Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Story Idea

Someone comes up with a drug, or a technology, that gives the user perfect recall, the ability to rerun, in full detail, any part of his life. How would it get used?

One possibility is for self-education. Observing selected past experiences with a fifty year old mind and seventeen year old eyes might teach me a good deal about mistakes I had made, some of which I might still be making.  It might provide information about what it was like to be seventeen useful in dealing with current teenagers, including my own children. In life as it now is, we get to see each episode only once. As any video game player could tell you, being able to play the same events over and over makes it possible to greatly improve your skill. In my hypothetical, unlike a video game, you don't get to  try different tactics and see what happens. But you do get to see repeated replays of what you did the first time and the results.

Another possibility is entertainment. You can rerun, over and over again, your happiest, most exciting moments. Replace internet porn with memories of your first, or best, sex. Watch a reality show that was real, with yourself as star.

There is, however, a potential down side. After things go wrong, a marital breakup, a business failure, an election loss, it is tempting to go over it again and again, agonizing over what you did wrong and what you should have done. Now you can do it in living color. Forever.

The version of this scenario I have just described is probably impossible, since there is no reason to believe that a full record of my past is actually stored anywhere in my brain. But a different version, enabled by a different technology, might well come into existence in the not too distant future.

Consider a world with greatly improved surveillance, a much advanced version of video cameras on poles combined with face recognition software and database technology. In that world, David Brin's Transparent Society, everything that happens in a public place is recorded and findable. And once we have video cameras with the size and aerodynamic characteristics of mosquitoes, practically every place is public.

If the system is open access we are back with perfect recall. I am no longer watching my past life through the eyes of my past self, but I still get to watch it. 

I was born too early. But it might be reality for my future grandchildren.


David Lubkin said...

If the system is open access we are back with perfect recall. I am no longer watching my past life through the eyes of my past self, but I still get to watch it.

I get to watch your past life too. In your scenario, I can replay the life of someone I wish I was. Or live in the fantasy of being with a love who rejected me.

David Friedman said...

You can watch a love who rejected you, but you don't get to see yourself being with her.

Unless you photoshop the video to fit yourself in.

Sean McGilvray said...

There was actually an episode of the (generally excellent) TV series Black Mirror that played this concept out:

Dimitriy said...

The Black Mirror episode is very good.

There is short story by neuroscientist David Eagleman from Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlife that has a different sampling scheme:

"In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.

You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex. You sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes. For five months straight you flip through magazines while sitting on a toilet.

You take all your pain at once, all twenty-seven intense hours of it. Bones break, cars crash, skin is cut, babies are born. Once you make it through, it's agony-free for the rest of your afterlife.

But that doesn't mean it's always pleasant. You spend six days clipping your nails. Fifteen months looking for lost items. Eighteen months waiting in line. Two years of boredom: staring out a bus window, sitting in an airport terminal. One year reading books. Your eyes hurt, and you itch, because you can't take a shower until it's your time to take your marathon two-hundred-day shower. Two weeks wondering what happens when you die. One minute realizing your body is falling. Seventy-seven hours of confusion. One hour realizing you've forgotten someone's name. Three weeks realizing you are wrong. Two days lying. Six weeks waiting for a green light. Seven hours vomiting. Fourteen minutes experiencing pure joy. Three months doing laundry. Fifteen hours writing your signature. Two days tying shoelaces. Sixty-seven days of heartbreak. Five weeks driving lost. Three days calculating restaurant tips. Fifty-one days deciding what to wear. Nine days pretending you know what is being talked about. Two weeks counting money. Eighteen days staring into the refrigerator. Thirty-four days longing. Six months watching commercials. Four weeks sitting in thought, wondering if there is something better you could be doing with your time. Three years swallowing food. Five days working buttons and zippers. Four minutes wondering what your life would be like if you reshuffled the order of events. In this part of the afterlife, you imagine something analogous to your Earthly life, and the thought is blissful: a life where episodes are split into tiny swallowable pieces, where moments do not endure, where one experiences the joy of jumping from one event to the next like a child hopping from spot to spot on the burning sand."

Power Child said...

The relevant question is "How would it get used by whom?" It takes an already very thoughtful and self-aware person to earnestly turn to his own past--whether via a technology device or good old-fashioned memory--for lessons on how to conduct himself in the future. The likely use for the lowest common denominator, I'd bet, is to do something very thrilling or pleasurable and then spend as much time as they can rewatching it later. I'd bet many sociopaths wouldn't mind having life sentences so much if they could spend all their time in their cells replaying their murders and rapes.

I think the point about replaying agonizing moments is salient. When someone does wrong by you, a replay of the incident forces itself into your consciousness over and over again even when you are deliberately trying to forgive and forget. If that replay was even more vivid, this could be unbearable.

