Monday, December 11, 2017

In Memory of Forgetting

Remember when it was possible to forget?

Last Friday I was able to attend a panel discussion of several Brookdale faculty, organized by the students of the Phi Theta Kappa chapter here.  The topic was supposed to be about shifting standards of beauty over time, but the discussion had a mind of its own, and it quickly became examining the stress caused for today’s students by trying to live “curated” lives on Instagram and Snapchat.  

I had never seen as pronounced a generation gap as I did there.  The students, mostly of traditional age or close to it -- honestly, the older I get, the harder it is to tell -- told the faculty (and other older folks in the audience, such as myself) about how they live their lives around social media.  One young woman on the panel mentioned as an example that before going to a concert, she picks an outfit that she thinks will look great on Instagram, and spends the first half-hour or so at the venue setting up her shot.  The point of the concert is the photo.  A professor on the panel responded that when she was younger, she’d choose outfits for concerts, too, but the point of the outfit was to pick up guys.  Now, the record of the moment becomes more important than the moment itself.

Looking back on my teen years, it’s only by the grace of God that most of my worst cringe-inducing moments have vanished down the collective memory hole.  I remember most of them, but there’s no documentary record.  They never went viral, and some of them could have.  Today’s young people have all of the same pressures around self-image and dating that we did, plus a new layer of public recording that we didn’t.  

As useful as social media can be, there’s also something to be said for forgetting as an act of mercy.  Those early years are a time of trying on different identities, ideas, styles, and ways of being in the world.  Some of them work, and stick, and some of them don’t.  Keeping the clunkers around forever could inhibit the trial-and-error that allows real growth.

I’m thinking here of Richard Sennett’s classic “The Fall of Public Man,” in which he argued that the gradual replacement of social “roles” with the idea of social authenticity was actually inhibiting, because in the new regime, flaws or missteps are taken to reveal something broken about the actual person.  Hearing 19 year olds now worry that pictures they post of themselves being exuberant may be used against them later when they apply for jobs or run for office struck me as the reductio ad absurdum of Sennett’s argument.  The curated self is very much a role, a performance, but we don’t read it as one.  We take it literally, and form judgments about the person based on the persona.

As the discussion went on, I wished it had addressed the shift at the turn of the millennium from “mass” media to “social” media.  I’m old enough to remember when television had four channels: NBC, CBS, ABC, and PBS.  When the means of cultural production were few and tightly centralized, most of us encountered them only as consumers.  Now that most young people are producing culture daily through social media, they’re living the pressures of producers, as opposed to consumers.  And they’re doing it before they’ve had a chance to grow into themselves as adults.

In many ways, that’s terrific.  Young people who don’t fit in to the dominant culture where they live can find kindred spirits online, drawing hope and strength from discovering that they’re not alone.  They can share artistic breakthroughs in real time, rather than having to find and charm some skeevy network or music company executive.

But they miss what we had and didn’t know to appreciate: the luxury of having your awkward phases forgotten.  They don’t get to rehearse before taking themselves public.  

I’ve mentioned before a temperamental allergy to arguments for turning time backward, so I won’t try to argue for that.  How do you keep them on the farm once they’ve seen Instagram?  Instead, I suspect the way around this is through it.  While many, many more of us have seized the opportunity to produce, we’re also all still consumers.  If we gradually start to look at what we’re consuming through the eyes of producers, we may start to realize just how ridiculous it would be to punish some future rising star for an unguarded moment she posted at 19.  We may not be able to forget anymore, but we can still choose to forgive.

Mercy can come from the fates, but we can produce it ourselves, too.  As long as we’re producing everything else, a little mercy might not be a bad idea.  My generation and those before it were granted the accidental mercy of a lifetime of do-overs.  Today’s students deserve no less.