Reflections From a Black Mirror: Season 1 Episode 3 “The Entire History of You” (Netflix)

"Reflections From a Black Mirror" (My Recaps of Black Mirror Episodes)

That tweet is from Butcher Billy, a Brazillian Pop-Art genius. If you get a chance to look through all of Mr. Billy's work you have to do it. His stuff is all amazing. You can check a lot of his stuff out HERE.

Anyway, Black Mirror is one of the best shows on television.

It is unusually deep and powerful social criticism, sometimes it is so seamless (and contemporary) that its criticism can often be mistaken as a celebration of elements of the status quo (much like many of the fans of Starship Troopers love that movie for its call to fascism).

Many have compared Black Mirror to The Twilight Zone.

I guess that is fair but most Twilight Zone episodes operated in defense of the social order while I think of Black Mirror as an excoriation of our ethical status quo and a window into how technology has magnified our cultural hypocrisy and cruelty (I will admit that this might be unfair to the TZ).

My last "Reflection" was about the Black Mirror episode "15 Million Merits"

If you haven't seen Black Mirror Season 1 Episode 3 "The Entire History of You" yet *Spoiler Alert*

Reconstructive Memory

Generally, I think Black Mirror uses technology as a screen used to create enough distance between ourselves and our behaviors to allow us the ability to be objective. Unfortunately, too many people miss the point that what is reflected in the “Black Mirrors” of our smartphone screens is not some other technologies, it is our own faces.

In this instance, S1 E3, “The Entire History of You (TEHOY)” is a cautionary tale about our apparent desire to use technology to access total and immediate recall of every event that we experienced throughout the course our entire lives.

I suspect that part of our desire for this perfect recall is because, deep down, we all see ourselves as the heroes of our own stories or as incapable of being in error. Almost as if because we trust in our own version of our lives story so much we want to be able to use it to use the visual proof as a backup to settle mundane daily disputes.

In other words, upon shallow reflection, we believe that having the ability to go back immediately and “check the record” will always prove that we were right and that whoever we were interacting with was, as usual, wrong about the events we both participate in.

Anyway, Liam Foxwell (Toby Kebbell) is a young lawyer who is, most likely, about to be fired at his law office as the result of a failed evaluation following a reorganization

Liam leaves the evaluation and heads to meet his wife at a dinner party. During the self-driving cab ride, we see an advertisement for the Willow Grain which is an implant placed behind your ear that is able to record and access your memories which can then be shown in real time through your eyes using a small remote control device (apparently everyone successful has one).

Liam accesses his own memories so that he remembers how he knows the hostess of the party and greets her appropriately as she ushers him inside. Liam immediately notices what you can tell he viscerally feels is an inappropriately close discussion between his wife Ffion (Jodie Whitaker) and a man he doesn't know.

He notices throughout the dinner that this man, who is named Jonas (Tom Cullen), and his wife have an uncomfortable level of comfort and familiarity and he spends the rest of the episode compulsively re-watching (or re-doing as they call it) every scene involving Jonas and Fi (short for Ffion) throughout the dinner and beyond.

During dinner, one of the guests, named Hallam (Phoebe Fox), tells the story of how she was physically assaulted and her Grain physically removed from her head by the attackers. She explains that she is much happier without it and that she was very lucky having it forcibly removed did not cause her to lose her vision (Hallam later hooks up with Jonas).

Everyone is shocked she prefers living without her Grain, and one guest confronts her with the evidence about the unreliability of memory (more on this in a minute).

So, Liam and Fi head home after the party after asking Jonas to meet up with them for a nightcap at their house but end up having Jonas drive all the way from the party to the house only to beg his forgiveness and ask him to take a rain check on drinks.

Okay, that is the set-up, but for the rest of the episode, Liam obsessively pours over every single moment of his wife's behavior through his “grain” until he has seen enough and imbibed enough liquid courage to drive drunk to Liam's house, force his way in, and force him to delete all of his “grain” memories of his wife from his own memory storage. He forces Jonas to do this in such a way that Liam can see Jonas' memories of Fi on the screen (creating an ability for him to peruse them himself).

As you can imagine, it all ends badly.

Jonas wrecks the car, wakes up from the crash, walks home, confronts his wife and forces her to show her own memory tape of what he has found by capturing Jonas' feed.

It turns out that Jonas was 100% right, his wife did or is still have a long-term affair with Jonas, Jonas and Fi even had unprotected sex in Liam and Fi's bedroom approximately 9 months before the birth of Fi's son.

I believe the episode suggests ultimately either that Liam kills Fi (although it is never shown) or that Fi leaves. TEHOY ends with Liam doing self-surgery and removing his own Grain from behind his year, and then the screen goes black (perhaps suggesting that he has gone blind from the removal or just that the episode had reached its end).

My arguments for why he probably killed her is that he is particularly obsessed with removing images of her presenting as someone who was capable of loving him (again, I could be wrong) and that she is gone (or silent) in the house which seems very unlikely considering that the police are likely coming for him (assault with a deadly weapon, theft, driving drunk, etc.).

Oddly enough, at the end of the episode, I think Liam no longer wants to see who he is, reflected in the "black mirrors" of Fi's recorded eyes. What is devastating to him is what he found out about himself as much as what he learned about what Fi was capable of (if you have seen "The Lobster" Liam's self-surgery is an interesting juxtaposition with David's self-surgery in the last scene of that quite excellent movie).

The "Protective" Unreliability Of Memory

One of the more important points being made here is that our memories are less a way we exactly remember the events of our lives and more as a part of the complex mythologies we create which enable us to operate productively.

