Musing: What Digital Pictures Mean for Us Psychologically

A quick look at my Dropbox Camera Upload directory reveals that I take about 3-5 photos a day on average. They range from awesome to mundane, moments to remember, and moments that after a task is done, should be forgettable. But I save them all, because it’s too much work to weed through them and I don’t want to miss any golden ones. Tonight I wonder how this will change society psychologically over the next 30 years.

A Screenshot of my Camera Upload Directory
A Screenshot of my Camera Upload Directory

My parents have photo albums that have 10-20 photos per year in them. They are generally key moments, or at least moments when a camera with film in it was handy. There are no pictures of receipts, white boards, lunch, or random people seen in Walmart. But today we take all those types of photos, and more. And in 30 years, I might have around 1,400 photos per year = 42,000 photos that span a giant chunk of my life. What will this mean?


There are a few pros to this mass photo documentation effect. The first is that key chance moments will not be forgotten as easily. When you ask people what triggered negative events in life (i.e. life crises) you find it’s events, not age, that cause the crisis (Lachman, 2004). One could easily argue that positive events work the same way – we’ve always known that some events are worth documenting (i.e. the birth of a child, marriages, etc..), but some events are unknown at the time of their occurrence. For example – if you met your future spouse at a party, chances are the pictures of that night were never taken in the past, or if they were, the limitations of film meant only 1 or 2 were snapped. Now you might have the whole night documented in 5-10 shots, conservatively. Imagine looking upon the night you met your spouse, or the first day of a job that you’d later realized was the start of your eventual career, or any other “first” that you hadn’t thought to document at the time. Those are memories that one might snag with 1,400 photos a year.

There is also an element of remembering everyday life. About 3 months before I left New York, I started taking photos of the most mundane things. Sights I’d see every day traveling to and from work, lots of pictures of Columbia’s campus as it was at that time, and even pictures of my desk, my co-workers desks, the break room, etc… At the time it felt really silly – I’d seen these sights every day for 3 years – they were really familiar, and ingrained into me.

1.5 years later I look at those photos and they seem so distant and evoke a number of thoughts and memories that I would never think to ponder. They allow me to place myself back in that time, and memories come flooding back. It’s something called context dependency – we remember more when we have the context to remind us, and it’s very powerful. I’m glad I took those photos – they remind me what my daily life was like at that point in my adult life. I only wish I had sets from my years at The University of Akron or in High School – that period before digital cameras came into our lives in cheap and easily usable fashion.


42,000 photos over 30 years. If, when I’m 60, I decide to go through them, it will take me around 120 hours (assuming I look at each photo for 10 seconds on average). That’s 5 days. One obvious problem with this approach is how to find the key moments. This is not a new problem – engineers at top tech firms have been thinking about it for a few years now. Google has started finding trends in your photos and creating collages combining events together. Apple now groups photos by event as well. But neither of these is done by the person – it’s the software taking it’s best guess, and so in the end, the actual human will still be responsible to figure out what was key and what was junk. That alone is a pretty daunting job, even if you keep up with it regularly.

Another element that I think about a lot is the fact that some memories would rather be forgotten. Painful memories can be enhanced by photos the same way that positive ones can be. I have a few Facebook friends who have had the trauma of a painful break-up require them to excise perhaps a thousand photos from their albums – assuming they don’t want to delete them all, that’s 1,000 times they have to look at their ex and try to stifle anger, sadness, resentment, etc… Much worse than just throwing the shoebox of photos away.

In the end, the pros and cons I’ve listed are only the start of a deeper question of how we merge psychological wellbeing and functioning with technological advancements. Photos might be the most salient, but we’re also looking at a future where the following questions will have surprising answers (Well, surprising to today’s audience):

Q: Is that a normal heart rate for you?
A: Well doc, here’s my daily heart rate, exercise, food, and weight logs for the past 30 years, thanks to my smartphone and fitness tracker. You tell me.

Q: Where were you at 9 PM on that day, 2 years ago?
A: Here’s a full report of exactly where I was that day, exactly when. My phone kept it for me, and I also used Foursquare and Facebook to check in.

Q: Did you know all along that Candidate X was going to win?
A: Well I probably would have succumbed to confirmation bias if I hadn’t had those dozen or so tweets I sent out handy – I had real doubts before the election.

And that’s just a handful. We live in amazing times, technologically. Now it’s up to use to figure out how to use all of that information, psychologically! I tend to be optimistic rather than apocalyptic on the matter – but it’s not going to be easy to sort it all out!

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