Searching for self

I have a fairly clear memory from my childhood of my parents and a few relatives trying to get me to take cold medicine. While my dad and an aunt held my arms and legs, my mom pinched my nose shut until I had to open my mouth, then poured in a dose of Robitussin. They all held on until I stopped struggling and, apparently, swallowed. As soon as everyone let go, I spit cold medicine all over our kitchen.

I know this happened, and I know my mom remembers the incident — if I get married, I’m sure she’ll find a way to work it into some kind of toast slash good-luck warning to my happy spouse-to-be. But I’m not actually sure if I remember the actual incident, or if it’s part of my sense of myself only because I’ve heard — and retold — the story so many times. I get the same sneaking suspicion that accessing memories ≠ rewinding the DVR when I look at pictures of myself toddling around after my older brother. I recognize my brother, I know that it’s me in the pictures, I remember the sense of awe, but I can’t quite access some of those moments as lived experiences. Instead, the immediate associations when I look at those pictures are largely based on the ways other people have narrated them.

But isn’t that why we tell stories? Putting our experiences into words allows us to shape our identities, individual and collective.* There’s a ton of theorizing out there already about the role of social media in identity formation, which I will probably address further in other posts, since I’m almost at 300 words and am still kind of not on topic, which I originally intended to be more specifically about how search engines and digital archives affect identity. I need a copy editor.

Searching for self
I suspect that most people in my generation are masters of using well-chosen search terms to find exactly what they’re looking for.

(This may be a false perception, since I’m extrapolating from myself and from my social and IRL networks, which both have a high concentration of journalist and other web-savvy types. Compare that to my sixth-grade students from last year, who are about the same age as Wikipedia. As we prepped for the state standards test, I noticed that most of them had difficulty answering questions about which keywords to use in an Internet search. See questions 52, 64 and 110.)

At the very least, people with a reasonable amount of experience with the Internet have a strong sense of where to go to look for information (if not always the skills to successfully identify whether that information is reliable). Combine that ability to search with the increasing amount of personal data that people are putting online, and, in essence, people are creating externalized archives of their memories. Of course, a lot of this information is trivial; does it improve my quality of life that I can search through past tweets to identify — fail, the rest of this sentence was going to be about pesto ingredients, but my tweets are not actually well-archived, which is probably for the best. [Here’s a different tweet about a sandwich. Who cares?]

I somewhat lost my train of thought while looking for a tweet representative of trivial information, but in a sense, that’s also what I was writing about, anyway. I have conditioned myself to use the Internet to look up when I did things or what I seemed to be thinking in specific moments. In a way, that makes sense: Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable; our memories, based largely on what we see, is equally unreliable.

But does rereading our own narration of what we experienced really strengthen memories or make them more accurate? I remember thinking at the end of “Memento,” SPOILER ALERT, when you realize that Leonard has been falsifying the clues he leaves for himself, that we all do the same, if in less obvious or dramatic ways. In the way that we process information and store our memories, we are choosing a narrative for ourselves, that, repeated over time, informs our understanding of who we are and guides our external presentation of how we want to be perceived. [Tangent: This concept was also central to an essay I wrote about Jane Eyre’s agency in narrating her story; my thesis adviser and I later debated whether that was an overly precious feminist reading of the text.]

Arbitrary second subhead
Back to the social media aspect: Posting updates = curated identity, mediated sense of self, digital adolescence, blah blah blah. But does searching through an archive or aggregate of relatively trivial posts skew our sense of our past? I vaguely remember learning in a psych class I took in summer school that the feeling that a name or concept is on the tip of your tongue is because the information is encoded, but cannot be fully retrieved. (Or something — if I had posted about it somewhere a decade ago, I’d be able to look it up right now.)

With Google’s autocomplete function literally finishing our thoughts, it’s possible to have a vague sense of what we’re trying to remember and have the Interwebs do the rest. Seriously, is this not the craziest thing ever? Remember when looking for information involved flipping open books and using card catalogs, or, if were super cutting-edge, popping in your Encarta CD-ROM? It’s not just that information is constantly and overwhelmingly accessible, it’s that it’s possible to find answers without complete questions.

And when we turn the power of search functionality on ourselves, looking up past blog posts or journal entries or the history of our interactions with another one of our friends, are we expanding our memories, or are we preserving trivial moments that we would have forgotten about otherwise, maybe justifiably so? More than anything, I’m intrigued by how much I rely on Google to look up specific phrases or information to trigger knowledge I know is stored elsewhere in my brain. CYBORG.

*and create meaning, pass on culture, entertain, inspire, moralize, etc. — there will be other posts about stories later

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8 responses

  1. Interesting thoughts. “…it’s possible to find answers without complete questions.” That is a great way of boiling down the change the Internet has wrought into it’s essential nature.
    But do we adapt the questions that we are looking for to fit the answers we are given?

    • Hi! I think that’s part of my concern (and “concern” may not be the right word) — how is the way we use the Internet changing how we process and store information, including our memories and sense of identity? I’m fascinated by neuroscience and metacognition, and there have been a few studies about the costs of multitasking, but I’d be really interested to see something about how the brain lights up while people learn using a tool like a wiki.

  2. Isn’t it frightening to think that we don’t exactly own any of that archive of memories – e-mails, updates, photos, chat transcripts, voice mails, text messages…?

    • Imagine if instead of keeping family photo albums back in the day, everyone just stuck their photos to bulletin boards in cafes, with the understanding that the cafes would take down old photos and keep them in a bunch of boxes upstairs.

      • Ahahahahsdfkljsdlfsfsdfsdfkljafhaha.

        I am imagining 19th century parlors with signs like “Look at my darling baby!” or “Illustrations from my carriage trip through the mountains.” Ahsdfkasdfjlkahahaha

      • +1, Mach.
        I hope they left space on each sign for comments: “What a fantastic view! I have always longed to visit the mountains.” / “I am laughing out loud at the antics of your precious child!”

  3. Pingback: Do we make history, or does history make us? | open-source mind

  4. Pingback: The best books I never read, cont.* | open-source mind

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