It is hard to imagine now a time before the internet.
Pre-internet, it was common to see on a person’s book shelf photo albums. Everybody had them. Perhaps they still do.
You would take a photo of things which mattered most to you. Most often, if not always, those photos were of children, family, and holidays. They were treasured people and moments we attempted to capture for eternity. Those moments we captured struck like lightning – often we could sometimes see them brewing on the horizon. But such moments, like lightning, struck fast, gloriously, and, as quickly as they arose, vanished. And when they did happen, we attempted in vain to capture that lightning – those moments – in a bottle.
Some people were more obsessed with producing photo albums than others, capturing less unique moments that they still found interest or meaning in. There was, of course, a limit for everyone, given that photo albums took up physical space on a book shelf in a home. You couldn’t have limitless albums. So people had to actively choose which moments to keep and which to discard. Which ones really mattered and which ones didn’t. They had to be actively conscious of the meaning these things had.
Why are we so intent on capturing lightning in bottles? Our concern seems to lie in a widespread intuition that:
If something is valuable then it should be kept for as long as possible.
Or, maybe, the length of time some thing exists is necessarily tied to the value of that thing.
This would explains people’s concern about ‘leaving their legacy’ – for the value of their life, to them at least, is tied in part with how long their actions resonate or effect generations after their death. Sure, we admit that ‘nothing lasts forever’. But while we do so, we often think of that as being an unavoidable and regrettable fact of reality which we can’t over come. That nothing lasts forever should be something you come to terms with, but it is still lamentable.
Our desire for things to last for as long as possible, if not forever, is one powerful reason, amongst others, which drives our desire for particular types of technology. In technology we find a way of making that which was ephemeral permanent. Our memories may fade but our photos do not. And while physical photos might decay or be damaged or lost, digital ones will not.
We no longer have limited physical space in the way we once did. Film and albums turned into CD’s and DVD’s. DVD’s turned into portable hardrives. Hardrives turned into clouds.
We can now keep every moment of our lives available to us, if only we take the photo or record the video.
The removal of limiting space and resources has allowed us to deem every moment, event, action, as being valuable – we no longer need to decide between moments. And, in doing so, we keep everything in thinking that by doing so we keep something valuable.
The intuition here seems to be something like this:
For something to be valuable, meaningful, or worthwhile, it has to last. Indeed, for something to be valuable means that it must last for as long as possible.
If something does not last then it either wasn’t valuable to begin with, or it is a great tragedy for it be lost to time.
This obsession with equating value with the length of time something exists has been built into our technology too. We see it, not just in our computers, but particularly in social media. The very much dead MySpace, and (the now controversial) Facebook are evidence of this – our social networks, once established, remain eternal unless we actively ‘unfriend’ people. The photos we take and people we tag in them, once done, remain eternal unless we actively ‘untag’ ourselves. And new social media crept up that, too, fed our desire which was brought about by the widespread belief that ‘permanence = valuable’. Instagram, Twitter, etc., all made sure that whatever moment you had was an unchanging, permanent, thing.
But what has our desire to keep lightning in a bottle wrought us? Facebook was started in 2004. Our experiment in following the widespread intuition I have described has been going for 15 years. We have now seen, first hand, what making ephemeral moments into permanent stills gets us.
We are left with a proverbial graveyard of friends, moments, events, photos, etc., which no longer hold any value – if they ever did at all. We now greatly desire the right to be forgotten. We now see the value in moments being just that: moments. Short, sharp, ephemeral things which do not deride their value in how long they last, but the impact they have in the moment they happen. We have caught so much lightning that now all we have are rooms cluttered to the ceiling with glass bottles. When you try and capture too much lightning in bottles, you end up with a Facebook.
Our Facebook friends, groups, and events are a string of deadweight which get heavier and more unbearable as we get older. The photos we take of the food we bought at some restaurant no longer hold the value we thought they did. We can no longer get a fresh start or begin anew – our past, thanks to permanent social media, follows us where ever we go.
But these facts are something older generations like mine and those before have come to grips with. Younger generations are sharply aware of how things should not be permanent. They have learnt, from growing up in this brave new world, that only some moments should be kept forever; that the value of some moments is not directly tied to how long they last.
This realisation is what has helped technology pioneered by Snapchat (and successfully stolen and better implemented by Instagram). After all, Snapchat’s whole selling point is precisely that your moments wont last. And it is that exact selling point which enabled Snapchat, a company with seemingly no way to successfully monetise, to become a multi-billion dollar company simply in virtue of having such a large user base.
The ephemeral nature of their product even threatened Instagram for a time, until they were able to replicate the technology. And now it is these moments – these stories – which are proving more popular with users (particularly younger ones) than Instagrams original function – a permanent place to put your highly curated photos and videos.
Our experiment with turning the beautiful fleeting moments into deformities of themselves to sate our desire for keeping the valuable with us forever has shown how ugly things get. We are learning the hard way the drawbacks of such technology – one of the main reasons younger generations do not take up Facebook, but prefer more ephemeral social media.
Our realisation is changing how we engage with social media, and how such media engages with us – and our desire to the let our past – regardless of how important we might think it is – in the past, spurns on the right to be forgotten.
Perhaps then, what we need is a formalised spelling out of our revised intuitions about value and time and the relationship between it. We need to be reminded that, sometimes, what makes a friendship, a moment, or an experience beautiful is precisely because it does not last – its beauty lies in the time in which it occurred and cannot be replicated or kept in perpetuity.
What we need in our technology, it seems to me, is for social media to respect, and be responsive to, our ephemeral nature. As beings in time, we experience only the now, and have only memories of the past (which are consistently restructured over time, or simply forgotten). Social media, in large part, does not respect or is responsive to such things. Our social networks change constantly as new bonds grow and old ones whither – why have a social network if it does not reflect our ever changing lives? Why should we not have social media, or technology, that changes as we do?