ESSAY: ‘Black Mirror’ and What Memory Looks Like in the Future


S|O|S contributor: Lewis William Sanders IV

With the inception of mobile interactive operating systems à la iOS and technologies that seamlessly connect us to others around the globe, its safe to say that our quotidian lives have radically changed through technology. Of course, science fiction has filled our social imagination to the brim with optimistic and apocalyptic accounts that remind us of what the future might look, read, and feel like. But one question which seems to hoodwink us in the present is the prospective of memory and technology. One such glimpse has manifested in the television series Black Mirror, a concatenation of episodes which feel more like short films about “the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.”

In the episode “The Entire History of You”, the audience is confronted with a fairly real vision of what our memories will look like if we fused our eyesight with bionic implants and Apple’s new iOS 7. In it, we are presented with the recorded memory of everything we see. Its as if your entire life was a Youtube video which you could fast forward, rewind, pause, and play at any given moment. Your recorded visions can be shared with others via an interactive screen with the push/swipe of a remote, resembling similar technologies found between your smartphone and Apple TV. Yet, the troublesome part of this is not the sharing or surveillance that could occur, though the idea is in and of itself a bit terrifying. It is more so the fact that your visual (and sonic) memory is quantified through your personal first-person perspective. At one moment in the episode, a developer of the chip cracks-down on “organic memory” in defense of the new technology by stating, “You know half the organic memories you have are junk. Just not trustworthy. With half the population, you can implant false memories just by asking leading questions in therapy. You can make people remember getting lost in shopping malls they never visited, getting bothered by pedophile babysitters they never had.” Yet, this begs the question: Is it much more worthwhile to remember through others mediums or to remember what our memories might be. (Elasticity) Though we may not have bionic implants that record every second of our day through our own eyes, we do have Google Glass around the corner, which could eventually evolve into something akin to the quantification of our memories buried in circuitry and implants right behind our ear. There would no longer be a need to remember since we could recall all of our saved visual experiences in the fraction of a second.

On the other hand, we are faced with a different sort of vision of what memory might look like in “Be Right Back”. Imagine if in the wake of your death, your loves on are presented with the ability to text you, eventually talk to you, and finally feel you again. Might be a bit creepy but it could possibly satisfy that tiny urge to have you back. In the episode, we are presented with a software program which gathers all of the publicly available information about a person through the web and tailors its responses accordingly. The more information it has about you (i.e. private emails, personal videos, etc.), the better it can mimic your voice, personality, and gestures. After gathering, sifting, and analyzing your digital remnants, it produces a Siri-like version of you and then embodies it in a humanoid replica. This embodied software version of you can snuggle, smile and make love the way you did, if not better. But how does memory fit into all of this? In a way, we can say that it is a future reconstruction of yourself through personal information and shared memories, conversations or photos you never thought anyone would have, and bytes that we gave emotional attachment to. As for those you left behind, it offers them a tangible memory of you as you. Although the corporeal aspects of this future social phenomenon still seem a few years off (though not too far off), the ability for interactive software programs that sift through and create meaningful information from the web is here. The point is that we share many of our most cherished and intimate thoughts and moments via social media, which may be recycled to provide comfort for the ones we leave behind.

Yet, these reflections and speculations as to what memory might look like in the future raises a plethora of questions as to the nature of who we will be in that moment. How will we be remembered? What happens with our cyber life after we’re gone? Who are the caretakers of our memories residing in the cloud? And how will bionic technology construct our ways of remembering? These two episodes (as well as the series in general) provide uneasy glimpses into what the future looks like and how social relations might develop vis-a-vis the unmitigated integration of technology in our lives. Our memories may one day be quantified, collected and sold to others. They may no longer be our own property (though its difficult to even imagine memories as property). They may be divested, exchanged, and shared in ways we never thought. Or we might no longer have memories. The future is always filled with ecstatic dreams and ominous imaginings. But maybe that is the beauty of memory and the future; that it is up to us to make up. All it requires is that we reinvent our reflection in that little black mirror.

Lewis William Sanders IV is a Cuban-American Arabophile, visual anthropologist, and DJ currently living in Miami. His previous work in Cairo focused on territoriality and street art in revolutionary Cairo.

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