When my daughter was about two weeks old, she developed a mild rash on her cheeks. We had been warned that this was a likely but benign side-effect of one of the vaccines that she was given, but Parent Paranoia demands assurances. I contacted our Pediatrician, and he asked me to send him a picture. I steadied Vivien, and took a couple of pictures with my Samsung Galaxy Note 8 – which at that time, was widely regarded as one of the best camera phones on the market. The photo did not show the rash. I thought that it was because she may have moved and caused some sort of a blur, so I tried again, and again, and again. No rash on the photo.
So I did a little poking around, and it turns out that Samsung’s camera automatically applies “beauty mode” to its photos. This was the reason why the rash was not appearing on the photos. It hit me that all the pictures of Vivien, taken since her birth, had been doctored without my knowledge and now resided on my phone and in my Google Photos as flawed memories. Samsung is not alone in this – Apple too, came under fire for automatic airbrushing in their iPhone XS phone. After several months of growing dissatisfaction with the photos that this phone was taking, I finally got myself the Pixel 3, which also offers a similar technology, but is disabled by default. The Pixel 3, arguably the best camera on a smartphone today, is not without its gimmicks. Its High Dynamic Range (“HDR”) algorithm brings out colours in photos – making greens and blues richer, thus the pictures from our Goa vacation earlier this year, probably look better than real. It’s likely that the next time I’m sitting in the sea breeze at Joet’s on Bogmalo Beach, I’ll be complaining about how the sea isn’t as blue as it used to be.
I’ve now decided to transition from smartphones to a camera that relies more on high-quality optics and lesser on software for good photos. The options are slim though – If you’re keen on a camera that is conveniently sized, does a good job, and will be relevant for a few years, you’ll be spending upwards of USD 2,000 on kit like the Fujifilm XT3 or even pricier options from Sony or Leica.
So will the accuracy of memories be a factor of privilege? Actually, let’s leave that question for the unexplored field of Intersectional Psychosocial Economics and stay on topic.
Photos aside – what about life?
Between 1999 and 2009 I maintained a pretty detailed journal. For the first two or so years, this was in a series of hardcover notebooks, and later in a series of text files on my computer. These journal entries were very helpful in laying the base for my continued development. They contain detailed descriptions of events and thoughts that I was able to deconstruct and address for my own evolution as a human being. Every time I revisit my journal entries, I notice details that I had long since forgotten.
I have also been on Orkut since 2005 and Facebook since 2007, and kept up daily posts until 2011. In the years since, I have cut down on social media posts, and use Facebook mostly for sharing articles, jokes, and the infrequent travel photo. It’s likely that my increased involvement with Social Media was the reason that my journaling suffered, and ceased eventually. The “Memories” page on Facebook, reminds me of my social media posts – events, ideas, thoughts, summarised in a few lines, perhaps with restraint and caution because I knew that these were for a public audience rather than a private archive. Hence, these posts are an incomplete, and perhaps embellished account of those events. There is no granular, visceral narration, with pages and pages of interpretation, intersecting with other occurrences after the fact. I believe that even in the times that I have been active on Social Media, my posts have been restrained. There are others though, who broadcast personal matters several times a day. It is likely that a lot of these posts are embellished to impress an audience. What if these people return to their posts at a dark moment in their lives, and feel that their situation – relative to the embellished and cherry-picked journal of their past – is much worse than it really is?
Memories have a lifecycle of sorts – there is the experience of the moment and the context from incidents around it; physical sensations – pleasure, pain, discomfort; emotional responses – elation, amusement, sadness, anguish; and these evolve with time. At the moment of your greatest triumph, you feel on top of the world, and you may think that you’ll always be like this – but give it days, months, or years, and your memory of that achievement will give you joy, but not necessarily the ecstacy of that moment. Similarly everyone has days of such profound anguish that you wish that the sun wouldn’t rise again – but it does, and given enough time, the pain fades. Sure, remembering the event will bring back sadness, but it will not be as debilitating as that you faced in the moment. Also, memories evolve. Vicious beatings that my schoolmates and I endured in middle-school are often recounted with a wistful fondness at alumni meetings. The stuff of bad memories has been given a rose tint by their love for the school where they spent much of their early lives. Some memories die entirely. There are shared experiences that one person may not remember at all – purged entirely from an individual’s internal journal.
This lifecycle of memory serves us. Fluid memories often form the context of self-improvement, and an altered context to a memory can be a refuge when faced with a challenge to one’s world view.
However, this enduring chronicle of embellished memories that Social Media gives us – how can this ever be a good thing? If the context doesn’t shift, and you’re stuck there with your airbrushed smile, enjoying an HDR-enhanced meal on a vividly green and blue landscape – where is the arguing with that? The memory is fake, and worse, it lacks the malleability that gives it any enduring significance.