I recently had the pleasure of talking with Clive Thompson, seated between our T-Rex and Apatosaurus. Clive is a longtime contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired. As we watched visitors take photos and post them online, we spoke about his new book — “Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing our Minds for the Better” — and explored how it can help us understand how digital media can support museum-based learning. This is the first of the four part interview, one per day (an additional part was prepared for my column on DML central on Connected Learning and can be read here).
Clive, Please describe where we are we right now? Paint us a picture.
We’re in the American Museum of Natural History, sitting in front of the Tyrannosaurus Rex. There’s a bunch of kids, and the parents and teachers have their cameras out. You’ll see them hold up a camera and take a picture of the kids with the dinosaurs.
We can see a bunch of things happening here. One of them is that they’re capturing these moments so that they can relive it later on. And, this is a remarkably new thing…
Now, we’re seeing kids going by right in front of us, with their own smartphones, and they’re taking pictures of stuff and they’re looking at the pictures.
This is sort of an amazingly new thing. We often don’t reflect on how difficult it was to record things in the past, and not even that far back in the past. Look at the records of the revolutionary war: George Washington and his staff and the surgeons would routinely complain about not being able to get their hands on a clean piece of paper. There’s this letter that says, “Please excuse my use of these scraps, I have nothing better to write on.” That’s all they had. All these things we take for granted, even at the paper level, were not very common until recently.
But, with the digital era, you have this explosion of like things like photography, video, document scans of things… everyday life can be recorded in much more minute detail. This is delightful, on one hand, because science has shown that we’re terrible at remembering things. We forget the bulk of what happens to us. I can’t tell you how many times I have gone back and looked through my photos of places I’ve been with my kids and wife at the Museum here, and I’ll be reminded of parts of that day that are completely gone from my memory. There’s this thing known as Hermann Ebbinghaus’ Curve of Forgetting. He did this famous study where he tried to memorize a bunch of words and then tested himself. He found out that after a few days you lose a half of the stuff, and after a week, 80%. In one sense, that’s perfectly fine because our brains function by making meaning of the world. We pull wisdom from all that knowledge and don’t need to remember every single detail. But, it is quite cool to have the details around in case we want to go back.
Look at that woman, getting an absolutely fantastic shot of the head of the Tyrannosaurus Rex. You can see people getting a really good directorial eye. “Oh, will this work better as a landscape shot or a portrait shot?” I wasn’t a very photographic person at all before I had a phone but there’s an interesting transformation that happens when you can start recording more photography. I just look at the world more carefully now. I used to be one of those guys who walked down the street staring at the pavement. I think it was actually Instagram that did it. It was a way of taking a picture and then looking at it again, through the filtering technology. I realized that it would allow me to re-see what I’ve already seen because it brought out these additional details. I’ve seen it with my kids, where choosing the filter becomes a way of like a secondary look at what you just saw. Because if you use this filter, suddenly you can see the texture of the dinosaur better, or if you do it this way, suddenly you notice the spatial dimensions and depth. Because we have all these different ways of recording stuff, we have all these different ways also of noticing what is in front of our eyes.
You see that with all these people who have their phones out; they’re trying to capture a memory but also looking at what’s in front of them in a new way. There’s a child screaming “cheese, cheese, cheese” as his father takes his picture. You see the father bending down because he really wanted to get the sense of scale of the boy and the dinosaur. I think people will become much better photographers than they used to be because they have lot more practice and the cycle of experimentation is faster. I become much better at realizing, “Oh this is going to be a bad photo.” If I want to capture my child with something behind him, I really got to get that angle.
You know it reminds me of the joke that you would often see in movies about a director who’s always walking around holding up his thumb and finger inside a box and going, “Oh this is like a great scene.” But that’s actually the way that someone who lives in the camera starts to see the world. They’re alive to the visual possibilities around them. The average person didn’t used to be that way because we weren’t carrying cameras. And now we are.
So part of what we’re seeing here is people expanding their abilities to remember?
I wouldn’t necessarily say they’re actually expanding their memory, because it’s not clear when you record things that it necessarily cements it in our heads any better. They’re expanding their abilities to reflect on the past. When we decide that we want to go back and look at something, we now have the ability to go back and look at it in a much more granular detail, in much more richer emotional and semantic detail-
Semantic? What does that mean?
Semantic. There’s two types of memories. There’s autobiographical memory, something that has just happened to you, a memory of having been here at the museum and having looked at the dinosaur and having been there with the children. You’re remembering the meltdowns of your children, as they got tired. Or 30 years later you are remembering what it was like to have kids. That’s an autobiographical memory.
A semantic memory is our knowledge of the world. It’s a knowledge that a Tyrannosaurus Rex is a dinosaur that is 30 feet long, factual memory. It can be hard to recall exactly how darn large this dinosaur is. In fact, I’m looking at it right now, but when I always imagine it I think its about half the size of what it’s actually is. And when you pull out the photo and you see yourself standing next to it and it’s that large, this helps you reclaim all of these semantic memories.
So at the moment you’re taking a photo, there’s a future benefit, in that it helps you remember the moment, but is there something lost at that moment when you’re standing and looking at the dinosaur?
That’s one of the great fears people have, that we’re not going to look at the world around us while we are holding our phones up. The truth is, I think that’s kind of an overblown sentiment. Even if you look around us here, even the kids that have phones, they pull them out, they look at something and then they put them down. And they’re still using their eyes 99% of the time. We see someone holding up a phone at a concert and we are like, “Oh my God! They are not looking at the concert.” But they don’t spend two hours with the phone in front of them. I think we have a healthy fear of life becoming over-mediated, but if you look at it more like a scientist and study what’s going on you will still see a lot of people looking at things.
I think, actually, the bigger danger, in a weird way, is what happens when we almost store too much. Everyone who you know, who comes to the museum here, might take 40 or 50 photos in one day, maybe more. I’ve got friends that tell me when they go on vacation they walk away with 800 photos. There is no way you are going to look at those pictures. So really the problem becomes that you can sort of build up this corpus of information that is functionally sort of useless, because you are really never going to look at that stuff. And one of the great challenges to me that’s really interesting is how do we make productive use of this enormous explosion of digital memory, right? And it turns out that some of the really interesting solutions are very simple little techniques for algorithmically finding interesting patterns in this stuff, patterns that we are never going to bother to find ourselves.
Here is a really simple example: there is this app that is becoming enormously popular called Time Hop. Every day, it goes in to your archives of stuff that you recorded a year ago. It could be a photo you took. It could be a text message you shared. It could be like a posting on Facebook. And it gives you a little daily gazette, saying, Here is what you did a year ago. Here is photo. Here is your text message. People regularly tell me how delightful it is to wake up to this momentary reflection of what they were doing a year ago. They say it’s a sort of philosophically-enlarging experience because they think about the shape of their life. It retriggers things they wouldn’t have thought about it, provoking new, interesting thoughts. And so if you came in here with Time Hop, and you took all these pictures, a year later you will be getting ready to go to the dentist or something, and you look at your phone and you go. Oh, you know here is a pictures of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, and your children and something that you posted about it, on Facebook. And suddenly this day will come swimming back in to your memory.
So little clever simple techniques like this, where you use what computers are really good at doing, which is following routines, and you use what humans are really good at doing, which is making meaning out of these traces and records, is really the future of how we are going to pull enormous emotional and intellectual and spiritual values out of these digital memories.