Our Disposable Culture

PUBLISHED: March 6, 2013

Much is written about the fact that denizens of social media often fixate on the moment. Texts and tweets fly across the street, the room, the aisle, conveying thoughts with half-lives measured in seconds. But dwelling in the present is one thing. To treat the present as disposable—so that, in effect, we gradually shrink our past—is something else.

With the mobile app known as Snapchat, users now exchange more than 60 million photographs each day. The primary appeal for the service’s avid fans, who tend to be in their late teens, is that the images are never saved. The goofy poses, the silly jokes, even the loving glances—they all vanish within seconds. Life, at least as glimpsed through Snapchat, is entirely disposable.

Facebook was quick to launch a similar service that it calls Poke. It seems geared for those who worry that the regular Facebook, itself a flawed replacement for the trusted family album, is too permanent, too meaningful a repository for our thoughts and images.

One of Snapchat’s slogans is “There is value in the ephemeral.” Roughly translated: There is no point in taking good photos, or worrying about your appearance, or fretting over bad behavior, because it’s all going to disappear quickly, only to be replaced by the next batch of evanescence. Life is a blur and leaves no traces.

Not surprisingly, Snapchat and Poke have also become popular for sexting, one type of communication where lasting memories can do more harm than good.

Yet it isn’t just teens who seem to have devalued the past. On a recent “Today” show on NBC, Barbara Reich, a self-described expert on combating clutter, practically brought her interviewer, Willie Geist, to tears when he asked Ms. Reich about saving and preserving his young daughter’s artwork. “What if she makes something special and I want to put it up on the wall?” Mr. Geist asked. “It’s not really that special,” she said. Get over it.

Ms. Reich, it turns out, is just as concerned with uncluttering our memory banks as she is with emptying our closets. She assured Mr. Geist that in years to come he’d never regret having chucked his daughter’s art.

I find this jarring, because I treasure the projects that my kids made in school, just as I look back fondly on the photos of them growing up. We hear occasionally of people who are forced to flee when fire or flood threatens their home, and the one thing they clutch as they head out the door is the family album.

The great contradiction in the digital age is that while material is said to last indefinitely, its intangible quality may actually make it less permanent in our lives. When letters were written by hand, for example, some were saved and treasured. Is there much chance that anyone’s emails will be preserved for posterity?

It’s hard to imagine that electronic files of photos and even family videos, will ever be passed down in digital form the way hard copies have always been. With popular online services such as Pandora, music is random and temporary: It comes and goes but isn’t saved.

A new generation treats things differently, even tangible items like clothing. I still have a few fine garments that my father used to own, and my wife, Amy, takes pride in making beautiful pieces that can be saved and handed down. Nowadays, though, stores like Forever 21 and H&M are the rage because they offer what is known as disposable fashion. The garments are made so poorly and priced so inexpensively that they are often thrown away after a few wearings.

Nothing viewed only in the context of the moment—a photo, a child’s drawing, an item of clothing—is as meaningful or instructive as something viewed over time in the context of history and our experiences.

We don’t even seem to value truth as much as we used to—whether in government, the news media or relationships. It’s all so fleeting. The big picture, it seems, has been shattered into countless smaller pictures, so easily deleted.

(c) Peter Funt. This column originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

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