To put that in common English, our memories are mostly protective mythology. 

As Psychologist Charles Fernyhough put it:

"Memory is reconstruction: The scientists are telling us that memory is a reconstruction, and yet we, as people, tend to stick to our old-fashioned ideas that memory works like a video camera, for example, that it just records, and it files things away in mental DVDs that we can pull down and set playing."

But, that represents the romantic idea of what memory represents and not the reality, the reality is entirely different and contextual as Fernyhough continues:

"We commonly feel that we are our memories; our memories define us. So something needs to change. ... Accepting that memories are not literal representations of the past as it happened doesn't mean that we have to forget about them or start disbelieving them all. But they're shaped by who we are now. They're shaped by what we feel, what we believe, what our biases are."

Researcher's Richard H. Gramzow and Greg Willard explain how this "construction" and "reconstruction" of memory becomes part the mythologies of self we create to protect ourselves from cognitive dissonance and guilt:

"Nevertheless, memories of the past also tend to favor the self. People remember their past performance as better than it was in actuality (Crary, 1966), they preferentially recall positive events (Walker, Skowronski, & Thompson, 2003), and they ignore and forget negative self-relevant information (Sedikides & Green, 2000). Although motivated self-enhancement processes likely underlie some biases in autobiographical memory (Sedikides & Gregg, 2003), more subtle positivity biases also may influence recall for information about one’s past."

So what does this all mean?

It means that we strategically use memory to protect ourselves from the inconsistencies and insecurities that might prevent us from being able to face our day. It also means that when there is large cognitive dissonance between how we see ourselves and our memory of actual events, the events are often changed to reinforce or at least not contradict what we think of ourselves.

This is particularly true in relationships as Mr. Fernyhough continues:

"I think one of the most interesting things about memory in relation to couples getting together is that there's this sense, this kind of pressure to agree on a shared representation of the past. You know, husbands and wives tend not to disagree about the past wholesale. They tend to come to a shared representation of what happened in the past. When people split up or couples get separated or divorced or whatever, those tensions about memory can come back to the surface, and you find out that people start to disagree and actually start to say, 'It never happened that way; it actually happened this way.' "

So what would happen, if we were to move from our protective reconstructive memory to permanent video replay? 

Disaster.

Unresolvable Cognitive Dissonance.

Disconnection and Isolation.

Shame.

I cannot tell you how many people have come up to me since my arrest to tell me things that they did (often much more disturbing than anything I did - which was upsetting enough) without it seemingly even clicking in their own heads that they had committed crimes.

It seemed almost entirely obvious that because they had not been charged, they did not remember the episode as a crime.

It seemed very clear to me that these people processed the events they were sharing as near-miss or cautionary tales about what could have happened if they continued along some particularly dark path instead of as something they did that could have been criminal.

 Fi herself has been carrying on a long-term relationship with someone who was not her husband and might actually have had a child with her lover instead of her husband but she is able to continue to act as if everything was perfect when she was with her husband and as if everything was perfect when she was with her lover.

Compartmentalization, changing how you see yourself and what you are doing based on where you are at the time, is enabled by memory being a movable feast.

And this ability to confront our fears and cognitive dissonance also enables many normally timid or frightened people to do good things.  The movable feast of memory allows us to believe that we can be much more than we are. It allows us to dream that we are Kings or Presidents or heroes. 

When we are left with nothing but the cold reality of our experiences, I suspect we might not reach for as many stars (or allow ourselves to do as many "bad" things).

I think that Charlie Brooker is warning us to, "be careful what we wish for."

Sometimes, it is hard to see who we really are (and in some cases, we might find that we actually prefer to go blind rather than confront the "truth" of ourselves).

Some Other Issues Raised in Season 1 Episode 3

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Brooker quickly references surveillance and security state issues with memory capture and storage (cloud based I suspect) as Liam goes through airport security and is asked by the UK version of a TSA agent to show him portions of his memories. 

We are currently living in a society where the mantra "if you have nothing to hide there is no reason to fear surveillance" has become a troubling response to the opposition to the surveillance state. One could easily imagine, even now, a state taking the embarrassing or private but non-criminal digital records from your emails or phone records to leverage you to cooperate in government investigations. 

Now imagine that in a world where the government had backdoors to "The Entire History Of You?"

Another huge concern, as we move from an internet of things to an internet of cyborgs (humans), would be hacking. At almost every level, we have seen that security is either inadequate or impossible in private information storage. 

And what if hackers could hijack your feed (see Shut up and Dance for some of the implications of this). Hallam, for example, mentions, during TEHOY, that her Grain likely got sold by her attackers to some pervert on the Black Market.

Perhaps you could suggest that what is being presented here is that we are inevitably entering a post-privacy world and that we should prepare ourselves to live entirely honest lives. I suppose, what I am suggesting is that even in a life of total honesty, we are still likely (perhaps even more likely) to be vulnerable to exploitation.

I am convinced that ultimately Artificial Intelligence is likely to be more a case of human/machine integration,  not as something that develops independent of humans (we will become cyborgs not confront AI machines). 

In other words, I think what Brooker suggests in "The Entire History Of You" is a very likely future (a future of human integration with machine learning and memory).

But, again, I think the gizmos might be less sophisticated, but this episode is as much about our life-blogging, our go-pro cameras, and our digital footprint as it is about future technologies.

What did you think about "The Entire History Of You?"

What do you think the privacy implications of our digital footprints are?

Do you think memory is reliable? Why?

Let me know what you think, leave a comment!