What we’re forgetting in our digital pursuit of “perfect” memory
Spoiler alert: This article touches on the Black Mirror episode, “The Entire History of You.”
The Black Mirror episode, “The Entire History of You,” promises a near future where people have implanted devices that record everything they see, hear and say. “Grains” rewind and replay any moment in real time on retinal projectors or screens. Although the characters in the episode experience many of the conveniences that come with never forgetting things, they begin to distrust their own memories as they see grains as a way to overcome the common errors in their memory.
The plot begins to unwind when main character Liam Foxwell suspects that his wife Ffion had an affair with a man named Jonas. When he thinks Ffion’s story is inconsistent, he decides to look for clues in his memories about her relationship with Jonas. Once he’s scrutinized every last detail of his memories, he forcefully demands to see Jonas’s and Ffion’s recordings to know the truth of what happened between them.
The grain affords Liam a unique advantage over an otherwise unanswerable question — a promise of the truth. It allows him to confirm his sneaking suspicion about their affair, but at the cost of his relationship with Ffion. It’s evident that there were issues in their relationship prior to employing the grain, which showed through in Liam’s jealousy toward Jonas upon seeing how Ffion acted around him and planted his suspicion about their affair. But Liam’s relationship with Ffion would not have come to an end if he hadn’t abused his access to his grain and later to theirs.
This episode raises questions about the ethics of a recording device that surpasses our natural ability. It presents the grain as a solution to our fallible memory with its capacity to record and replay our experiences in greater detail than we’re capable of. But we soon witness the device causing more damage in the process of eradicating our memory errors, which begs the question, “Does it solve anything?”
It becomes an issue when we entrust technology to “fix” our biological limitations and the resulting innovations limit our abilities further.
While the grain is a technical feat compared to modern-day recording devices, the role of our memory is not just to generate a record of our lifetime. Much more than that, our memory provides us with a lens to view our pasts, and in turn ourselves. Memory also plays a fundamental role maintaining our well-being and identity. These roles are largely ignored in envisioning a “quick fix” to stop forgetting things, making our memory a “problem” first before understanding the complexity of our memory processes.
The objective in designing a memory device has already been framed in a way that does not serve us. The grain and other memory devices are a response to the fact that our memory does not store all the information that we perceive. This fact is not inherently problematic — however, with the emergence of big data, we’re seeing a shift in society where we’re beginning to privilege data over other forms of knowledge. With this view, systems that appear to be data-driven like our memory will become targeted for optimization in order to improve our decision making. In this era, a deficit in retaining information is framed as an obstacle that can be overcome with technology. Here the issue is not that we recognize the limitations in our memory and work to enhance them, whether through technology or other means. The issue is that a solution for our fallible memory is put forth before establishing an understanding of exactly how our memory functions, and why it may serve us not to remember everything.
This is a case of solutionism, undermining the complexity of a system and viewing it as a deceptively simple problem that can be overcome easily through technology. As Evgeny Morozov writes on this issue, “in solving the ‘problem,’ [we] twist it in such an ugly and unfamiliar way that, by the time it is ‘solved,’ the problem becomes something else entirely.”
“99 percent of every person is the memory of what he or she knows. What you remember about your life is what makes you you, and me me. Take away my memories and what is left?” — Stepan Pachikov, creator of Evernote
It becomes an issue when we entrust technology to “fix” limitations in our memory and the resulting innovation limits our memory further. There is already evidence showing that we commit less information to memory if we can access that information online. Imagine how employing a memory device could encourage us not to remember as much about our everyday lives since we’d easily be able to rewind and replay the events as we’d perceived them. We are just beginning to understand the consequences of introducing a device that could compete with our own memory. An extreme viewpoint about grain-like devices is that they will be capable of “total recall,” generating a complete digital record of our lifetime, and interfere with our organic memory processes. This kind of memory interference could alter the way we view our pasts and ourselves, having adverse effects on our well-being.
What appear to be errors in our memory are actually adaptive shifts (or biases) in our perspective which edit our pasts, reconstructing a more positive view of things and distancing us from past traumas.
At the dinner party in The Entire History of You, one woman remarks that she’d been happier since “going grainless,” suggesting that the grain had affected her well-being. This may be because grain-like devices would only provide access to users’ initial perspective of events as they occurred, not allowing for people to shift their perspective on their past experiences as time went on. This is one aspect characteristic of our autobiographical memory: how it maintains our well-being by adaptively shifting our perspective of events. What appear to be errors in our memory are adaptive biases which edit our pasts in order to reconstruct a more positive view of things and distance us from past traumas. When we revisit our experiences, we have the opportunity to inquire about old information in new ways. We can also reevaluate negative past experiences in order to see a different side, one that’s more positive and triumphant. These are some of the benefits of reflecting on our experiences, unmediated by technology.
What if instead of competing with our memory processes we developed a memory device that could work with them?
Researchers Artie Konrad and Steve Whittaker from the University of California at Santa Cruz and Ellen Isaacs from Google have studied whether a memory device could also yield the same benefits to our well-being as how we naturally record and reflect on experiences without the aid of technology (such as through expressive writing). In their research, they hypothesized that a memory device might interfere with our memory by overriding our adaptive biases, but there is the possibility that it could facilitate our memory processes and improve our well-being.
To study this, they created a modern equivalent to the grain, a smartphone app called Echo. Echo allows users to record their everyday experiences in the form of text, audio and pictures, and facilitates them to reflect on events through structured writing.
For their study, they asked participants to use Echo to record three or more events and reflect on them each day. Their well-being was assessed before and after a 28-day period using four standard well-being scales. They compared Echo users’ results to a control group of participants who did not use the app but took the same well-being surveys.*
This research models an approach to designing memory devices that is perceptive to the effects of technology on our memory and mental health.
They found that Echo users’ well-being increased over time. In fact, compared to the control group, Echo users experienced a greater increase in their well-being from using the app. In their analysis, the researchers also found that Echo data revealed the biases characteristic of autobiographical memory, providing evidence that Echo does not interfere with our memory. Recall our bias that constructs a more positive view of things. Echo users rated the events they had recorded and reflected on as being more positive overall, showing that Echo preserves this bias. Recall also that we tend to reevaluate negative experiences in order to see them in a more positive light. There was also evidence for this bias being preserved in the way that Echo users changed more negative posts upon reflecting on them than positive posts.
The making and testing of the Echo app highlights the well-being benefits of a few features which can inform the design of future memory devices. The Echo app allowed users to actively record their everyday lives through writing, which promoted the most benefits to their well-being. In addition, users had the ability to select which events to record, ensuring the information captured was most relevant to them. This eliminates the neutral or unimportant information that systems like the grain collect with their automatic capture of all events (and from which there are no well-being benefits).
Looking beyond the technical features of the Echo app, this research models an approach to designing memory devices that is perceptive to the effects of technology on our memory and mental health. With the advent of transhumanism, we should be cognizant of our subtle attitudes of distrust toward our memory — as these attitudes will push us to settle for solutions that gain prestige as we celebrate their technical breakthroughs, but ultimately undermine the complexity of our personal histories. By working to understand our natural abilities and frame our objectives in a way that facilitates them, we can support a vision of future innovations which enhance our abilities while still preserving trust in them when unaided by technology.