“Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.” — Theodor Seuss Geisel, “Dr. Seuss”
The dusty VCR whirs softly in the background as the cassette comes to life on the TV screen. The juxtaposition of my father’s old Sony DCR-H20 camcorder being hooked up to a 4K Ultra HD Samsung flatscreen is an atrocious sight in itself, but there’s no denying the raw moments captured through the outdated recording device. These precious memories have been offloaded onto a series of cassette tapes throughout my childhood, and quarantine affords my dad and me time to unravel and convert these time capsules to the less antiquated format of CDs.
“Ethan, hit the play button when I tell you to,” my dad says.
I sit on the hard wooden floor of my family room, my phone pressed to the back pocket of my jeans, a funny reminder of how far technology has come. This very phone has the ability to preserve moments through photos and videos, and is capable of uploading them to a cloud for storage in the matter of seconds, compared to the grueling process of manually converting individual cassette tapes to CDs through a conversion machine. The brevity of life necessitates capturing the memories we find most euphoric or significant in our lives, like my parents recording my first time walking, or my first day of school or the time that I got accepted into Stanford. Some moments can’t be recreated, and their significance is captured in a bed of pixels that is meant to be viewed again and again to hold onto a fleeting instant. There is a certain beauty in these special moments as they are remembered, and oftentimes, we can merge our personal experience with what was recorded. Technology has provided the means to remember beyond oral tradition and written records. But as I sit on the floor with the VCR machine and camcorder in front of me, bolstered by a phone that buzzes with Snapchat notifications and messages which provide endless opportunities for documentation, I remain perplexed about whether this same technology has been a blessing or a curse.
“Hit play, Ethan.”
The footage is dark and shaky as it opens up to a dim-lit theatre. I’ve seen this clip before, and it has been one of my favorite family tapes to watch growing up. There is the distant chatter of the audience as my family and I wait for my older brother’s elementary theatre play to start. For some unknown reason, my mom is recording me as I sit on her lap, and I’m just happy she did because of what happens next. My happy face shrivels to an expression of disgust as I start sniffing the air around me and seemingly trace a scented path directly to the audience member on my right. I can hear my mom lightly asking what I’m doing, but I’m adamant in my discovery of where the smell is coming from and ignore her remarks.
“Smell bad! You smell bad!” I point towards the person to my right and repeat those words a couple of times. Even though my mom’s face is not on camera, I know I created an awkward situation.
“Stop it, Ethan. Excuse us. Sorry, I don’t know what he’s saying,” she says in the video. There is a slight embarrassed chuckle that follows. By the end, the camera is no longer pointed at me, but at the ground as she tries to resolve a discomfiting moment created out of the unfiltered, innocent language of her 4-year-old boy.
Click. Loud cheers and laughter from my first grade birthday party at the AMF Bowling alley 10 minutes from my house. Click. Footage during my first time in Korea during third grade as I wandered the busy airports of Incheon International Airport. Click. Courtside views of my fifth grade all-star basketball game from my dad’s camera as he struggles to track me up and down the court. Click. Countless other moments that capture my early youth from the perspective of my parent’s camcorder.
The interesting thing about these moments is that I do not remember most of them. I am either too young to recall such events or the memories are too common that they become indistinguishable from one another. Either way, the footage that my parents have accumulated through their camcorder has been invaluable for my entire family to retrieve certain parts of our lives that we may have forgotten. But, the question remains: How important is capturing specific events in our lives, and at what cost?
Beginning in middle school, the way that my life was documented shifted from my parent’s perspective to my own. Thanks to an early birthday gift during the seventh grade, I received my first device capable of recording the life around me: an iPod Touch, fifth generation. I soon found myself engulfed in the wave of social media during the time: messaging friends through Kik and becoming a user of a photo-filter application that would eventually become the hit social media application known as Instagram. With the convenience of whipping out the blue, shiny aluminum device whenever I desired, I couldn’t help but fall into a trance of portraying and perceiving my life in a different way than before. Who is hanging out with who? Is my new post with the sun glare artsy enough? Where are people going to be over the summer?
I look back, and the pictures taken for social media, videos sent through messages and storage of all of these instances marked the beginning of the decline — a decaying of our innocence and youth, and the beginning of anxiety and self-esteem issues. While my parents’ generation captured moments through disposable cameras and handheld camcorders for their personal retention of life, the people of my generation were documenting their lives for others. In high school, as people made the transition to smart phones that were now no longer confined by WiFi routers, things continued to worsen. And of course, as more people became accustomed to these devices and documenting certain moments, the less significant and personal certain things became. Prom was more about the pictures than the dance, birthday parties became opportunities to flaunt who others were hanging out with and sports events became chances to create Hudl highlights. Can genuine memories still be captured for the sake of authenticity? How can I still preserve the memories that I want without missing out on the moment?
The irony of constantly “documenting” events through videos and photos this way is that it diminishes the ability to recall these experiences in the long run. One of the first steps of forming a lasting memory is to pay attention, which allows one to store and remember certain sensations that can then be linked to certain events or moments for stronger neurological connections. However, with the distraction of recording a video or taking a picture, brains don’t have the ability to store the sensation experienced in the surrounding environment.
Towards the end of high school, I adopted a mentality to “live in the moment” more. This was due partly to the fact that I had matured and placed less emphasis on social media, but also due to my desire to close my high school experience off the best I could. I wanted to be fully immersed in the moments and people around me without the distractions of documenting it. Studies conducted by cognitive scientists at NYU found taking pictures to share with others on social media alter our perspective within our memories. Too consumed in capturing the moment, I wouldn’t be experiencing life in the present, but in a skewed perspective that would be focused on capturing and archiving the event for later enjoyment.
I kept this in mind heading into college to maximize how “present” I was in moments during my freshman and sophomore years before the pandemic hit. I’m glad I got to experience the late-night discussions on life with friends, the fascinating class projects I immersed myself and the parties that kept me up well past midnight, all without the urge to record every experience that I was a part of. I wanted to ensure I experienced each moment in its entirety. Besides, other people can do that for me — maybe I’ll end up in someone else’s photos on Instagram or star in someone’s Snap story. After all, receiving a Snapchat from a friend with a timestamp from a year ago is surely a documented memory in itself, but one that was lived out organically, without the impurities that involve revealing the intent to “record for the sake of recording.”
I don’t think anyone has figured out how to balance living life to its fullest without contemplating ways to document it in the process. Memories are personal and valuable and provide the building blocks for human consciousness and identity. I am no exception. Part of the reason why I picked up a digital mirrorless camera is for its ability to purely capture moments without the instantaneous share buttons that a smartphone has. I want to freeze time, seize the thrilling moments and hold on to them through life with the intent of keeping them for myself and those closest to me. And, like most others, I don’t think humans’ desire to remember specific moments in life will cease for as long as life is finite. Technology will continue to develop and provide the means to re-experience life’s memories closer and closer to reality.
So maybe technology is a curse, teasing us with the mere thought of a complete memory of life that is tarnished by its capture. Or maybe it’s a blessing, allowing us to record and document moments like my time at the theatre or my elementary school graduation.
Clack. Whir. Silence.
“You can hit stop, now. We’re done.”