I have briefly mentioned the show Black Mirror a couple of times throughout my blog posts, but I feel like I’ve never truly expressed just how much I love it. To emphasize, I LOVE Black Mirror (even though their movie “Bandersnatch” disappointed me a little bit but that’s a story for another time). If you have not watched the show yet, I highly recommend it.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking, “Is she just going to rave about Black Mirror this entire blog post?” Yes and no. I want to have an in-depth discussion about one episode of Black Mirror and analyze how feasible it is in real life. At this point, you may also be wondering why I’m even talking about this show and how it’s even applicable to this subject matter. If you’ve never seen Black Mirror, the point of the show is to push the boundaries of what functions technology can accomplish, to critique modern society, and to theorize about and warn against the potential pitfalls of technology, which often includes neurotechnology, in each episode. The episode I want to analyze in this blog post is “The Entire History of You,” and if you have not watched this episode and you intend on doing so then DO NOT READ AHEAD because there are MAJOR SPOILERS.
“The Entire History of You” focuses on a device called the “grain,” which is essentially a personal video recorder built into your consciousness. The implant allows you to record all of your experiences, so that you can basically replay your memories. This puts a creative and insightful spin on society’s current obsession with social media and flaunting one’s personal life. When I first thought about this technological concept though, I thought it could be really cool. Imagine being able to relive some of your favorite vacations and memories; you would never really have to pick up your camera ever again. However, thinking about it further I realized how many pitfalls there are, as the episode depicts in a major way.
The episode centers on a married couple Liam and Ffion. When Liam goes to a dinner party one night and notices Ffion subtly flirting with another man he had never met before, he starts to get worried. While she does admit that the man was one of her ex-boyfriends, she assures him that it was an extremely long time ago before they got married. Unsatisfied, Liam proceeds to use the grain to access and over-analyze past times when he had seen Ffion and the man together, nitpicking for small indicators of a potential affair between the two. Turns out he was kind of right: he inadvertently finds out through a memory he sees on a screen input of the man’s grain history that he had had unprotected sex with Ffion. If that’s not bad enough, the date of the memory shows that it was around the same time that Liam and Ffion’s daughter was born, suggesting that Liam may not even be their daughter’s real father.
However, the takeaway from this episode isn’t that the grain was a way to confirm his suspicions and bust his wife; things aren’t ever this simple in Black Mirror. The point is that the grain literally destroyed Liam’s entire life. It caused him to spiral into insanity and uncover dark things he probably never would have if he hadn’t been implanted with it, which is precisely why at the very end of the episode he decides to literally cut the implant out.
As you could probably tell, these types of endings and plotlines that get progressively more complicated are hallmarks of the show. What I love about Black Mirror is that when the episode ends, you are left with a bitter and conflicted feeling (I know that’s a super weird thing to like). But I think this feeling really forces you to reflect, and it really effectively displays the importance and complexity of neuroethics. For example, by the end of “The Entire History of You,” you are left pondering if it was almost good for him to find out earlier rather than later through the use of the grain, or if it would have been better for him to simply live in ignorant bliss with his family.
In other words, this show basically blurs all the lines. None of these characters are necessarily good nor bad. It’s not like each episode has one central villain who cunningly uses technology to impart evil. These are just normal people who do not necessarily misuse technology, but are instead victims of technology. In this case, I don’t think Ffion was necessarily evil. Obviously what she did was immensely wrong, but she’s also human and sometimes, mistakes happen. But the grain
magnifies the intensity of this situation to immense scales. In fact, there is one scene where Liam forces Ffion to show him her grain recording of the night she had sex with the man. This scene is especially impactful because it bluntly showcases the pitfalls of such a technology. Sure you can relive your best moments, but what about your worst moments? Although you have the option to “delete” recorded memories from the grain, I don’t personally think anyone would do that. As humans we are naturally self-critical and intrusive, and I think such a neurotechnology would fuel these traits. Not only would we rewatch moments when we slipped up or embarrassed ourselves, but we would also have access to analyze other people’s lives, motives, and actions. That is honestly terrifying. The past should always be left behind us, so I find this episode so scary in that your memories are literally at your disposal for the rest of your life, a built-in compilation of everything you have ever seen, heard, or done. You wouldn’t even be able to move forward in life because you would be so obsessed with either criticizing your downfalls or reliving better times, thus forever being stuck in the past.
So, is there a neurotechnology out there similar to the grain? Actually, yes (the future is closer than you think I’m telling you). In 2017, a company called MMT Neurotech made progress in the full-launched development of their implanted, memory playback system. Essentially the system would, like the grain, allow for downloads onto its drive that can be replayed and re-experienced by the person with the implant. These memories can come from the person themselves or from other people, but in both cases the thoughts and memories would be initially recorded with functional MRI. Don’t get me wrong, Dr. Steven Levy, the CEO of MMT Neurotech, has amazing intentions. He feels that his system could be extremely beneficial in particular for Alzheimer's and Autism patients. For people suffering from Alzheimer's, being able to access their own memories or memories from their friends and family could greatly help lessen the blow of the associated memory loss, thus allowing them to maintain certain core memories despite their short-term memory loss. Alternatively, Dr. Levy feels that he could help Autistic patients as well by implanting memories of normal social interactions and behaviors from other people into the device in order to hopefully promote the proper brain pathways to develop and aid more proper social development as the child grows. But imagine if such a system became commercialized? It would literally be the same thing as the grain in “The Entire History of You.” I honestly don’t know at this point if Black Mirror’s creator, Charlie Brooker, is just a genius or someone from the future who’s come to warn us about the dangers of technology.
The tech industry is a huge movement that doesn’t seem like it will be slowing down its pace anytime soon. It is quickly expanding, and with that I often get seriously concerned about whether or not people are taking the time to sit down and truly think about the implications of what they are creating. It is not enough to create a technology and then hope that it is used for its original intentions. In an age where we are so dependent on technology, I feel that it’s bound for the negative implications of technology to unfold into a certain degree of chaos in the future. Technology is obviously amazing, and we have made so much progress as a society; however, I do wholeheartedly believe that both as creators and consumers, we must all contemplate our relationship with technology. Technology is something that greatly aids the quality of our lives, but it is not meant to be integrated into our lives to the point that it gives it quality.
It is meant to connect rather than disconnect us. However, the latter oftentimes is what occurs as a byproduct the current state of technology, and “The Entire History of You” perfectly demonstrates this. The grain is meant to make your memories more accessible and connect you to those memories that are worth reliving, but it becomes a way in which Liam both figuratively and literally disconnects himself from his wife and his daughter, even if that isn’t necessarily his primary intention. All I’m trying to say is that with technology, we must reflect more on the future direction of how it will impact current societal dynamics. This is especially the case with neurotechnology as we begin to literally alter and manipulate the capabilities of the brain, which is, after all, the crux of our humanity.