Our memories are tricksters and liars, filling in details where there are gaps, details that support our impressions and beliefs about things. Memories change, too, every single time they are recalled, making that the memories we trace most often in our minds the least precise while the ones that come flooding back after years of forgetting, usually conjured by something like a smell or a song, are more vivid, and more true to the initial experience. We exist in a world of misty storytelling, covering up the flaws in our system with poetry and exaggerations.
But, what if we didn’t have to rely on such a faulty data storage system? What if everything we saw and heard was recorded from our perspective, through our eyes and ears, making replay possible? “The Entire History of You,” the third episode of the first season (2011) of the impeccably executed British sci-fi series Black Mirror explores a technology implanted in our heads that turns our eyes into cameras and projectors. Humans in this world can scan through this new, improved “memory” system with ease, going to precise moments in their lives to watch again. With cameras on our phone, security cameras everywhere, Google Glass, and even the new push to make cops wear body cameras at all times, we already live in a highly recorded world. The biggest difference between our world and the one depicted in “The Entire History of You” is that we still have a great deal of choice to not record, and even if we recorded every second of our lives, navigating through the information would still be a monumental task.
The first scenario presented in this world is immediately mundane and haunting, initiating an eerie familiarity that makes this tale so chilling. After a job interview, Liam replays again and again an ambiguous nicety extended by a potential employer. What did he mean by that? How did I really do? Why did I say that? What did his facial expression mean? We already do this kind of thing, turning the memory of a situation again and again in our heads like a worry stone, trying to conjure the tone of the voice, the exact words spoken, the look in his eyes. If we always have the footage there for us to replay, would that make our anxieties and obsessions that much worse, or would we just adapt to it as our new reality as we have adapted to the wash of status updates from our friends, instant news gathering, and keeping up with our every niche interest? A major difference between our world and this imagined one is that we deal largely in external information. Of course, there are ample opportunities to wallow in, obsess over, and promote “me,” in the new age, but we aren’t all on lone soap boxes. When you get on your soapbox to notice that it just gets you eye level with everyone else, it can be a bit humbling. But how would it change our psychology, and our lives, if the information bombardment was entirely of our own experience, and with barely a glimpse into the perspective of others?
With this type of technology, Rashomon-type story duels can be eliminated, we can all just play back exactly what was said. That almost sounds like a relief, but “The Entire History of You,” explores the darker side of a steady flow of direct evidence. Or, at least it explores the idea that all the evidence in the world can’t soothe a tortured heart and mind. It also hints at the change in crime reporting. People in this world can choose to have their “Grain,” or memory storage removed, but they are no longer given any credit at all to eyewitnesses of crimes.
Privacy is also threatened by documented lives. In “TEHOY” parents fast-forward through baby’s night with the babysitter, just hinting at the implications of parents having access to their children’s grains. At what age would a child have privacy for their own life, have sole access to their grain? Would parents get addicted to their children’s grain that they would fight not to give them up? What about people with certain disabilities? Would they lose the right to be the sole viewer of their own life? Autonomous adults could also find their privacy just an illusion. People could use manipulation, abuse, and just brute force to coerce others into sharing their “grain,” or erasing a condemning eye-witness moment.
Although we are curious creatures by nature, often there is so much we really don’t want to know about each other. It’s painful enough to sometimes get too much information about the people in our lives now, but to tap into their feed, to see everything from their eyes, to see ourselves in our worst moments from their viewpoint? Would that make us more empathetic, or just terrorize us? Maybe would we be too terrorized by access to our own lives to even worry too much about another person’s point of view. It would be all too easy to hide away and spin through moments, both happy and sad, sinking into a degree of self-obsession beyond anything we experience today.
No matter how much information we have, or how much how we receive and filter it changes, what doesn’t change is our capacity for fatigue, our limited life spans, and our tendencies to fall into self-destructive habits. Technology, no matter how advanced, is just a tool, and we choose how we use it. If we want to use it for creativity, organization, and enjoyment, we can, but information doesn’t care if you use it as a tool to survive, or if you use it as a spike to impale yourself on.
Fun fact: Robert Downey Jr. has optioned this story for a feature film.