RE. Black Mirror, I found the whole series (the first 2 seasons I watched anyway) very disappointing. Each episode had an interesting set-up but was quickly ruined by a constant focus on sex and relationships, as if none of the writers were settled and married. Couldn't they think of anything more important to base the episodes around? Anyway...

Joe said...

Coincidentally, in today's episode of Quantum Vibe, a character indicates having recorded a conversation, presumably visually too, through a (brain) implant for possible use in a trial/arbitration.

Anonymous said...

Would a chronograph allow you to replay the past?,%20Isaac/Asimov,%20Isaac%20-%20The%20Dead%20Past.pdf

EH said...

As of a year or so now, I am partially living in this reality already. Every conversation of any significance, I record on my phone, which is backed up to Amazon Glacier. This sets me back less than a dollar a month.

Whether it is in dealing with the police, landlords, salary negotiations, doctors, patent trolls; the power that comes from objectively owning the words your said and which others said to you is amazing; and liberating I would say.

Memory used to be fallible, which hugely influences social dynamics. People vary a lot I find, in the degree to which they are willing to push this 'fog of war' to their advantage. And I will not regret seeing the less scrupulous people in the world lose that advantage.

But even in high trust situations; I personally like being able to replay an argument with someone close to you. Because memory IS fallible AND biased; regardless of how close we are to someone. Being able to put a break on arguments about who raised ones' voice first and who said or insinuated what, and transforming those into actual learning experiences about how we behave under emotional stress, is also hugely valueable in my opinion.

I'm guessing that's especially the last bit is probably still a minority opinion. But people better get used to it, because ubiquitous recording is coming, insofar as it isn't already there. The real question we should concern ourself with is if you too have access to a record of your own words and actions, or if it is just the counterparty.

Paul Brinkley said...

I would want to know the avenues for exploitation here.

I will assume that the "full detail" is only via the senses at their normal level of performance - i.e. you can't take the drug, stare at several hundred square miles from LEO, and then replay any part of that scene under a microscope. However, it may be the case that there were parts of a scene that may be seen, heard, or smelled but did not get conscious attention at the time, and now the user can shift their awareness to some other part of the experience.

This could have immense application; for example, people could be paid to be professional witnesses (shades of Stranger in a Strange Land), taking the drug at will, perhaps along with sensory augmentations, such as drugs or prosthetics. Trust would be an issue (what if the witness says "Jose says he is not afraid to die"?), possibly leading to the use of multiple witnesses as resources permit. Contract negotiations done by voice would of course use this with at least one member of each party to the contract.

Counter-surveillance would be interesting. How do you tell if someone has used the drug? Are they looking around as much as possible, trying to take in as much of the scene as they can? Consider the scenarios... an encounter with the police, or a delicate trade negotiation between nations, or some clandestine affair. How would you defeat it? Might there be countermeasures to foil their attempt to watch? A counter-drug? Some form of jamming?

Of course, the lying witness problem becomes arguably more important. How do you verify a witness was actually under the drug at the scene, let alone verify whether he is lying now? Which means that the holy grail in these scenarios would be a method to replay the witness' experience on an objective medium.

Bruce Adelstein said...

There's an interesting novel that explores the concept of preserving memory: Guide for the Perplexed, by Dara Horn. It is 3 parallel stories: (1) a modern computer wiz who invents "the Geniza" the technology to do this, (2) the story of Solomon Schechter obtaining the documents in the Cairo geniza, which was a room in a synagogue where 1000 years of Hebrew documents were discarded, and (3) part of the life of Maimonides, some of whose documents ended up in the geniza. It is a very clever book.

Anonymous said...

What you're describing is pretty much the core McGuffin of Dan Simmon's _Flashback_:

--Erich Schwarz

Tibor said...

I think there are people who actually do have a total recall. I don't know how it manifests exactly but they can tell you what they had for lunch on a particular day (several years back even), what clothes they were wearing and so on. I'm not sure if they can really "play videos" of their past in their heads though. But it is possible that there is enough information in at least some brains to recreate the past and some manage to do that even without drugs.

susupply said...

There definitely are people with total recall of their past lives--hyperthymesia, it's called. One of whom is the actress Marilu Henner.

Mark Bahner said...

"Someone comes up with a drug, or a technology, that gives the user perfect recall, the ability to rerun, in full detail, any part of his life. How would it get used?"

Well, someone would probably be making sure The Final Cut is carefully edited to omit "private details" of "petty atrocities."

Mark Bahner said...

"Sixty Minutes" has had a couple of interesting pieces on hyperthymesia:

Anonymous said...

Watch the Black Mirror episode. Like all of the episodes, it's very dark but highly intriguing and entertaining

Chris said...

The main character in Gene Wolfe's epic novel "The Book Of The New Sun" has this exact mental faculty. It is one of dozens of equally fascinating plot elements.

Anonymous said...

You might enjoy Ted Chiang's short story, "The Truth of the Fact, The Truth of the Feeling", which contains just such a scenario. Since it is written by Ted Chiang, it is brilliant.