Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/12/2013 (1014 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
WASHINGTON -- Some of my favourite memories and best ideas from last year are gone. I wrote them in a notebook I carried in my back pocket, and a few months ago, I left the notebook on a plane. Observations about my kids, story ideas and thoughts about the world around me were lost. I replaced the notebook, and then last week, left the replacement notebook on a plane. This should win me some sort of prize.
I have carried a notebook in my back pocket for the last 23 years, five months and 11 days. I can be precise because I still have the first one and 20 others like it on a shelf in my office. They contain thousands of little passages, some only a sentence, from coffee shops and northbound trains and campaign buses. I've transcribed overheard conversations ("Shy salespeople have skinny kids"), I've sketched characters for a novel ("he had the face of a dissipated potato"), and I've collected facts, words and quotes from my travels and reading ("Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard").
For years, not many other people shared my little habit. Now we all do it on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Lately, there has been some concern about all of this activity. Last weekend in the New York Times, Sherry Turkle wrote about putting our lives "on pause" in order to tweet, text or take a selfie: "When you get accustomed to a life of stops and starts, you get less accustomed to reflecting on where you are and what you are thinking." A few months ago, also in the Times, Nick Bilton wrote that we're all so busy capturing moments, we're not living in them.
This is a false choice. You can live in the moment and capture it. I have the notebooks to prove it (most of them, anyway), and the proof is in how acutely I feel the loss of the two last seen in and around seats 8A and 11F. What I have lost is not just my observations of various moments -- made more meaningful because I stopped to put them into words -- but I've also lost the feelings and recollections those entries would have unlocked when I looked back over them.
In recent years, I've captured more through my iPhone than my pen. As a practical matter, that means some of that writing I lost is in Twitter or on Facebook, but the technology offers more than just the cloud backup. It has improved this process of engaging with life through pausing to capture it.
The unexamined life is not worth living, said Socrates (and every freshman taking philosophy), but he also said to beware of the barrenness of a busy life. There is a tension between the obsessiveness Turkle and Bilton write about and the enriching observations of the kind I fancy I have. We all know how to spot the obsessives. They're blocking views at concerts as they hold up their phone to capture distant singing blobs of blurry light onstage. They text and drive, putting other people at risk or they're the ones at dinner who photograph every course change.
These people are a chore, but people have been abusing the mouth by talking too much for ages. If you are tweeting and not paying attention to the world around you, then you're just a bore. It's not technology's fault or a change in norms. If you go out to dinner with people who are constantly texting, it's like going to dinner with people who won't shut up about their golf game or their wireless speakers.
The result of the over-sharing and digital busyness is it makes those of us who worry about doing the right thing feel like we're passing notes in church every time we stop to document. Don't tweet or Instagram for fear someone will think you're not living in the moment. We're all on the cusp of being boorish American tourists wherever we go. But this overstates the peril of a process that is fundamentally about engagement and mindfulness. When you pause to write about something -- even if it's for Twitter or Facebook -- you are engaging with it. Something within you is inspired and, at the very least, you've got to pick the words and context to convey meaning for your private recollection or, if you make it public, for the larger world.
If my theory sounds grandiose, go back to look at things you wrote a few years ago, if you can. When I look at the notes I've stopped to write in those books, entire worlds come back at me. "Watching the squirming foot of the resident during the circumcision," I wrote while my son went through the procedure. I hadn't thought about that moment since it happened, but that image of the nervous young doctor put me right back on the threshold of the small operating room 11 years ago. The set list from the Bob Dylan show at Madison Square Garden in November 2001 reminds me of my visit that day to Ground Zero.
In the past, you took a photo, you hoped it developed, you relived the moment and then entombed most of the pictures in a shoebox or a photo album. Now we carry those moments with us. The first time I played guitar with my daughter, I might not have been 100 per cent in the moment when I made a video of it, but I don't think I missed a chord, and when I'm stuck on a plane I'm very happy to hear her play.
I wish I had a photograph of the place where we ate sushi after I picked my daughter up from camp. There was nothing visually interesting about it, but the picture would remind me of hearing her tell me the benefits of taking risks in life. If you have children and want to give your future self a present, record their laughter as toddlers. When they're older and away from you, you might find that clip in the middle of the day and it will transport you as surely as if you had a time machine.