Imagine living in an age where every conversation, every glance, every action is recorded. Some may say this age already exists, but now imagine that everything recorded has the ability to be replayed via a neural-ocular chip implanted in the brain. Instead of conversing with someone about something new, you can replay a conversation that occurred three weeks ago. Instead of making love to someone, you can replay an experience that occurred three years ago. And instead of existing in the present, you can simulate events from the past that occurred three decades ago. This is the premise for season one, episode three of sci-fi thriller ‘Black Mirror.’
‘The Entire History Of You’, created and directed by Charlie Brooker, revolves around the idea that a chip – the Grain – can be implanted on a hard drive in the brain, allowing memories to be replayed. Liam suspects his wife Ffion is having an affair with social butterfly Jonas, whom they meet at a dinner party. After replayed clips from his own ‘Grain’, Liam realises his suspicions are true, and he confronts Jonas in a drunken rage, forcing Ffion and Jonas to replay their memories. Liam sees the affair has been going on for months, and subsequently attacks Jonas, demanding he erase all memories of his wife. The plot shows a relationship too reliant on technology, reflecting an obsessive partner who replays his observations of Jonas and his wife over and over again, which increases his anger and frustration.
Liam and Ffion chose to interact with one another’s technological extensions, and brought about their own downfall
The use of technology within relationships has been showed in many forms, from pictures of social gatherings where people chose to interact on their smart phones rather with each other, to the images of couples in bed staring at their phones rather than lying in each other’s arms. Digital tech is no longer new; it has been part of our lives for so long now that we, the consumers, have changed to its dependents. ‘The Entire History Of You’ is a sharp and bleak observation of the world we live in, and serves as poignant reality that some would say we are living right now. The plot shows a relationship in trouble, of partners who can’t let minor issues go, who rely on technology to communicate, using it in all social situations to reflect on conversations of the past instead of focusing on issues in the present and the future.
The phrase ‘be careful what you wish for’ is illustrated in such a way that it presents technology as an insidious and corrupting force that compels us to invite into more of our lives. Liam doesn’t have to use his ‘Grain’ to reflect on past conversations between Ffion and Jonas, but he does so anyway. Liam and Ffion don’t have to replay their ideal lovemaking memories instead of engaging with each other in the present, but they do so anyway. They chose to interact with one another’s technological extensions, and brought about their own downfall. It is the severed intimacy that is one of the most terrifying aspects of the episode. As Fifon and Liam make love, both of their eyes appeared clouded over, they move monotonously, and it appears whatever makes up a human soul has disappeared.
A smart phone may be able to tell you who built the Sydney Opera House, or when women got the right to vote, but it cannot tell you, in its own personal terms, why these things occurred
But what constitutes a human soul? And why is important to acknowledge what technology is doing to our health, both spiritually and physically? The soul, in many philosophical and mythological traditions, is the incorporeal essence of a human being. ‘Anima mundi’ – the ancient Greek concept of a world soul that connects all living beings on the planet, would see us as already intertwined globally, without the aid of technology. Animism, on the other hand, suggests that even non-biological entities, such as rivers and plants, also have souls. This does not include technology. Technology is man-made, and while advanced technology now has the ability to communicate with humans with its own set of rational ideas and opinions, the absence of a human soul would always set it apart from humans. A computer does not have the capacity to love or develop its own rationale. A smart phone may be able to tell you who built the Sydney Opera House, or when women got the right to vote, but it cannot tell you, in its own personal terms, why these things occurred. It can only provide ideas and answers from others who have collectively shared their information online. Technology connects relationships, but it cannot create or fully sustain them. We cannot blame technology for our own faults, because only we have conscious reasoning and a soul. We chose to use it as a weapon to bring about our own destruction. ‘The Entire History Of You’ appears half way there in illustrating the consequences of technology stripping away our spiritual and physical health, especially using the context of a relationship, however the idea needs to be explored further. People need to use the episode as a tool to take matters into their own hands, and be aware of what technology is actually doing to them in the long run.
The fact that Ffion has an affair with Jones is not entirely Liam’s fault, but his reliance on technology was certainly a contributing factor. Of course, people can always find a way to destroy their relationships without memory databases, yet ‘The Entire History Of You’ asks a sensitive, yet serious question: if life-replay technology was available, in any form, would we all turn into Liam, or Ffion, and drive ourselves mad? Would be become as fanatic and destructive as the technologically advanced dictators we see in sci-fi films and read about in movies? Certainly, the episode shows that technology can control anyone, regardless of their intent, and that once we chose to use our smart phones and computers we acknowledge we have the power to do and change things we couldn’t ten years ago.
