
Well, yes, I was.
But in feeling the need to use a digital device to get more from the experience, whatever else I might have been doing, I was also expressing a lack of receptiveness and trust.
A lack of connection to the moment and to the earth and sky as something to relate to and integrate with.
I was placing them in a category of “otherness,” entities to stand aside from and observe as outside myself, as something to capture on film rather than be with or be part of.
Such a "not part of me" way of experiencing the world may keep us eternally searching for a missing piece of ourselves.
Electronic media bypasses the brain regions that make us human
Relying on screens to teach our kids and entertain ourselves reduces opportunities to integrate the richness of the experiences that make us who we are.
I suggested earlier that relying too much on digital devices to help us record and pass on information, impoverishes us by reducing the complexity and richness of our experiences down to mere data.
Brain research also points out that overuse or poorly planned use of digital media interferes with the development of the regions of our brain responsible for the traits that make us human.
The fast moving, compelling imagery of electronic media activates the fast, effortless, reactive neural pathways in the older, "reptilian" and "paleo-mammalian," parts of our brains.
It would be the more recently evolved parts of the human brain (responsible, among other things, for abstract thought and voluntary attention) that would be required for, and developed by, the learning and sharing of information in story, song and dance.
The more we rely on screens to teach our kids and to entertain ourselves, the more we undermine our capacity to integrate the riches of the experiences that contribute to who we are.
"Parenting in the Age of Attention Snatchers," by Lucy Jo Palladino, PhD.
"Buddha’s Brain: the Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom," by Rick Hanson PH.D. and Richard Mendius MD