In May, a TechnoBuffalo alumni reached a new milestone. Damon Brown, journalist, blogger, and former TB writer released a new book in collaboration with TED Books called Our Virtual Shadow: Why We Are Obsessed with Documenting Our Lives Online.
Although our time with him was far too short, we just couldn’t be happier for him and his achievement. It’s amazing to see members of the herd move on to great things, so I caught up with him recently via email to learn more about the project.
Hey, Damon. We miss you around these parts! But we’re glad we still have access to your insights, thanks to your new book. Seems like a great time to ask a few questions about how you wound up writing this, and the very interesting, very timely points you’re covering in it.
That’s quite a journey, going from tech blogger to book author. How did you make that transition?
My background is actually journalism, starting with newspapers, then magazines and blogs. Books weren’t really on my mind until I stumbled upon the topic of sexuality in video games more than a decade ago. I had my first assignment from Playboy.com writing about the game Fear Effect II: Retro Helix, a now-obscure video game that will have a footnote in history as the first major title to feature a lesbian couple as heroines. It ended up being a short article, but it really opened up a whole history for me about how intimacy had been portrayed in gaming. No one really covered it at the time – there were a few Maxim-style, tongue-in-cheek articles, but no straight-up history.
I pitched all the major mens magazines and even a few video game ones. As the rejections poured in, I kept finding more and more interesting facts and history. I needed to write something much longer than a 5,000-word feature! I realized I had a book. Five years later, Porn & Pong: How Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider and Other Sexy Games Changed Our Culture hit the shelves.
I’ve written a handful of books since then. Our Virtual Shadow actually came about because of Quote UnQuote, an iPhone app that me and my friend Kurt Collins will be releasing later this year. The app allows you to capture interesting things you hear people say. For the app I started researching modern communication and I realized that we loved trying to hold our life moments in social media, but Facebook, Twitter, or even my app QuQ couldn’t really do them justice. I realized I had a book there, and TED Books, a division of the TED Conference folks, agreed.
You acknowledge that people have always had this need to document their lives, and be “remembered and understood.” So what’s changed now?
We’ve always wanted to document our lives, but two things have changed: The number of tools we have and the speed at which the things in our lives seem to be happening.
In caveman times, we could document things with carvings or dirt on a wall. A few centuries ago, we got the printing press. A generation ago, digital photography wasn’t available to most people. A decade ago, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram didn’t even exist. The number of ways we can document everything we do is staggering – and it shows no sign of letting up.
At the same time, the speed of our world seems much, much faster. Now we can know everything that’s happening around the world at this very moment. Life seems to be going much faster simply because we have access to so much stimulation and information. It’s like moving from a laid-back small town to Midtown Manhattan. So we want to capture the moment – this very second — before something else takes its place.
The rub, as I discuss in the book, is that our favorite ways of documenting our lives are actually pulling us out of being fully present in the very moments we’re trying to capture. If we aren’t aware, our fear of losing a special moment can end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Looking toward the future, what do you think lies ahead for society, if people don’t learn how to be more “present” in their lives, versus obsessing about capturing it?
I don’t think it’s pandemonium, a “dogs and cats living together” kind of situation. But I think we could all be watching important moments pass us by. It’s akin to reading something on the subway and suddenly realizing you missed your stop – it’s harmless once or twice, and you’re enjoying yourself fine, but after a while all that time starts to add up.
Are there any social tools or services out there that you support, or do you feel that they all put us at risk for obsessive or superficial living?
Aside from QuotUnQuote? lol. I’m most curious about the impermanent apps like SnapChat as well as distraction-blocking software like IAWriter. We’re seeing this trend of people stripping down and creating content that has less of a trail, as well as creating content while not being distracted by other social media while they do it. It’s interesting.
But it’s a great question, because it addresses a misnomer: The book isn’t bashing social media. Social media is awesome. (Hell, I’m co-founding my own social media app!)
The problem is overusing any documenting tool. Today, we use social media. In the book, I talk about that one relative that is continuously taking pictures at family get togethers. We love her, but we also know that she’s not fully engaging like the rest of us because she’s trying to compose a shot every five seconds. Even when she’s not taking pictures, she’s looking at us, prepping herself just in case the very next moment will make the perfect picture.
Cameras and other tools existed well before social media. So it’s not really about the medium, but about how we balance using the tool with actually being present in the moment.
Is there an overarching lesson that you hope people take away after reading Our Virtual Shadow?
Moments in our lives weren’t meant to last forever. Once we accept that, we can stop trying to capture everything we do in an app, a picture, or a memento. No tool can fully capture a moment anyway!
Apart from Facebook, which seems to be peaking, Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends Report sees usage rates across other social media growing. Meanwhile, it says people are less willing to share their data. Do you think that means the pendulum has already begun to swing back — from a “document everything, at all times” flurry of activity to a more discerning approach?
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. The rise of non-permanent tools, like Snapchat, may point to us realizing that some things have value because they don’t last forever. We also are burning out on the “check-in” idea – we see FourSquare and other once white-hot services pivoting from requiring users to stop what they are doing and check in, to suggesting other nearby people to connect with or recommending things to do in the real world. In other words, they’re encouraging us to get out and interact, versus prodding us to spend more time inside the app. It’s a contradictory way of keeping users active and interested.
I have to say, I’m absolutely loving the extreme reactions to Google Glass. I saw Sergey Brin speak at this year’s TED conference, and his argument was that using Google Glass was less distracting than having to pull out your smartphone. It is a controversial stance, especially considering the screen has moved from in your pocket to in front of your eye. I absolutely love that it’s bringing the issue of distracting media right in front of our faces. It was a reminder that this topic isn’t going away anytime soon.
Did anything surprise you during the course of your research/writing?
The biggest surprise was how divided everyone is on the impact of our modern media culture — experts included. Scientists are debating the impact of social media on our memories. Parents are debating how early kids should be exposed to social media. I learned that there are really no clear-cut answers right now. My main purpose with Our Virtual Shadow is to make us aware of the conflict.