What can privacy mean in a world that records everything?
As the episode continues, Liam chooses to remove the ‘Grain’, yet there is very little compassion left for him, or his wife. Of course, we acknowledge Liam’s anger over his wife’s infidelity, yet he too, relied on technology just as much as Ffion did. Liam is no hero in this story – he acts impulsively and aggressively – however, the point of the episode is to see technology as a catalyst that we react to. Technology itself isn’t a problem, it’s us. Infidelity and marriage problems are not new problems, yet ‘The History Of You’ allowed them to be viewed as they are today – mediated through technology. The Grain serves as a metaphor for how reliant we are on preserving our memories within technology instead of using tangible, human things. When was the last time you developed your photographs and sat around a table talking about them? It’s so easy to upload them all to Facebook and wait for the comments to come rolling in.
The most terrifying aspect of this episode is that it’s not so hard to imagine the ‘Grain’ being introduced into society, and in fact a lot of people would welcome it, just as Ffion, Liam, and the rest of their friends at the dinner party did. In the beginning of the episode, the guests at the party suggested going through Liam’s ‘history’ for the sole purpose in pointing out inconsistencies and to ridicule him, which frightfully appeared to be the social norm. This idea of having nothing to hide, so nothing to fear, in fact created fear, as it pointed out how unaffected we are about sharing every detail of our lives with people. We share photos, memories, thoughts, feelings, opinions on Facebook without even taking into consideration our own lack of privacy, all for the sake of entertainment, and usually for others.
Firstly, technology is a weapon we chose to wield; and secondly, it necessarily warps the way we behave and react in uncomfortable situations.
What can privacy mean in a world that records everything? Should we have the ability to replay everything simply to satisfy our own nostalgia? Think of how easy it is to ‘Google’ a name, a date in history. What time was our doctor’s appointment? What year did Australia become a federation? Can’t remember? Just Google it! Yet simply knowing a date doesn’t actually mean anything if you can’t rely on your own memory to understand its significance. During a fight, Liam tells Ffion she can’t just edit out words after she replays a conversation of him calling her a bitch. What is the reasoning behind replaying that word? Bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch. Is it to satisfy Fifon’s own anger or just to prove she can recall everything Liam says without actually relying on her own memory. Why does Ffion need to show Liam insulting her instead of just talking to him about it?
The episode takes place over a span of 24 hours, showing just how quickly technology can drive impulsive behavior and cause disastrous effects. Liam is an unlikable hero because he is a representation of our own fears concerning the advancement of technology. He becomes angry with his wife and forces her to delve into her own interactions with Jonas, stripping her of her own privacy for the sole purpose of showing him her past sins. Of course, the Grain isn’t to blame for Liam’s outburst. It only exacerbates his anger. This is important to note for two reasons: firstly, technology is a weapon we chose to wield; and secondly, that technology necessarily warps the way we behave and react in uncomfortable situations.
What’s the point of leaving your house, when you can watch a movie on your phone, order pizza, and look at pictures of your neighbors baby all with a swipe of your hand?
Our memory is something we use on a day-to-day basis, even if not actively. It allows us to recall facts to use the skills we’ve learned, retrieve information to contribute to a conversation, or recall precious memories from the past. Memory allows us to organize this information so we can apply it in the right context, and forms our identity and sense of self. Implicit memory occurs when you learn something without really thinking about it. Explicit memory occurs when you try and consciously recall something to use for a specific purpose. Yet the Grain replaces both of these functions. Why should Liam simply ask Ffion if she’s cheating on him when he can simply see for himself? He doesn’t require the use of his explicit memory at all. It is this fact that is so disturbing. Once our memory no longer serves a purpose, what else will we replace? Is it possible a chip can program us to say the exact right thing in social situations that essentially replaces our personalities? Can our memories be expunged altogether, replaced by false images to assist us in interacting with other people? What is the limit?
Yes, it’s a digital era, and it is extremely useful. Your smartphone isn’t just a phone; it’s a calendar, alarm clock, email account, map, camera, meteorologist, library, wallet, music player, etc., etc. Your phone connects you with hundreds of people at a touch of a finger and it enables you to stay ‘connected’ with people without physically interacting with them. What’s the point of leaving your house, when you can watch a movie on your phone, order pizza, and look at pictures of your neighbors baby all with a swipe of your hand. What’s the point of dating someone when you can just Skype each other and play Candy Crush, your entire relationship based on who has the highest score?
