Before we talk about The Entire History of You, let’s take a trip back to when this episode was first released. December 18, 2011.
2011 was the year when we started seeing holes in technological security. Major websites, platforms, and industries experienced hacks and breaches, including dating websites Plenty of Fish and eHarmony, which exposed users’ personal data for over two weeks.
The result of lost or stolen equipment led to the second biggest healthcare data breach, as of 2011, exposing over 10 million data sets. This event included TRICARE, Health Net, and The New York Health and Hospital Corp.
The 2014 celebrity nude photo leak was the peak of the revenge porn culture. But in 2011, Danish journalist, Emma Holten had her private photos stolen and shared on the Internet. She foresaw how others can be vulnerable like herself, raised attention to the harassment and abuse, and called for action from technology companies, lawmakers, and individuals. It took time, but as of 2021, 46 states and Washington D.C. had passed laws against nonconsensual pornography.
Our personal information was exposed, but our memories remained unreliable. In 2010, paranormal researcher Fiona Broome shared a phenomenon known as the Mandela Effect. She reported that since 2010, about a thousand people have written online claiming that they thought South African leader Nelson Mandela had died in 1980. As of 2011, Mandela was still alive. However, learning the truth didn’t mean accepting false memories. Those adamant that they remembered Mandela’s death proposed theories that we may, in fact, be living in a parallel universe.
2011 was a nervous time. Reliance on our own brains was decreasing, and our dependency on technology was raising, while the measures to protect us have not. These events set the stage for one of my favorite episodes of Black Mirror, episode 3 of season 1: The Entire History of You.
Knowing what we know now, I must ask. Did this episode age well? Are the themes still relevant? And has any of the predictions come to fruition? If not, is it still plausible?
Let’s find out.
False Memories and Cancel Culture
The Entire History of You is a story about memories. Your memory is your life, but what if you have a device embedded into your head that allows you to record and save everything you see and hear? What kind of life is that?
If you’ve ever lain awake at night, replaying an awkward conversation or a past argument, you know that memories could be twisted to tell whatever story you want. That’s what happened to our protagonist, Liam, as he struggles with his anxiety, career, and marriage.
Whether he was reviewing his appraisal at work or refreshing his memory before attending a party, anxiety clouded all of his judgments, even though he could view his history.
This brings up some interesting questions: Are memories merely sights and sounds? Can we even call it memory if we impose a separate feeling on it? A feeling of suspicion? A feeling of nostalgia? Is it still the original memory if we over-analyze and deconstruct it? Without a Grain, every time we remember something, we have a tendency to change a small detail here and there before returning it to the storage in our minds.
Liam questions the faithfulness of his wife, Fi, when party guest, Jonas refers to his past as “hot times” and “greatest hits”. Liam starts digging up the past, as many do today on social media when they seek to shame or incriminate someone.
An example is what happened to James Gunn, the director of Guardians of the Galaxy. In 2018, after criticizing Donald Trump, a series of tweets — posted between 2008-2012, poking fun at pedophilia and rape — were discovered on Gunn’s account. This event led to discussions on how we should handle these artifacts, and if we were to start scouring through each of our memory banks, can we all say that our histories won’t reveal skeletons?
While we seek dirt on others, we may find our own. This is demonstrated in the episode when Liam rewatches his memory and sees himself making an off-colored joke with the babysitter present.
These days, we’ve learned to watch what we post online because anything could be taken out of context. Cancel culture has become an effective weapon against the powerful and unruly, and bad jokes may cause self-inflicted wounds. Take, for example, the story of Justine Sacco. In 2013, upon landing in South Africa, she tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Sacco was vehemently shamed online and ended up losing her job as an executive.
Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, reports that after 2011, mental health issues have “sharpened”. She doesn’t believe the cause is genetics or economic reasons, but rather due to the cultural shift. Over a decade later, The Entire History of You remains to be a great representation of our declining physiological well-being.
Laws and Lies
The role our memories play in privacy and law enforcement has always been a topic worth examining, and this episode does a fascinating job of scratching the surface and exploring it in a domestic environment.
