The entire history of you: memory and forgetting on the digital era
By Heloísa Helena Silva and Maria Eduarda Scott
What if we could record everything we see and hear from the perspective of our senses for prosperity? And what if we had total control over our memories? And what if we could, without great effort, edit, erase, resume, and play all of our memories by simply pressing a button? This is the premise of the third episode of the first season of the British series Black Mirror, called “The Entire History of You”. In a fictional future, people have a technology connected to their own nervous system which allows them to record everything that happens during their daily lives, ensuring the direct and simple access to all categorized memories — by year, person, or whichever label the user chooses. In addition to the personal access to these memories, they can be played and shared, shown like parts of a movie.
This starting point raises curiosity — after all, the way in which we build our memories is an essential aspect of being human. Humanity, in all of its history, behaves like remembering is an effort and forgetting is the rule. How many times do we find ourselves trying to piece together moments we wish to remember in detail or conversations that we would like to live again, but as much as we make this mental effort, it does not seem enough to make the events reappear precisely?
At first, this new relationship that the digital era has been building with the backlog of memories seems interesting. As much as the ability to bring back the past may seem comforting, there are certain consequences to the change of the human paradigm regarding forgetting and remembering. This change is more and more a part of our reality, with a series of digital technologies that allow us to store everything — there is greater a commitment and affection for the act of recalling things, whether by filming, photographing, or posting on the social networks. Voluntarily, the activity of building memories to be shared has become regular and humanity is unlearning how to let things go.
The consequences of this process are countless — there is an increase in the precision, accessibility, and durability of information, which in a way become more visible. Besides, there is also the technological development solely for the articulation and organization of this information in the digital environment, expanding the sharing, compiling and researching capacities, as it is done through search engines on the Internet and hashtags, for example. Thus, the result of this phenomenon surpasses the storing and the production of content, also having an impact on the search mechanisms and the massive access to this content.
While through our individual efforts to remember we are constantly forgetting and rebuilding elements of our past, the digital memory ensures the direct and permanent access to the facts. So rebuilding, changing, and evolving the meaning of past experiences give place to a constant and frozen past. These technologies which make up the digital memory resignify our relation with the past, as the precision and the quality of the memories leave no room for uncertainties, abstractions, and forgetting itself, since making every episode clear and permanent overcomes the forgetting mechanisms of the human mind, which for so long have been essential to allowing an appraisement of the past more related to the whole than to the particularities.
Technologies solidify past memories not only for those who lived them: in great part, they are perpetuated on the digital world for everyone to see. If a person manifests themselves on a social network or appears on a public piece of news, this content is permanently available for others to access — making individuals less the subject of their own experiences, as they do not have total control anymore over who accesses them, who can remember, and how they interact with this content. Knowing this, it is natural to think about the possibility that someone may wish to disconnect themselves from a certain past experience so that the digital world will not eternally remember this fact.
It is in this context that the debate about the “right to be forgotten” appears. This is a new concept that revolves around the possibility of reclaiming the right to personal content available through the digital technology and deleting it from the public domain, so people are not permanently haunted by past events. This proposal is centered on the analysis of removal or deindexation requests for content that is available on the Internet and that is in some way offensive, outdated, untruthful or embarrassing to the person who is arguing for their “forgetting”. The permanence of digital content online for an indefinite time, along with the expansion of the searching possibilities, may negatively affect people, targeting fundamental rights such as intimacy, honor, image, and private life.
And if the “eternization” of the past through new technologies is problematic, so is the possibility of selectively forgetting, which can result in the censoring and manipulation of the historical past and of information. The digital technology opens doors for the manipulation of memory using the selective deletion of information and the editing of content (videos, photos, texts) which decontextualizes and reconstructs events of the past in this new storing dynamic.
This phenomenon can be compared to Bentham’s panopticon — an architectural mechanism used for the control and discipline in prisons, factories, and schools — that is part of a surveillance culture, in which a person can watch each and every other person in permanent time, without being watched themselves and in a way that other people do not know that they are under surveillance. This social control is now dissimulated through the new forms of technology and communication and naturalized in our routines: everything becomes visible from an exercise of invisible power. The big Internet and technology corporations hold more and more customer and user data and, in return, there is little access to information about content search and indexation algorithms, data storing and sharing policies, among other procedures adopted by these companies. It is as if, when joining these technologies by clicking on the “I read and accept these terms” (most of the times without actually doing it), we were authorizing certain organizations to occupy a privileged place in the “virtual panopticon”, without offering a reciprocal transparency, making the users rest at a clear disadvantage before the corporations.
If even before imagining that technology would provoke these changes regarding our memories Foucault affirmed that “visibility is a trap”, we can say that today we are drowning in a sea of visibility — we are susceptible at all times to the surveillance of security cameras, photos or videos made by ourselves, friends or complete strangers and to the speed in which these recordings are shared and eternalized digitally. Therefore, we can see the need for thinking carefully about the way in which we make and share content, with whom we share information and the impacts of these interactions, that will last for eternity on the virtual space. And, above all, this is about the importance of thinking about how we want to establish our relations and how we want to build our experiences — both past and future — within this context.