There are ways to avoid data retention – using legal tools such as TOR (The Onion Router) and virtual private networks (VPN) as a tool to encrypt your web traffic and route it to other locations
In some ways, the Grain is merely a blanket that covers the present with the past, allowing us to relive the good things in life and delete the bad. It embodies your smartphone – including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram – and gives you the opportunity to turn your documented lives into reality. In a world obsessed by social media, the Grain is an example of how far humans are willing to go to become technology themselves. This is evidently becoming clearer by the day, as more people are inclined to use social media less as a record of their life, and more as an integrated factor of their life.
But what can we do with this information? And more importantly, what are we willing to do? In Red Flag issue 58, an article titled ‘Meta retention (and how to avoid it).’ Michael Kandelaars discussed mandatory retention of metadata as a form of domestic spying, where all the metadata from your phone will be stored for approximately two years. Kandelaars explained the ability of the state to retain the right to record information as a justification to stop terrorism. Of course, there are ways to avoid data retention – using legal tools such as TOR (The Onion Router) and virtual private networks (VPN) as a tool to encrypt your web traffic and route it to other locations. Most people hear about these sorts of things and instantly condemn people like Kandelaars – and more publicly, Edward Snowden – and believe the idea of protecting your freedom from technology is some kind of radical extremist view, however when it comes to the crux of Snowden and Kandelaars argument, what is the difference in the long run?
The crazy thing is that we allow this to happen
Why are people so quick to carry state and corporate surveillance apparatus in their pocket? We look at Kandelaars and Snowden as Others, even terrorists, yet our own governments can’t tell the difference between state surveillance and increased use of technology as tools of public spying and obstruction of personal freedom. The crazy thing is that we allow this to happen. We voluntarily provide the world with information about our entire lives, and need to stop. We need to wake up from this state of acceptance we seemed to have voluntarily submitted ourselves to, because there may come a day when the Grain becomes a reality, and our own personal metadata is used against us, just like the government is doing with our internet access. We need to start sharing our experiences with tangible people who already exist in our own lives. We need to shift the belief that the idea of the Grain is the ‘way of the future’ and concentrate on using technology for scientific purposes, rather than ourselves as the prototype.
Imagine if the police and agencies such as ASIO exploited our personal and private civil liberties for their own purposes? (Let’s for a second pretend they don’t already do that). We need to think of our obsession with sharing our lives online as form of disempowerment through technology. Yes, iPhones are hand-held computers, and they’re fantastic tools to engage us within areas of society we would without technology be invisible, but do we really need to know everything about everyone? If it is so easy for us to learn facts about our friends, and complete strangers from platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, think of how easy it is for government agencies to find information about us and use it for their own advantage. Why are we in such a hurry to know everything anyway? Shouldn’t our friends and family have the option to retain their personal information from us?
The reason ‘the Grain’ is such a horrifying idea is because we know we have the capacity to create such a thing, and we know we are already going down this dark and dangerous path
We need to stop accepting technology as a social norm. Stop wielding technology as a weapon against our partners and peers. Stop using technology as an intangible way to preserve and shape our personalities. We need to start using our own minds as our primary source of data retention. Start using technology as a practical tool, rather than a necessity. We need to think of Snowden, Kandelaars, and Brooker as pioneers who are leading the fight against the notion that human integration with technology is simply part of a natural evolutionary process that empower us as human beings, because it isn’t, and it won’t.
Finally, we need to realize that technology only makes us susceptible to certain paths, but it is our own agency that determines what route we take. We have the capability to make logical decisions because we have a mind, body, and soul, whereas technology does not, and should not be entirely blamed for all the evil in the world. The reason ‘the Grain’ is such a horrifying idea is because we know we have the capacity to create such a thing, and we know we are already going down this dark and dangerous path, yet the people who dare to stand up for our human rights are shot down quickly – by technology – without having the chance to defend themselves.
Black Mirror has succeeded in showing just how easily society has become slaves to technology. It provides an extremely eerie and entirely real example of something that is unfolding now, and will continue to do so in the future. Technology is so ingrained within our conception of society and our own lives that it is not so hard to envision ourselves in Liam and Ffion’s shoes. We understand Liam’s actions because we picture ourselves doing exactly the same thing. ‘The Entire History Of You’ might be science fiction, but it’s worth noting it’s a fiction that could easily become fact if we allow it. The scary thing is that most of us already do.
Snowden image by Thierry Ehrmann