These characters are no longer surprised by the external world reviewing their lives as a security measure, although it is still as uncomfortable as taking off our belts and shoes at the TSA checkpoint.
Today security cameras are planted all over public places, and the devices we carry and wear can track us constantly. But having neuro implants intercepting our thoughts and memories is still in the future. Although, Elon Musk had announced his Neualink technology would commence human testing as early as 2022. Neuralink has been called a “Fitbit” for your brain and will allow a computer to translate your thoughts into actions and records. What it all means for us is still speculative, but the tech is hauntingly similar to the Willow Grain.
How do we feel about having our lives entwined ever more with technology? How does that affect our privacy with our friends, families, and law enforcement? With greater reliance on tech, we may mistrust other people like the characters in The Entire History of You. If we were to tell our truth without having the confidence to show our memories, then like pleading the fifth, we raise others’ suspicion that we are lying.
In the first act, Liam was pressured to show his appraisal in front of the group. His refusal to share made it apparent that he was not proud and that it would be evidence against him if he did.
Later in the episode, Liam demanded that Fi show him the evidence of her infidelity and how she had deleted the memories. This scene brings to mind recent technology that assists with adultery, including the application Ashley Madison, which had its own high-profile data breach in 2015.
Much like how we can dig into the past, we can now dig into a lie and see how deep it goes. One lie ultimately connects with another, and if we can save all our memories — especially the ones we have a guilty pleasure in revisiting — it is only a matter of time before the incriminating material comes to the surface.
In the episode, Fi says, “Not everything that isn’t true, is a lie.” And that seems like a message today. Fake news and alternative “facts” show us that there are indeed tiers of truth. The deeper we go, from white lies to pure betrayals, the more destructive it becomes. Once the surface-level lies are unearthed, it’s now up to us to choose where we want to stop digging.
Even if memories are easily accessible, it doesn’t change the fact that we are still humans. Deception is necessary for our survival. What this episode tells us is that on-demand memory will only complicate trust. It becomes ever harder to let things go, and unless there is clear evidence to exonerate the liar, then this is a world where we will no longer believe words alone.
But this episode poses an argument: Organic memories are unreliable and can be used to trick us. Like the Mandela Effect, we can end up believing our own bullshit. These events have led to mistrials and false accusations, most commonly in rape, murder, and child abuse cases.
Take, for example, the case of Tammy Smith. In 2006, while she was washing the dishes, her 4-year-old son, Gabriel, was whimpering downstairs in the basement, his right arm injured. During the trial, Gabriel testified, but his inability to communicate clearly led to Tammy being charged with child abuse, 10 years in prison, and Gabriel being placed in foster care.
Only when Gabriel was a few days short of turning 9, and his verbal communication improved, was he able to share his story. His mother did not abuse him, and his injury was the cause of a broken dryer. A situation like this, and many others, could have been prevented if we were able to see the child’s memory, like how Liam and Fi reviewed their babysitter’s performance by watching the baby’s perspective.
So what do you think? Do we want technology to be more involved with our security and safety? Yes or no, it doesn’t really matter. It seems like we’re en route to a world like the one in The Entire History of You. Even cars that can detect if you are drunk are in the works. In 2021, during the aftermath of a tragic car accident that took a family of five, President Joe Biden signed a bill that requires Passive Alcohol Detection Systems to be installed in all new vehicles by 2026.
The Entire History of You is a great jumping-off point for so many conversations around the validity of our memories, the path we take towards singularity, and the complexity of trust and privacy. With such a broad topic, this episode tells a localized story, one incident out of billions. Not only do I feel that this is an episode that has aged well, I think it’s worth revisiting regularly so that we can check in with ourselves and see where our obsession with “the truth” is steering us.
So much of the trouble today starts with our failure to let go. We are failing to let go of past arguments. We are failing to let go of slights from people we loved and trusted. We are failing to let go of a simpler time. While it’s important to learn from our history, at some point, we must look forward and know that dwelling on the past doesn’t help.
This episode is a warning. It’s not a warning to the world. No, that we cannot control. It’s a warning for the individual, us. How do we want to respond to this change? How do we want to use the data? Which metric matters? Which memory is worth forgetting? And do we have the strength to move on?
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