Snapchat, engineered forgetting, and a status update on my left eye

by Rob Tiller

Snapchat is one of those ideas that sounds either silly or useless, and then turns out to be brilliant. It’s an app that allows sharing of photos that after a few seconds automatically disappear. It’s like engineering in a very human characteristic — forgetting.

We tend to forget how important it is that we are forgetful. We know we don’t remember everything, but tend to think of this as a bug rather than a feature. But think how social life would be different if we all remembered everything. How could we talk if we knew every word would be preserved forever? Every stumble, every foolish idea, every faux pas, every little falsehood? Who could bear to be accountable for each and every interaction?

Until the digital age, our basic problem was how to remember the things that mattered. Preserving memories was difficult, while forgetting happened naturally. As the digital age has progressed, this ordering has been turning upside down. Anything that can be digitized and send through the internet (words, images, sounds) is easy to save and hard to discard. Inevitably among the frozen perceptions are ones we’d rather forget.

We’ve only recently started to understand that this is not a trivial problem. We know or should know that change is constant and inevitable. Our ideas and opinions change, and the things we love today we may love much less of in years to come. This is one of the reasons that tattoos are generally a bad idea. There’s an element of risk every time we express ourselves in digital form — a risk that we’ll change in an unforeseen direction, and our expressive gesture will be something we come to regret.

If teenagers just can’t resist the urge to send naked pictures of themselves on the internet, it would be great for their present and future selves if they could avoid the potential of embarrassing themselves before an audience of billions. If Snapchat achieved no more than that, it would be a good thing. But it could point the way towards more nuanced and flexible digital communications. Lowering the stakes for our internet lives would open new possibilities for creative expression.

In writing posts for the Casual Blog, I try to imagine whether a future self, quite different from the current one, could comfortably coexist with this record, including parts that may be disagreeable. Of course, if my future self were really hateful, I would want nothing to do with him, and my current self wouldn’t mind unsettling him. It’s strange to think of battling a future self, but to some extent, each fixing of a position does so. It could even prevent the development of some aspects of the future self. Is that good or bad? Is there any way to know?

For friends who are following the saga, I’ll note that this week I got scheduled for additional eye surgery to be done in March. The operation on my left eye last November has not healed properly, and scar tissue on the eye wall has left me with very limited vision. At last test with the eye chart, I couldn’t see the topmost E.

This has made all the activities of daily life that involve depth perception (like moving or eating) or seeing things on the left side (like driving or going to parties) more challenging. The good news is that my original retina surgeon has passed me on to Dr. Prithvi Mruthyunjaya, a professor at Duke, who appears to be a rock star in this area, and who is experienced in the unusual procedure I need. I’m looking forward to recovering.