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Black Mirror – what would it be like if everything was recorded?

Channel 4 recently commissioned three programmes from the great Charlie Brooker, a series of dramas collectively named Black Mirror looking at exciting and dark outcomes of technology. They are all ace and well worth watching on 4oD, but the one that stood out for me was the last, called The Entire History of You.

The Entire History of You is set in an otherwise familiar world (no space ships or lizard overlords), with a simple but mega twist. Everybody (well, almost everybody) has a small implant (known as a Grain) behind their ear, allowing them to record, playback and store everything that they see and hear.

Using a nifty handheld remote, they can scroll through childhood memories, old sexual conquests, and in the case of the protagonist, immediately playback painful work meetings and awkward social situations. Using ubiquitous screens, you can even play back your recordings so that others can watch.

I won’t spoil the programme by going into plot details, but the premise has been floating around my head for the past few weeks as I think we’re not too far off the world portrayed.

The ability to replay old memories

While I cannot replay old memories from a first person perspective as the characters in Black Mirror can, I can go through old emails, my Facebook timeline, old social profiles (ever look through old MySpace/FriendsReunited messages?) and create a rich recreation of the events/happening/feelings of that time. With replies/comments/likes I can see the thoughts and interactions of others, and with hindsight spot themes that weren’t apparent at the time and foresee events that happened thereafter.

The ability to hold others to account

Being able to replay experiences means that the characters in the programme cannot escape old mistakes, and this is something that again already is possible with digital technology. As Will mentioned in an old blog post that stuck with me, for anyone in the modern world the following is true:

You can find photos of me, playing with friends, making rude gestures, drunk, sad, alone, with friends, high, doing things I shouldn’t be, wearing preposterous clothes.

With the amazing and increasing amount of data we provide through our social networks, we are arguably reaching a point where by any action, thought and interaction will be logged. What this will mean from a societal and ethical viewpoint is yet to be seen (imagine the issues presented to employers/employees, politicians/voters, families and so on), but I think Brooker has hit upon a potentially world-changing issue – ultimate accountability.

The constant distraction of previous events or the experience of others

Throughout the programme, characters are seen to be reliving experiences from ten minutes or ten years ago, and also at points collectively analyse one anothers memories. This again feels familiar; sitting around a pub table with four people viewing Instagram, liking the updates of others on Facebook, or reviewing old emails.

Over Christmas I was repeatedly alarmed by the inability of my friends and family (I include myself in this issue) to experience any kind of event without logging it somehow using a smartphone. For who? What makes us film a performer at a concert? Or check-in to mundane situations on Facebook or Foursquare? What is so boring/amazing about our lives that forces us to augment it so constantly?

To conclude, I’d again recommend you watch Black Mirror if you haven’t already, and I’d congratulate Brooker for a fantastic achievement. If you do watch it, or have already, I’d love to know if you agree with my thoughts above, and if you have any other parallels to draw?

UPDATE: As pointed out by James below and also Matt in the office, I should also praise Jesse Armstrong (the writer) and Brian Welsh (the director), the chaps behind The Entire History of You. Credit where credit’s due :)

This post was filed under Data, The future, Working culture Comments are currently closed.

2 Comments

  1. Strong article! But shouldn’t forget the writer Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show/The Thick of It).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesse_Armstrong

    Posted 9th January 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink
  2. Ross

    Thanks James – have updated accordingly.

    Posted 9th January 2012 at 2:31 pm | Permalink