Humans have always felt compelled to collect, record, and preserve. Glass cases in archives and museums hold precious material objects of cultural or historical import; scrapbooks, picture frames, and Facebook photo albums hold our cherished personal memories. In the Age of the iPhone, capturing memories just got a whole lot easier. You can snap a selfie or take a video with the mere tap of the screen and preserve a fleeting moment forever. Oh, the wonders of technological innovation, right?
But what if we’ve become so obsessed with documenting experiences that we forget to live them while they’re happening?
While I was studying abroad in the UK, I saw my favorite band Bastille in concert. This guy in front of me held his iPhone over his head and recorded every song. Every. Single. One. I was both infuriated and puzzled. Not only was he obscuring my vision of the stage, but didn’t he pay good money to see Bastille live? Wasn’t he missing out on the concert? And who wants to watch his shaky, low-quality videos anyway? Were they proof that “Dude, I was there!”?
Even if you’re not one of these offenders at concerts, admit it. You’ve done some version of this too: thinking to yourself “This will make an awesome profile pic!” or “This sunset is totally Instagram-worthy.”
I’m guilty myself; on my first trip to Europe, I took a whopping 2,500+ photos. I wonder how much of my experience was mediated through the viewfinder of my camera.
When I visited the Vatican over this past summer, I made a conscious decision to leave my camera behind. I didn’t want to be fiddling with the flash settings or trying to keep my hand steady. I could always find much higher quality photos online to refresh my memory later if I wanted to. For a Highly Sensitive Person like myself, touring the Vatican was already an overwhelming sensory experience. I felt like a hot, sticky sardine packed among zombies shuffling along predetermined pathways, clutching their cameras above their heads Lion King-style. (Don’t even get me started on tourists who take pictures with their iPads.)
I tried to soak in the splendor of the Sistine Chapel, the decadent texture of the rooms, the immensity of the tapestries, the sour smell of sweat, the uncomfortable feeling claustrophobia—all of which contribute to shaping my amorphous memory of this experience, a mental snapshot in time that is more present and complete.
Don’t get me wrong. Taking pictures is a beautiful way of guarding against the unreliability of human memory and facilitating recollection. Photographs, writing, art—these are all, perhaps, the closest we can ever get to communicating our experiences to others and reliving our memories.
But we all need to stop viewing the world through five inches of screen. The next time you’re on a trip or at a party, a concert, or a big game, make sure making memories doesn’t take precedence over enjoying the moment.
Sometimes, it’s good to unplug and live a little.