On Saturday night my wife and I were sitting outside on our deck, sipping a cold beer, our chauffer duties done for the evening. All our kids were at home and we didn't have a single guest sleeping over.
At some point we ended up reminiscing about the TV shows we loved as kids, and the stuff our kids loved when they were little and we were laughing as we tried to remember the lyrics to specific songs from Disney movies and Sesame Street, and doing Kermit, Grover and Ernie voices. (Okay maybe we had two beers.)
I grew up with Sesame Street as did my wife and we delighted in trying to sing our favorite songs to each other. As you would expect for songs we first learned almost 40 years ago there were lines we remembered perfectly and others we had all wrong. It was a great moment of nostalgia trying to reconstruct our earliest childhood TV memories. But it was driving me crazy that I couldn't remember this one song with Ernie and Bert.
So I grabbed my iPhone, fired up YouTube, and 30 seconds later we were watching Ernie dance himself to sleep while Bert was carried away by tap-dancing sheep.
And then a really weird Sesame Street song, which nobody seems to remember, but I always have.
The lowercase n song.
My first reaction was that they clearly did not have a drug-testing policy at Sesame Street. My second thought was about the amazing technological advances that allowed me to pull up a forty year old video on a battery powered device I carry in my pocket, search a global network in milliseconds and watch a high quality video that I had originally watched in B/W, all while sitting outside on my deck.
But these days, whenever I have one of those "isn't technology amazing" moments, I find myself pondering the implications of that technology in the context of people (my kids) who have only ever lived in a world where it was always this way.
You see, as wired as I am in my everyday life, it was still an aha moment for me that I could re-experience a distant childhood memory as easily as pulling up an email.
Maybe that makes me an idiot, it's not like I didn't enjoy watching a Barney Miller episode on TV Land a couple weeks ago, and I have a full collection of Schoolhouse Rock on DVD, but somehow this was different. Maybe because Sesame Street was virtually the only TV I watched until age ten or so. I should say Public Television, cause I was also watching Mr. Rogers neighborhood, Electric Company and Zoom. And of course Schoolhouse Rock on Saturday mornings. These memories are burned in deep.
So what happens when, in your world, all your memories, photos, favorite movies or TV shows, when all of that is available as easily as watching your 1st grade dance recital or last night's American Idol? When watching a movie is always an "on demand" experience. When their whole lives are "on demand" experiences.
What happens to nostalgia in an "on demand" world? What happens to memories?
Merriam Webster's dictionary defines nostalgia as: a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition
Compared to any people who have ever lived, my kids and yours have unprecedented access to the memories of their lives. Where I have a handful of pictures of myself growing up, my kids have thousands per year, five hundred from a typical vacation across 4 cameras. Videos of dance recitals and school plays and Christmas morning are all online. If they want to see themselves at 6 years or 8 years, or playing soccer, or their third birthday they can. Not to mention being able to watch almost anything that's ever been on TV on their computer.
Watching my kids, they are seamlessly integrated into an online, "on demand" world. Every part of their lives is online or supported online. School lives, social lives, entertainment. They definitely re-watch a lot of older video content and they love making picture books of them when they were young. They mix the old and the new on a single screen and make no distinction. If they want it, they can probably get it.
So here's my question:
Will the availability of all this information change the way their brains prioritize the formation of memories?
Will they burn the same memories that we did of events? Or will their brains give them a pass on details because they saw the the flash-bulbs and the red light and know the whole thing is being recorded in 1080p?
I'm not talking about a conscious decision to not remember details, but an unconscious, internal brain decision not to store everything because it knows the info is available "on demand."
Before you answer consider for a moment how many phone numbers or email addresses you actually know of your closest friends and family. If you are over 30 years old you know what I'm talking about. We used to have a whole bunch of phone numbers memorized.
How many phone numbers do you really know by heart?
The numbers are all programmed into our phones, and have been for at least five or six years now. Our brains have gotten used to the fact that the info will be there when we need it, so it's ok to not memorize it. And in half a decade we trained ourselves to not remember phone numbers that we used to remember, because we know we can get them "on demand."
I recently started getting birthday reminders from Facebook served up in an early morning email every day, and I'm sure that after another lap around the sun I will come to rely on Facebook instead of actually remembering the dates.
This is not an anti-technology rant by any means. I like my address book and Facebook birthday reminders, and I like being able to find things on YouTube.
But I do wonder what will happen inside the brains of people who have always lived in a world where they don't HAVE to remember phone numbers and birthdays and the lyrics to the theme song from Cheers because it is all available "on demand."